To Reprimand or To Let Be

by flowers on January 6, 2010 · 26 comments

Reprimand: to reprove severely, usually in a formal or official way.

Reprove: to criticize (someone) usually gently so as to correct a fault

(courtesy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

We live in a society where it is an acceptable social norm to reprimand someone if you feel they have wronged you, another person, or society in general.

Stone and I were reprimanded on the Boston subway system when we were visiting over the holidays. For this moment I’ll give you the quick version of the story. In the 5 ‘oclock rush Solshine pulled away from his grandmother leaving him at the bottom of an escalator and all of us stuck in a crowd going up.

It was of course completely terrifying for the whole family. It took a few moments for us to get to the top and then for Stone to fight his way down the stairs against the pre-holiday, get me home rush. When he reached Sol a few minutes later a woman was standing with him. I had seen her from the top where I stood like a fierce mother, using my eagle eyes to lock my focus on him. Hundreds of people might have been between us, but I wasn’t going to loose him from my sight until Stone had him safe in his arms.

I silently thanked the woman. Her actions fed my belief that people are kind and communities take care of each other. She however, did not feel the same way. As Sol approached her and thanked her she reprimanded him with a tone of distain and disgust.

Her words: “You can’t just do that! Not cool….not cool. Not great parenting.”

Stone didn’t know how to reply so he just said thank you and brought Solshine back up the escalator. We celebrated together, everyone feeling relieved that no harm had come to anyone and on our walk to North Station Stone told me what the woman had said to him.

I was shocked. And hurt. And embarrassed. And angry.

My stream of consciousness:

Did she think we did it on purpose? Did she not notice the scene of chaos around us? She doesn’t know who we are–what kind of parents we are! Who is she to judge me.

Maybe it was my fault. I should of been holding his hand. I shouldn’t have others care for him. We should of remembered about the 9-5 rush and travelled during another time. I should’ve….could’ve…..

Ummmm, yeah…..not really.

You see I could of done any of those things, but I didn’t. It was an accident. It was life and I’m actually quite proud of how my family navigated the situation.

The lessons were abundant. We learned that we should probably not travel with the 9-5 rush when we don’t have to. We learned that the children should be in the middle of the group so an adult is there to catch any stragglers. We learned that Sol is impulsive and strong-minded. (Wait, we already knew that.)

Later on the train ride home I asked Sol what had happened. I asked him why he pulled away from his grandmother. He told me he likes to jump on escalators all by himself (he does) and he didn’t know there were so many people behind him. He was quiet, serious and humbled. I told him I had been frightened and I explained to him that the reason we give directions (like hold someone’s hand and stay with the group) is for our family’s safety, not to be bossy or spoil any fun. He quietly listened and we snuggled and just sat in the lessons of the experience.

Relfecting
(Sol looking out the window on the train to Boston)

I think usually, if not always, life happens this way. Life happens and people react. They reflect, they learn and they shape their future actions based on their experiences.

I think reprimanding someone is excessive and unneeded. I, as a mother, did not need to hear that someone thought I was a shitty mother. The very opposite. I needed someone to affirm that the world will help when crisis occurs, because we know that every mother bears her mistakes, her choices like a heavy burden on her back. We question what we could have done differently, how we could reacted better. We constantly strive to provide the safest and healthiest situation for our families. This is a natural process.

Entering someone else’s judgment of me distracts and even, thwarts the natural learning curve. Instead of journeying within and honestly asking myself tough questions I became concerned what other people thought. I became angry and resentful towards a stranger. I found my way back, but it was very distracting and I felt shame descend over me. Shame is very heavy and hurtful and has no place in a healthy life experience.

I acknowledge that no one can “make me feel” a certain way, but people can certainly try. I transferred my experience to my children. I imagined that I was a child and being reprimanded after I spilled a bowl of food, knocked a lamp down or forgot my bag. It wasn’t hard to imagine because throughout my childhood I was routinely reprimanded. Not just by parents, but by teachers, relatives and strangers even. I remember just how yucky it felt. The red cheeks and embarrassment. The feeling like I wish I could disappear into the floor. It didn’t make me stop chatting in class or being clumsy, instead it encouraged me to question my self-worth.

I do this to my own children sometimes. I don’t mean to and I certainly am not proud of it. But there are those days where patience runs thin and the house runs wild. A child is a child is a child. They will run and jump and twirl and knock things down and forget over and over. This is childhood. Yes, we can help support them to open their perspective to the environment around them and to help them cultivate mindfulness, but that is a lifelong journey. In the meantime they need love and support, not a disgusted tone of shame and disappointment.

I say this because I am not perfect. I do not always parent the way I philosophize. I readily admit this. I, too, am on a journey and in many ways our moment of chaos on the escalator was a blessing and learning experience. Most of all, I am thankful for the woman who opened my eyes to how destructive and hurtful judgment and reprimanding is to our life experience. We are all just living life with the best we have to give. Rather than pass that on to my own children I want to let go of this societal norm and let them be. I want to offer suggestions and guidance, but without the harsh judgments or without the unnecessary tones of disapproval.

In short, I want to be better.

As I wrote this I kept questioning: Are there appropriate times to reprimand or are there ways to get the same message across with a more positive outlook? I’m interested in what you think.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

aimee January 6, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful post!

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Alisha January 6, 2010 at 10:09 pm

I’m so glad you posted this. I was just thinking about the same thing today as I was trying to figure out how to discipline my 2-year-old. i would have had the same thoughts as you.

now that i know the definitions of both words, i have to say that i don’t think there’s ever a time to reprimand!
.-= Alisha´s last blog ..These are my confessions =-.

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Alisha January 6, 2010 at 10:10 pm

to add: reprimanding doesn’t come from a place of love…
.-= Alisha´s last blog ..These are my confessions =-.

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kate January 6, 2010 at 10:31 pm

It was so open and truthful of you to process this stuff here…And I think you are right in the way life happens. What Sol learned from that experience may very well keep him safe in another….and that’s the stuff of living. It is the stuff of mothering– the guiding of those lessons, the reflecting that comes for each of us after our sweet ones are safely tucked in their beds. I don’t think reprimanding ever does anyone good– shame and guilt are NOT vehicles for growth or support or anything except a path to a therapists couch. What that woman said was wrong, plain and simple. How you handled it with your child was just what he needed, because you are just what he needs. Let the escalator incident go– it was an accident and all are okay and everyone came away with new knowledge– and instead, celebrate the grace and reminders that came with that moment….

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erin January 6, 2010 at 11:03 pm

it happens. all of it. other people second-guessing our parenting. us second-guessing our parenting. and terrible situations. sometimes natural consequenses are all we need to have “learned the moment.” no further discussion. a sage woman once said to me: “honor the impulse.” The best 3 words that have guided my parenting philosophy and helped me through the countless numbers of impulsive actions after countless reminders. sometimes we need to step back and honor the impulse and take the lesson. no further comment necessary. well done, mama

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Solomon January 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm

This is what I tell my wife, often. In reprimanding a person when he/she did something wrong intentionally or unintentionally is not the way to change the person. I never believed in reprimanding – certainly at times when something goes wrong. I wish my own people understand me. This I’ m saying here … not with a disliking for my wife. I know what it feels to be thwarted or reprimanded since my early childhood where in the hostel I grew up and in the families we are scolded for doing something wrong. ( My father used to scold me often for not readily coming with a pen as he wanted me to write something as he was illiterate and a small businessman) Suddenly out of the blue he used to ask me to write something on his small book and there I go scrambling for a pen. Ours was a small thatched house with no shelfs.
Now… my son doesn’t face this reality I faced. But, he often forgets things on the floor, spills ink, does some mess everytime… I just want to smile at him and say try keep things properly. He says” Sorry dad” I love that feeling that he forgot once again, and he is learning.
Certainly, the stranger was very rude. It’s a learning for you, and learning for me too! Thanks for posting this piece, and your stream of thoughts after the incident!
Solomon

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exhale. return to center. January 7, 2010 at 7:31 am

wow. hillary.

i want so much to comment and yet i find myself still integrating what you have shared.

i’m just going to go stream-of-consciousness and see what happens…

reading it was like taking a journey. i found myself nodding in agreement. i was right there with you.

until you switched to talking about your children and your parenting and i thought…oh my god.

i reprimand my kids. and not just them, my husband too.

i don’t mean to. i don’t believe in it. but i do it.

just as you said…when patience runs thin and things are chaotic and someone spills something or something gets broken or someone gets hurt.

i forget everything i believe in my heart and often do not respond with love.

wow. thank you for helping to bring this into the light for me.

love to you my friend…

~erin
.-= exhale. return to center.´s last blog ..the milk run =-.

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flowers January 7, 2010 at 11:14 am

I know Erin I took the same journey. I was all self-righteously angry at that woman and then I asked why she felt she had the right to say that to us and the truth hit me smack in the head….we do it to our children all the time! Big wake up call for me. Being in the “little person” shoes was eye opening.

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Kelly January 7, 2010 at 9:29 pm

I am a major reprimander of my husband. I’m around small and big kids all day and try with everything in me to be patient, but my husband does one off thing and I explode. I used to be such a different wife before we had kids- being a wife with children is where I am finding the biggest challenges. It’s where I feel the most like a failure every day.

From reading your blog, Hillary, I can honestly say I would never doubt myself as a good mother if I were you.
.-= Kelly´s last blog ..A Celebration of Family, Sitting, and Grace =-.

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Devon January 7, 2010 at 7:31 am

I am so glad everything worked out so well!

I do have to say that I felt a bit for the woman… she had no right to reprimand you or judge you, of course, but I think in that situation she was probably feeling a lot of things as well – her own fear for her children, the realization that something could happen so easily. I bet she was projecting a lot of her own experience onto you, and in the moment she needed to react somehow. As someone who is a frequent observer of others’ parenting (especially as a teacher), it’s sometimes hard to stay objective. I would never say anything to a parent, but maybe in an emergency situation. Who knows? Plus that’s just not me, but it may be some people. So don’t judge her too harshly either ;)

Glad it was a great learning experience for you guys! ((HUGS))
.-= Devon´s last blog ..NaBloPoMo =-.

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flowers January 7, 2010 at 11:20 am

But that’ s my point Devon. That’s what happens when you parent or reprimand another child. You are caught up in emotions and feeling your feelings of fear or anger or loss of control or whatever. But does that make it okay to reprimand? Does it lessen the potential harm on a little one’s self-worth.

I am an adult. I could walk myself through the process and say, “No, I know I am a good parent and it was a mistake. She was feeling x and unfairly put it on me.” But can a child do that? Especially when a loved one who they trust turns on them in a moment of chaos or crisis?

I do not judge this woman. I am using this example as a critique of our societal norms. I want to use discernment as I make conscious decisions about how I act and she provided me a valuable opportunity to see what it feels like to be the one reprimanded. I fear the damage outweighs any leniency for feeling scared or full of emotions.

Also, it is a questions of consciousness and mindfulness. Of course we all have emotional responses to things. Does that make it okay to lash out at people? Whether they be a stranger a loved one, a child?

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TheOrganicSister January 7, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Powerful post. Powerful experience.

It was a crazy situation that obvious was accidental and in no way reflects on your parenting. Which makes me think the woman most definitely was having her own experience to the extent of not being able to see the situation rationally. Frustrating when one person’s less-than-insightfulness gets under our skin.

But after the fact, the way you can turn it into insight, is awesome. I’ve been in a similar situation (http://theorganicsister.com/2009/07/a-quiet-aha-moment/) and even though the moment of understanding was huge, I still find myself falling back on the very things I don’t wish to do. That’s even more frustrating: Reminding myself over and over and still finding myself with my foot in my mouth.

But as it’s what has been done to us, done to every child we’ve ever known, done to adults, it’s difficult to break that habit and instead move from trust, understanding and patience. The exact opposite of those three things are taught every time we were reprimanded.

To answer your question, I don’t think reprimanding is ever called for. In my best moments, giving it time to sink in and then talking over the situation openly and compassionately have never failed to show me that the experience was assimilated. My harping will only frustrate or humiliate; what good does that do?
.-= TheOrganicSister´s last blog ..The Fearless Girl and Her Egg =-.

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Stacy (Mama-Om) January 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Hi Hillary,
I have been through the same journey, though through different experiences and different angles… Seeing how our own pain and uncenteredness leads to speaking harshly, seeing others compassionately, yet still holding steadfast (as you do) to the conviction that coercion and judgmental/angry words are harmful. They harm us more than we give ourselves the space to realize. We have a huge blindspot in our society about cruelty to children, especially.

I love the layers in this piece, and appreciate you sharing your process around it, letting us see how things can shift and open, particularly after the dramatic contraction of fear and pain that happened in the subway station.

Blessings,
Stacy

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steadymom January 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

This is beautiful and thought-provoking and challenging. In other words, very Hillary. =) Thanks for it.

So sorry you had this experience. I had a similar one over six months ago and even with all that time past, I still tear up at the thought of the cruel words that were spoken to me.

Harsh words really can wound the spirit, and I don’t want my children to feel that way.

Jamie
.-= steadymom´s last blog ..Thoughts on Blogging =-.

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Cindy January 7, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Yes, I think there are times to reprimand, and times that we should be reprimanded. If we say there aren’t, we are closing the door on growth of character, and yes, compassion. If you had not been reprimanded by that woman, hurtful as it was, you would not have written this post. You would not have learned about what it is to be a child. You would not have even asked a question about whether it’s proper to reprimand, and you wouldn’t be looking inward to your own personal growth as a mother and human being. Reprimands are necessary and good. Should they be used as often as they are in our society, or should we use them as often as we do? Probably not, unless you work as a judge or something of that nature.

In the woman’s defense, she probably couldn’t see that you had your eyes on your child, nor could she know your state of mind or what your normal mode of parenting is. I don’t know about you, but I see careless, thoughtless parenting every day. Do those parents need to be reprimanded? How are they going to learn and change if they’re never told that what they are doing is bad? If they are hard of heart (which many of them are), gentle words aren’t going to get anywhere. Will the reprimand hurt them? Will the result be a better life for their children?

I think also that it needs to be pointed out that the word “reprimand” and the related word “reprove” operate under the assumption that there is a fault to be corrected, which no one seems to be noticing. If I yell at my children for accidentally spilling a glass of milk, that’s not reproof or reprimand. That’s just unkind.
But if one of my children is hitting another child, and I step in with a firm, no-nonsense tone of voice, perhaps even slightly raised and say, “We do NOT hit each other in this house.” That is a reprimand, and quite a necessary and proper one.

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flowers January 8, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for your thoughts Cindy. I appreciate the other side to further my understanding and thoughts on the subject.

There are two things you said that don’t quite site right with me:

“If you had not been reprimanded by that woman…you wouldn’t be looking inward to your own personal growth as a mother and human being.”

One of my observations about life is that contemplation is a normal part of the learning experience if the learning experience is not disturbed. In my personal case, I am constantly looking inward to my own personal growth. It’s actually something I can’t help. Without that women I still would have reflected how the situation had occurred, how I could prevent it in the future and how I could help my son assimilate his learning experience in a positive and affirming way. What I find unnecessary is the attempt to add shame to the situation. Like I said in the post, as an adult I can work my way through that, but for a child it can be emotionally detrimental.

“…I see careless, thoughtless parenting every day. Do those parents need to be reprimanded? How are they going to learn and change if they’re never told that what they are doing is bad?”

I think we have a difference in fundamental world views here. A parent would have to be doing something very, very blatantly harmful and destructive (I’m thinking sexual, physical, emotional abuse) for me to judge their actions as “bad”. Even then I try to stay away from bad and good dichotomy, because like everything in life, it’s subjective. If I was in a situation where a parent was acting in a way that actually indicated real harm for the child I would figure out how to help. I’m not sure reprimanding the parent is going to help much at that point.

Some people think if your child is not wearing a coat out of the house you are a bad parent. Some people think if your child starts getting rowdy out at a restaurant you are a bad parent. Because someone has their own perception of good and bad parenting, does that give them the right to reprimand as if they had authority or the right in that other persons life?

One more thought, I actually don’t see careless, thoughtless parenting every day. Mostly I see parents doing their best with their given situation and if they are having a rough time I can empathize, b/c I understand that families have rough spots where you haven’t quite figured it out and working it out.

There have only been a few times where I have truly been uncomfortable with a parent out in public. They were publicly disciplining their child (almost for the sake of showing the crowd they aren’t a pushover) and I felt very embarrassed for the child (and the parent).

In that situation I feel reprimanding that mother is 1) none of my business and 2) does not help. If I was inclined to participate it may have been helpful to walkover and say something empathetic that might have distracted her from her tirade and reminded her that the child’s action was a child’s action….not worth public humiliation.

Good discussion! Thanks for engaging :-)

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Kate January 8, 2010 at 9:27 am

Wow, Hill. What a post ~ as Erin said, I took this journey with you and even found myself tearing up!

I just love you….
.-= Kate´s last blog ..My Everyday Magic 1.7.10 =-.

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Carla January 8, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Hello,

New here. I read this post a few times, absorbing the beautiful raw emotions this experience provided.

I will be visiting this lovely home more : -)

Blessings,
Carla
.-= Carla´s last blog ..Crocs, Venom, and Bon voyage =-.

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flowers January 8, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Hi Carla! Welcome. We’re glad to have you and I hope you and yours are starting the year out full of blessings :-)

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Emily January 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

I am so sorry this happened to you! To think, that you read this woman’s actions as ones of community and instead she used the situation to grab some power. Let’s all keep a spirit of community.
.-= Emily´s last blog ..Unhurried =-.

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Amber January 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. You are making me think, and I’m grateful.

I can think of situations where I would call out sharply to my children, mostly for their own safety. That’s the closest I can think of to an OK reprimand, and I would be all right with another adult doing the same with me. I might find it jarring in the moment, like if another car honks at me, but if it saves me from danger I’ll accept it. It’s not really a reprimand, though, since the point isn’t to rebuke or chasten but to alert.

I absolutely think that there’s another way to communicate a similar message, too. For example, had the woman said, “I saw your son and I was so concerned for him,” it would have been less confrontational, while still sharing her fears. There is no situation that I can think of where personally attacking someone (as she attacked you) actually helps or is necessary. It’s just … not.
.-= Amber´s last blog ..Looking Out My Window =-.

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flowers January 9, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Amber, I completely agree with you!

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exhale. return to center. January 11, 2010 at 5:44 pm

shortly after reading this i had the experience of being reprimanded (indirectly) by two women outside of our public library.

it was 4:30 p.m. and my three year old had not taken a nap. we were all hungry and i just knew that getting him into the car and getting us all home as quickly as possible was my best course of action.

he didn’t want to put his coat on and so i consciously decided not to force the issue.

as soon as we stepped out the door two ladies noticed and said to my son…you need to have a coat on. it’s too cold to be out here without one.

i looked at them smiling, hoping to connect, and share a knowing exchange like…yup. i know it’s cold. i would prefer that he wear a coat. but it’s almost dinner, he’s overtired. i’ve learned to choose my battles and this is one i’m not going to wage.

but they looked right past me and loudly amongst themselves continued to talk about how terrible it was that he didn’t have a coat on and how cold it was and this is how people get sick.

i was so not in a space to engage with them so i just got my kids in the car (which was all of 10 ft from the entrance to the library) and got out of there.

on the way home i was thinking about this post and also thought about how many times i have judged other parents’ actions without knowing the whole story.

such an important issue you’ve brought to light.

love to you my friend…

~e
.-= exhale. return to center.´s last blog ..lily of the rolling pin =-.

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flowers January 11, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Thanks for sharing Erin. This seems to be a theme round the mama blogosphere of late–thou shall not judge other mothers.

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Leah January 12, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Oh Hillary, this is just beautiful. I so appreciate you. I had much the same experience as Erin in her first comment. Reprimands and the feelings of shame that often result are not something I consider part of my parenting philosophy. But reading this, I do reprimand and am quick to react to much in my house with my family. Taking a deep breath and letting it out before reacting is something I am going to be doing my best to remember. I am grateful to you for all your wisdom that you are so willingly sharing with us here! Thank you! <3

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