Parent Like There’s No One Watching

This post was featured on BonBon Break and The Huffington Post.

My friend told me once that I could find the silver lining in anything.  Here’s a big one that I’ve found: being a parent of an autistic child has humbled me and made me a better parent.  Specifically, I’ve stopped caring about what strangers think about my parenting skills.  It took me a lot of searching to find that particular silver lining, and it wasn’t easy to find.


Sometimes Bella can’t handle all the people at the store.  Sometimes she doesn’t want to leave the spring fair at the elementary school.  It could be anything, or nothing at all.  But her reaction is often huge, her meltdowns epic, and when they’re public meltdowns, well, yeah.  I’ve been screamed at full-blast in Target over a toy I didn’t buy.  I’ve been slapped, scratched, kicked and almost bit while strangers watched (or pretended not to watch, but lingered just a little too long to leave any kind of doubt as to whether or not they were shopping or watching).

I used to walk out of public places feeling embarrassed and humiliated.  Partly because of how my child behaved, but also partly because of how I behaved.  So often, I found that I was parenting for the benefit of those around me.  I felt their eyes watching me, judging me, and so I would perform for them.  I said what I thought I “should” say, what I thought people were expecting me to say.  Instead of calmly and patiently waiting for Bella to cool down before talking to her, I would jump the gun and reprimand her when she wasn’t ready to process what I was saying.  I would speak harshly to her so people could hear that I was in charge, that I was doing the “right” thing — even though the “right” thing for Bella doesn’t look or sound anything like what the “right” thing might be for other kids.

My worst parenting moments, the ones I am least proud of, happened because I was trying to impress a bunch of strangers I’ll probably never see again.

One day, after a particularly awful meltdown at the grocery store, I was driving home and had a simple thought flash in my head:

I’m not responsible for those people.

I have no control over those strangers’ reactions towards or perceptions of me.  To put it simply, who the hell cares what those people think?  The only people’s opinions that matter, the only people I am responsible for are my kids.  I’m only beholden to them.  I care about what they think of me, and how they feel.  No one else.  Those lingering people in the store can just fuck off.

Once I stopped trying to impress strangers, my life got a whole lot easier.  I don’t worry about what people will think of Bella and her behavior in public anymore, because I seriously don’t care.  I focus only on my kids and how they’re feeling.  If they’re happy, I’m happy.  If they’re upset, then we deal with it.  Sometimes that means I have to stand in the store and wait a minute for Bella to pull herself together.  Sometimes it means I have to stay calm and not react when my daughter tries to claw my arm.  I know it’s because she doesn’t know what to do with the overwhelmingly intense feelings she’s experiencing, and reacting physically towards me is the only way she knows how to deal with those feelings.  Other people don’t know that, but I don’t have to explain myself to them.  If someone says anything dumb, I ignore them — I literally pretend like they’re not talking.  If someone lends sincere help, I accept or decline politely (depending on whether or not it will make things better or worse, in my opinion).

People stare, and I’m sure some people go home and judge the hell out of me.  Why should I care?  I get to go home and feel good about how I treated my children.


This girl’s opinion of me means a whole lot more than your opinion, lady.

Parenting an autistic child isn't easy, but it's also pretty amazing! These special kids are full of surprises. Read more about the daily struggles and lessons special needs parents experience when parenting a child with autism.Letting go of what strangers think of you makes parenting in public so much easier.









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49 Responses to Parent Like There’s No One Watching

  1. qwertygirl says:

    Lady, you are a genius. I have a kid who’s ADHD (he’s 11) and I can’t count how many times I’ve parented for the benefit of my “audience” and not for the benefit of my kid. So many times I’ve reprimanded him loudly and harshly, instead of the gentle, quiet, repeated soothing that I should have done, simply because someone else was watching, and I reacted the way I thought they expected me to react. I’m not proud of myself for this–so many times I’ve done the wrong thing. But going forward I’m going to do my best to think of your words (“Those lingering people in the store can just fuck off”) and parent to that. That’s what we should all do, always. Cheers to you for realizing it.

    • Thanks! It’s not easy trying to deal with these special kids, and we should cut ourselves a little slack, but yes. People who can’t or won’t get it can just fuck right off. So glad you liked this!

    • alison says:

      Great post and so true for anyone with kids because ALL kids have tantrums. Thanks for sharing your epiphany! 🙂

      • Alison, you’re right! I talked mostly about Bella in this post, but really this attitude has helped me with all my kids. Phaedra is very sensitive to being embarrassed, so this has helped me to keep her feelings in mind when I talk to her in public (or at family functions, even). Thanks for reading!

  2. I love this, and will remember it next time I start to parent for the benefit of others. Because I do that shit ALL THE TIME, and I hate it. Awesome post!

  3. I love this also. I’ve been there with the stares and the strangers who think they are helping. This is perfect.

  4. Gina says:

    Shit, Janel. You just totally changed my entire perspective right there. I’ve always been intimidated (and frankly, bullied) by that “parent like someone’s watching” theory, but your stance on this is brilliant. Because, yes, those strangers in the grocery store will judge for a second, but be gone the next. It’s my kids who have to deal with me for minutes/hours/days/years later. And, perhaps, it’s ME who’s most judgmental of myself.

    • Gina, I felt the exact same way. It’s so much easier not caring than caring about someone’s opinion you can’t change anyways. One less thing to worry about. Love you girl!

  5. Applause!!! You’re the best, lady. I want to be you when I grow up. Three cheers for not caring what other people think about your parenting, your family, your modus operandi.

  6. Nikki says:

    I couldn’t love this more. xo

  7. Ell says:

    Good for you! It took me far too long to come to this realization.

    When I was a young mum I used to pretend there was a camera on me at all times so that I would be ( sorta, kinda, ridiculously ) forced to act as a proper ” I’ve got this ” mom.
    Who was I fooling?

    I love these kids. I adore every outburst, every emotion, every puzzling action. I refuse to force them and myself be anything other than ourselves for the comfortability of strangers.


  8. Ell says:

    Uggg, when you hit “reply” instead of “comment”.

  9. Yup, have had all of those moments and too have found that the only one whose opinion matters is my son’s. I have learned to read him better too – and that has helped immensely, but in the end I could give a rat’s ass what others think. Good to know there are others that feel the same.

    • Yes, that has also helped tremendously. I can now tell when she’s reached her limit. However, my oldest daughter knows before any of us, so I’ve also learned to listen to her when she tells me it’s time to go. 🙂

  10. Oh how I love this. I have spent ten years being embarrassed by my son’s behavior, and I shouldn’t be because he is just being himself. And I should let him, and love him, and not care what anyone thinks. Thanks for this beautiful reminder!

  11. HouseTalkN says:

    Just when I think it isn’t possible to love you more. This. Totally this.

  12. Jessica says:

    This is so true and still something I have to remind myself of. When I take Ashlyn places I generally have to put blinders on to the public because there’s no other way to get through the tough times. It took me a really long time to get there though. Your girls are so lucky to have you

  13. LOVE this! So hard to remember but you’re right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve responded to my son totally for the benefit of the people watching us, and then been furious with myself afterwards.

    • That’s exactly what would happen to me Melissa! I just got so tired of feeling bad about myself because of some strangers who I didn’t even know. Even when I don’t make the best decisions, at least I know they were MY decisions, and not based on someone’s imaginary expectations.

  14. Cathy says:

    A friend shared your post with me last night and I have to tell you, I’m reacting in the same way as you did!!! What an eye opener! Need to try this not reacting thing! Thanks for your own exposure to show myself what I’m really going through!! Cheers for you also responding to all the people who posted comments!!! How many times do we comment on someone’s blog, post, etc. to never get a personal response back 🙂

    Thanks again!

    • You’re so welcome! I love that you get this, too. I’m so happy so many people can relate and have responded in such a positive way. Thanks so much for reading, and come back soon! 🙂

  15. Love this….and you!

    I think this is a great lesson for any parent.


  16. Aunt June says:

    Been the mom who has carried the kicking, screaming kid out, in front of my boss (my principa!)l. Later, the mom who had to step aside from the kicking screaming adult child dealing with his own demons. And again, to let him go spread his wings and fly, knowing he could fall, when every other family member thought I should force him to stay home where I could keep him “safe.”
    Keep paddling your own canoe, Janel, no matter how tough the current. Your daughter will be all the better for it.

  17. BenzMama says:

    We’ve just been diagnosed. Ben is 3 1/2. Coming to grips with “the new normal”. I will keep this advice with me – in my heart and in my head – as we move forward. Thank you.

    • Thank YOU! I’ve been exactly where you are right now. My Bella was diagnosed shortly after her fourth birthday, so I know how it feels to struggle with those new feelings and the “new normal”. It never becomes completely normal, but it gets easier and before you know it, you’ve done a million little things to adjust to your new life and you don’t even notice it anymore. I’ve written a lot about that first year after she was diagnosed — you can find them here: Thanks, I hope you stick around!

  18. Amanda B says:

    I parented without thinking today while shopping in Costco. I was reading some boxes in the freezer, and this happened:

    Toddler: *kicks me in the stomach”
    Me: “dont” *keeps reading*
    Toddler: *kkicks me again*
    Me: “ddon’t” *still not really paying attention to being kicked, keeps reading*
    Toddler: *KICK*
    Me: “STOP IT!”

    at which point I hear an audible gasp from an ederly woman I had no idea was standing in front of my cart. We make eye contact. For half a second I debate feeling ashamed or embarassed or something, before deciding fuck that and smiling in her face-just daring her to judge me. She walked away looking like I had slapped my kid- or her even, a look like she gad just stepped in dog crap.

    I only hope she didn’t catch that half a second of perenting doubt on my face- because fuck that. If it bothers you so bad, you can volunteer to be on the receiving end of tummy kicks next time I take my toddler to costco thankyouverymuch.

    Im so tired of feeling judged all the time. You would think women of all people could understand eachother and support eachother as parents, because we know what it is to be judged all the samn time!

  19. Jenny says:

    Yep, I have 2 that are autistic. My son is 15 and high functioning and his behaviors were very different than my 8 year old nonverbal daughter. But if she’s crying in the store it’s because she wants to leave. So guess what? We are NOT leaving! If I do I’ll get a more intense blow up the next time. So I wait her out then go on about my business. But I don’t expect her to go spend 30 minutes grocery shopping either. We are working up to it though 🙂 I started with just walking in the store making one round and walking out before any behaviors could start. Like anything else, she can learn to shop, be patient and wait. I just have to be patient too. And if it bothers anyone els,e tough shit, sorry we ruined your trip to Walmart 🙂 Hopefully tomorrows trip will be better for ya

    • That’s exactly it. You know what’s going on with your daughter, and if other people don’t get it, it doesn’t really matter. You know what’s best for her. The other people will somehow survive, despite the fact that they had to suffer through encountering you for ten seconds during their shopping trip that day. 🙂

  20. Libby says:

    Thunderous applause and big high-fives from me, mamma. Good job, great job! And yes, having a melt-down-able, sensitive child is a challenge, but by God, he is mine and not theirs.

    • Thanks Libby! I really do believe these unbelievably special kids are given to the parents who are supposed to have them. I couldn’t imagine not having her as a part of our family.

  21. Jacqueline says:

    What a wonderfully refreshing post on a topic that I’ve been talking about with my mother’s groups frequently. You’re totally right – no one else’s opinion matters but our children’s. Judgment is something we all need to work on, everyday. Judgement of others, and judgement of ourselves. You rock mama. Keep it up and I look forward to following you in your adventures. Stopping in from

    • You’re right Jacqueline. I’d be lying if I said I don’t still struggle with judgment, both when I’m with my kids and just in life in general. However, it does make it easier to get past once you decide to be aware of it. Hope you stick around!

  22. hina says:

    I don’t have a special needs child, but my children are both special to me. I don’t feel judged by outsiders and much as I would by insiders. Family and friends who don’t parent the same way I do (or did not even have children at the time they were judging). I would always feel bad for snapping at my daughter because a family member wanted to talk or for telling her to go play and not bother me because I was “hanging out”. I feel SO guilty. I take time out for my daughter now, because I want the same respect from her when I need a moment. I give respect to get it. Thank you for this wonderful article.

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