You’ve heard the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.” That phrase reminds me of another: “Once you have a child, everyone will tell you how to raise it.” Here’s some help in dealing with strangers who think they know best.
I clearly remember the first time I encountered a nosy stranger as a parent. I’d just moved across the country with my husband and new baby. I was grocery shopping in our new town. It was late in the month of June. The weather was 90 degrees and humid. The air conditioning in the grocery store felt refreshing. I was surprised when a woman stopped me to admonish me to “find that baby’s socks.” She was quite sure the baby was going to catch a cold. My face turned red. I apologized to her, then quickly left the store. Later I felt silly for apologizing. My daughter wasn’t cold, and she certainly didn’t need to wear socks on such a hot day. Now that I’m a more experienced parent, I’ve come up with better ways to respond.
Smile and move on
Some people have forgotten the timeworn phrase “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” When a stranger gives you unsolicited advice about your baby, particularly if it is rude or unhelpful, just give a small smile and go about your business. I like to use this method if I ever hear something like “My, that sure is a fat baby.” I’ve never understood why it’s permitted to make comments to babies you would never make to adults. I refuse to respond. Instead, I just smile and move on.
Act with intention
Sometimes strangers feel compelled to offer help if they think a parent is struggling or making a bad choice. It’s really no one’s business if you pick a binky up off the floor and give it back to your child, lick your finger and then clean a dirty face, or choose to carry or dress your child in an unconventional way. If you don’t want unsolicited help, make your actions purposeful. “Why yes, that fruit snack did just drop on the floor. And I am going to feed it to my child.” A confident look might deter busybodies.
Have a phrase ready
If a stranger bothers you by touching your infant, you could respond with something like “I’d rather you not touch her, thanks.” If someone asks personal questions about your pregnancy, delivery or baby, respond with a neutral phrase like “Everything was (is) just fine.” When someone questions your parenting ability, you could say “It’s a good thing children are resilient.” Counter unwanted parenting advice with “I think we’ve got it figured out.” Having a ready response will keep you from getting flustered or upset. It will also curb further conversation.
There are times when you may be out in public with your children when help is welcome. I appreciate when strangers open doors for me when I’m carrying a child or pushing a stroller. Occasionally someone has offered a small treat or sticker when my baby is upset or has allowed me to move to the front in a checkout line. Most strangers are well-meaning, so it's nice to show gratitude when someone helps you in an appropriate way.
Talk out loud
Although this method is somewhat annoying, it does work. If your baby is fussy and people are starting to stare, calmly talk to the child about the situation. It might sound something like this: “I know you’re tired and hungry. Let’s just get these groceries, then we’ll go. I have a snack for you in the car, and daddy will be home soon.” Your stream of calm talking might help your baby, but will certainly let strangers know you’re in control and don’t need any unwelcome comments or looks.
Practice your look of commiseration
Let’s go with the screaming baby scenario, again. If people are starting to get impatient, as they often do, look around with a face that says “I know, right. This kid is loud. I sure hope he quiets down, too.” Keeping your cool and acknowledging the situation might get you more sympathy and fewer dirty looks. If ever I’m alone and I see a parent struggling I try to give an encouraging smile. I never act put out.
Raising children in a community has lots of benefits. Learning from other parents is helpful, but sometimes strangers who mean well actually do more harm than good. Trust yourself and your parenting ability. Don’t let nosy strangers tell you otherwise.
Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.