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Joel Achenbach

For Crying Out Loud

When it comes to parenting, we're all critics

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page W07

My teenage daughter and I are having lunch in a coffee shop, doing what parents and their children seldom do: talking. We are practically conversing. I want to shush her and call my friends on my cell phone and say, "You'll never believe what I'm doing!"

Suddenly a woman enters with a baby of maybe 14 months. The mother plops the baby on the floor, just inside the door, and says in a loud voice: "So you're going to cry because we came inside! Go ahead. See if it helps!"

(Richard Thompson)

The mother stomps off to the counter to order her fancy coffee beverage.

There's a brief silence from the child -- the receding of the sea just before the tsunami.

When the baby finally lets loose, her cry is loud enough to foam every latte in the room.

A man enters the coffee shop, registers the baby at his feet and looks directly at me and my daughter, reproachfully. I want to shout, "Not mine!" But more than that, I want to reprimand the mother. I want to say:

"Ma'am, with all due respect, we were having a nice little lunch here until you decided to stage a parenting psychodrama five feet from our table. Moreover, you are trying to teach a lesson to a creature who is a solipsist, with roughly the same powers of self-analysis as a blueberry muffin. She has human DNA but still doesn't know that most humans don't stick macaroni noodles up their nose. Trying to teach a baby a lesson is like trying to teach a bunny to fire a revolver."

But it occurs to me that criticizing the mother would be a self-serving act. There's pleasure in criticizing others. In particular we love to reprimand parents, and, let's be honest, the parents we love to criticize the most are moms. Dads are understood to be a lost cause. A mom has to supervise four homework assignments and take a kid to soccer or piano practice 12 times to get the same credit a dad gets for playing catch once.

It's particularly easy to pick on a distressed mom who has spent all morning having a very intense relationship with a 17-pound blob of protoplasm with strained peas dribbling down its chin. Some moms have talked in a goo-goo, singsong voice for so long that their brains have liquefied. They are easy targets for the rest of us who either have no children or who, like I do, have children who are old enough to understand such complex messages as "Bring Daddy some of that nice Oregon pinot noir."

But that doesn't mean we dads never catch it. Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a humorless reader that ended with a message for me and my children: "Shame on them -- and shame on you." Never mind the context: This person simply loved reprimanding me, and her final burst of reproach -- the double use of "shame" -- gave her a climactic jolt of joy. I bet you anything that when she and her husband got together that night she attacked him like a wolverine.

Recently a team of Swiss scientists found compelling evidence that humans like to reprimand others. They conducted an experiment in which two men played a money-exchanging game. According to a press release: "If one player made a selfish choice instead of a mutually beneficial one, the other could penalize him. The majority of the players chose to impose the penalty even when it cost some of their own money. The researchers determined that deciding to impose this penalty activated a brain region, the dorsal striatum, involved in experiencing enjoyment or satisfaction."

So the very act of castigating someone gets your dorsal striatum all hopped up. Why? Maybe because the act of reprimanding not only upholds the laws and norms of civilization but implicitly elevates the reprimander. Life is a brutal and relentless competition. It's my genes against your genes. A defeat for you is as good as a victory for me.

Decision time at the coffee shop: Do I say something to the mom? Of course I don't, because any faint desire I have to criticize her is overwhelmed by the preference to have no contact whatsoever. I am the kind of person who would remain aloof and uncommunicative with the guy next to me on an airplane even if we were in the final moments of a vertical dive.

So my daughter and I walk out. We spend the next half an hour reviewing, with great pleasure, the parenting missteps of the harried mom and the possibilities for permanent psychic scarring of the baby. The Swiss researchers should investigate the corollary: Reprimanding isn't necessary, because just thinking of someone else's errors can get that dorsal striatum buzzing -- particularly when you're hanging out with your own charming and immaculate offspring.

All told, the perfect lunch.

Joel Achenbach's e-mail address is achenbachj@washpost.com.

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