Usually, someone seeking advice from a newspaper columnist is desperate. (Not so desperate as a newspaper columnist herself, in a world where everything is going digital, but still, desperate.) That was definitely the tone of the letter I got the other day.
"Please tell me I'm not crazy," it began.
The note was from a mom of two who'd taken her kids — boy, 5, and girl, 3 — to dinner at the local Taco Bell. "I know," she wrote. "Classy."
We columnists don't judge. (Especially we columnists who love Taco Bell, second only to Wendy's, which we REALLY love.)
So the mom's at the restaurant, and her son has to go to the bathroom. Off he goes, and the mom awaits him. When he still isn't back after what seems like a rather long time, she leaves the 3-year-old at the table in a highchair for a sec to go see what's up with the boy. Turns out he needs a little help, and what she thought was going to be a 30-second absence ends up being two minutes.
Two stinkin' minutes. But that proved to be more than enough time for the woman at the next table to light into her when she got back. "You shouldn't have left her!" the lady cried, pointing at the 3-year-old. The mom explained she'd needed to check on her son. "Then you should have taken her with you. You are so irresponsible! Anyone could have walked in here and just taken her!"
The mom looked her in the eye and asked, "You would have let someone take my kid?"
The busybody was taken aback but rebounded robustly: "I could have called (Child Protective Services) on you! I SHOULD have called CPS on you! You don't deserve to have your kids!"
And that, I believe, is the sentence that led the mom to write to me for validation. Had she really done something so terrible? Had she put her child in jeopardy?
The answer is, unequivocally, no. The child was not in any danger, and the shrieker herself proved it; angry and obnoxious though she was, she was nonetheless sitting there, watching the child. Not that most kidnappers spend their days casing the local taco joint on the off chance that some child will be unattended for two whole minutes and therefore ever so easy to snatch, screaming and kicking, from in front of the entire staff and all the other diners.
But even if that were how the world worked (which it's not), why didn't the busybody choose to see herself as part of the safety net that looks after our kids rather than as part of the shame brigade? Why jump down the mom's throat instead of winking, "We all have days like that. I remember when my kids were young. It's always something!"
What I fear is that the bond of parental understanding has been replaced by the knee-jerk idea that if a parent isn't perfect, punishment via the government must be summoned. Do we really want to involve the cops, courts and child protective services in everyday matters such as this?
Lately, it seems we do. What we're forgetting is life is messy, and if parents had to be perfect for our species to survive, we'd be on display at the Museum of Natural History as a quaint, extinct (and often rude) species.
Instead, we're at Taco Bell, harried and hungry for a little human kindness. That's something I like at least as much as I do the beefy five-layer burrito.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (email@example.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.