At the end of a recent flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia, my neighbor took it upon himself to gnaw on the seat in front of me, coating the cheap leather with a thick film of saliva. It was the finale to a flight in which he also repeatedly thrust his body backwards into his seat, nearly knocking my laptop from its tray-table perch, and howled loudly, and often, about nothing in particular.
Said neighbor was a boy who seemed to be about four years old, looking like he came straight from the casting call of a Dennis the Menace reboot, with a mop of curly hair, freckles, a mischievous grin, and an almost-impressive propensity for making lives miserable.
And, yes, I admit it: As a non-parent with virtually no experience raising kids, I absolutely judged his parents—who sat by, dejected and fatigued, dark circles under their eyes, to offer the occasional meek "Stop."
I know my silent admonishments—"He's, like, four years old! There's no way he should still be screaming like that!" "Good lord, he's gnawing on the seat now? Can you maybe stop your pre-school age child from gnawing on the seat?"—were possibly misguided. Maybe the kid has ADD or ADHD. Maybe he's adopted and comes from a troubled background. Maybe he just doesn't do well on planes (really, who does?) Or maybe, despite the valiant efforts of his wonderful parents, he's just a kid who misbehaves—like the nightmarish, abusive child documented on the horrifying mommy blog myfamilymyvillage.
Maybe I should mind my own damn business, because I don't have kids and I have no idea what it's like to parent. Which is true. And yet . . . I can't help but impulsively judge away.
During my vacation, I had many chances to do so. As if trapped in a particularly obnoxious episode of The Twilight Zone, misbehaving children seemed to follow me, from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland to Prince Edward Island, their blood-curdling cries haunting my dinners out, overnight ferry rides and previously peaceful hikes.
Every time I silently admonished the parents, I felt a mix of haughty exhilaration and shameful guilt. Judging the lives of strangers is not something I aspire to do—it's petty, rude and insecure, I know that—so why can it feel so right? Why do I watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, curled up in my pajamas with a bottle of Charles Shaw by my side, to tsk-tsk some random family's lack of class and taste? Against all my better intentions, why do I turn my nose up at Blake Lively's supposed pretension, or a celebrity's choice of a Golden Globe dress . . . or the child-rearing skills of parents I don't know?
The easiest explanation is that making others small makes me feel big, and as a self-esteem booster, judging is indeed the cheapest and easiest way to go (yes, I'm now judging judging. How meta!) But in the case of critiquing parents, I think it goes deeper than that. By admonishing moms (and dads), I am able to ward off the palpable fear that comes with being a non-parent deeply unsure of my own would-be child-raising skills.
Flying is already stressful—what would I do if I had a wailing child to contend with . . . not to mention the wayward glares of judging bystanders? What would I do if, after a long and exhausting flight, my hellion kid planted his mouth on the seat and started moving his lips and tongue across it? Would I too, in a moment of sheer human weakness, give up and let him do it, enjoying the solitude of his gnawing?
I don't know, and I have no way to know, because I'm not a parent. And so, unnerved by these unanswerable questions, I judge. Because if I can fault the parents, I can pretend that there's no such thing as good parenting and bad kids. I can believe that I would never have children who misbehave like that. I'll be a better parent. My kids will be different. These are the lies I tell myself, and so many other non-parents tell themselves, in order to procreate and preserve civilization.
On the way from Philadelphia to my final stop of Nova Scotia, as part of the first leg of my annoying-kids getaway, there was a screaming baby a few rows back (and yes, I give a free pass to parents of actual infants). At the end of the flight, as we all stood up to leave, the woman in front of me—who had her own three kids along for the flight—glanced at the mom with the still-crying baby, and gave her a look of reassurance, warmth and even humor that only a fellow mother could give. It reminded me that, challenging though it is, motherhood has its rewards.
Then again, that mom's three kids were impeccably behaved, with even the baby remaining mum and content through the entirety of the trip.
Surely, I lied to myself again, my kids will be like that.