Parenting as Performance Art

Bad_parentingGoddammit Ethan, just get out of the car, will you?” she shouts, her voice shrill and brittle with shards of exasperation and impatience. It’s 8:58 in the morning, and the woman needs Ethan to get out of the goddamned car and stop dawdling so that they can get into the school by 9:00.

I’m standing next to the open rear passenger door of my car, waiting for my own little dawdler to make his way out of his car seat. I’ve looked up at the woman, drawn to the barking and the fact that it’s been in English. (We live in Spain.) Our eyes meet for an instant, her ears and cheeks incandesce, and she turns her attention back to Ethan.

“Ethan, honey,” she cajoles sweetly, “could you please hurry? We’re in a bit of a rush, sweetheart.”

She’s been busted, and she and I both know it. What she doesn’t know, however, is that I am passing no judgement, laying no blame. I’ve been there.

One particularly memorable moment came when our oldest was around 14 months or so, and I was pushing him through our neighborhood in Budapest in his stroller. I don’t recall exactly what he had been doing that had stretched and then snapped the tenuous strings of my patience – my very psyche –  but I do remember throwing up my hands like a character in a Latin-American soap opera and uttering a string of obscenities that would have scorched the ears off the lewdest Honduran bus driver.

When the fuel of my outburst burned itself out and the red mists cleared, I began to see that the figure across the street staring at me in something between shock and amusement was a friend and colleague of my wife’s.

“Hey, Matt,” he says uncertainly, “how’s it, uh, going?”

My mind whirled for moment with options. I could flee. I could attempt to curry sympathy, commiseration, pour my grievances into the lap of this poor unsuspecting acquaintance. Or, I could smile sunnily and say,

“Oh, hey Scott! I was just, we were just, you know, having a little walk and, sometimes we, uuhhmm, so, how’s work?”

Sometimes parents misbehave. We lash out, we screw up, we lose our shit. The reasons are not always immediately clear, but I do know this – I’m a better parent in public than I am in private.

I am more patient, more playful, more, I don’t know, cardboard cutout dad-ish. There are a number of reasons for this.

One, you don’t want strangers, colleagues, friends to necessarily see your parenting, warts and all. You simply don’t want to allow them to witness you lose your temper, bark at your kids, tremble with exasperation. Just as you always attempt to convey an attitude of competent confidence to your boss, it’s uncomfortable to think that the people around you might see that at times THE GREAT AND POWERFUL DAD is just an old dude behind a curtain frantically flipping levers.

Two, when we’re out of the house it’s generally to do something we enjoy. I’m more comfortable outside anyway, but if we’re out and about it also means that I’m not at home trying to fix dinner while being peppered with 128 incessant and often conflicting demands, so I’m (ordinarily) more relaxed.

Three, I’m insufferably vain. I want people to think, “Aww, what a sweet father.” I know it’s shallow, and I know it’s stupid, but there it is. When I’m at the playground running around, climbing on the equipment, playing tag or whatever with my kids, it’s mostly because my emotional development became arrested permanently at right around the age of 12, but also in part because it allows me to look at the dads ensconced on the perimeter benches with heads buried in newspapers and think ‘Ha, I’m the fun dad, I’m the cool dad, I’m the slam-bang wizz-ding wonder-daddy superbadasspapa.’ Pathetically self-satisfied? Well, yes. But since the kids benefit from it and since the applause is all in my head anyway, it seems harmless enough.

So what does this mean on a practical level? Well, I get the kids outdoors as much as possible, both for my sanity and for their own well being. And since I have come to realize this minor truth about myself, that I’m a better dad in public, I use it to analyze my most private parenting moments and adjust my behavior accordingly. I actually pretend, at times, that I have an audience watching me, and imagine what they would be thinking or feeling about my interaction with my kids at that particular moment. I suppose it’s how religious folks feel when they think God is scrutinizing their every move and motivation, weighing up the scales that will ultimately tip them either Heaven-or-Hellward.

Am I alone here? Am I the only one who feels that their public performance of parenting is a better show than their private one? Let me know.

And please, if you’re ever out in public and see a parent teetering on the edge of a toddleresque meltdown (or already in the throes of one), reserve your judgment and your self-satisfaction. See, in fact, if you can lend a hand, and remember that we’ve all been there.

So, have you ever been busted behaving parentally badly in public? If so, please share. I’m always on the lookout for partners in parental crime.



26 thoughts on “Parenting as Performance Art

  1. Thanks SO much for letting me know that I’m not alone! The vanity thing is huge for me in public because you can be darn sure the moment I lose it will be the moment a snooty parent from the school I teach at will be standing behind me! I tried a similar mind trick on myself when Noah was younger – I used to pretend that I was being watched by a camera for one of the Supernanny-type TV shows 🙂 Thanks again – after an evening of homework showdown, I feel like I can let the guilt go and start again in the morning 🙂
    (P.S. my Eurasian boy was blonde until he was 4!)


  2. Haha I love how you wrote this. I’m actually the opposite though, I’m a much better parent in private because when we have company or when we are out I find I’m trying to split myself more ways – be the good host or friend and be attentive to my child and I get impatient quicker. If my child has a tantrum at home I can sit down with her and deal with it in a patient, gentle manner – if she has a tantrum when we are out I’m just trying to shut her up
    As quickly as possible because I don’t want her to disturb other people.


    • Interesting. I try my best to ignore tantrums, public or private, but it’s not always easy. Our youngest has recently taken to wordless, high-pitched shrieking when he doesn’t get what he wants or is disappointed in his endeavors. I’ve adopted a zero-tolerance policy. He won’t, for example,be touching his train set for the next five days. I’m also very sensitive about disturbing others, so when we’re out I particularly sensitive to this. Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with the little one!


  3. If you think looking after small children tries your patience, wait till they become teenagers. My children are a mix of Brit cool and Spanish fire and if you add in hormonal changes and quit wits you need the patience of Job not to lose your rag. I’m told it’s just a phase. I hope they’re right!


  4. Occasionally, i just ignored my children’s shenagigans and pretended to myself that their behaviour didn’t bother me. Very ostrich-head-in-the-sand but it kept my sanity. As with all performance art, one starts to believe oneself after a while, even if one began by feeling a touch negligent. Fear of social condemnation often lies at the bottom of one’s desire to control children rather than a justified concern about their affect on others or oneself, I find.

    Were your boys blonde babies or is that not one of them?


  5. YES yes Yes Yes yes. I always keep my shit together when I know someone is watching. But when I know (or think) someone isn’t? There’s no telling what will come out of my mouth. Usually it’s when I’ve been convinced that the kids have absolutely no interest in what I have to say, or what I’m feeling, so I assume they are invincible or oblivious to an outburst. It’s disappointing that the “f” bomb doesn’t convince my 16 month old to go to sleep, but then it’s more disappointing that I was compelled to use it in the first place.

    What confounds me is that I can restrain myself from acting like such an a-hole around everyone in the world but my kids. They’re some of my favorite people!


    • Yup, love my kids nearly to the point of physical pain, but they can push your buttons like no others. I have a hard time keeping it clean around the kids, and you never know whether or not they’re listening. Just the other day, I muttered something under my breath. My four year-old asks from the other side of the room – “Goddammit shit what, Daddy?”


  6. There are lots of luffly people out there.

    I was an aupair a few years ago. I had refused to buy the right sort of bread at the bakery and the kids were furious. I dragged one kicking and biting kid behind me and clung onto the other one who was trying to get as far away from me as possible in the opposite direction. Both were screaming various forms of, “let me go, you’re not my mother, I want to go home, I wanted the other sort of bread, go away, leave me alone!”.

    I couldn’t make either of them hear me over their own noise, so I just carried on walking through the town centre, dragging and clinging and wondering when I was going to get arrested for child abduction.

    Surprisingly, no one said anything. The few people who even actively noticed me looked more sympathetic than judgemental.

    A couple of months and a few kids later I was trying to keep one kid with me while we waited for the next to come out of school. He was NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES going to wait with me. I tightened my grip on his wrist and put on my best tough-luck-matey expression. An old man appeared out of nowhere and sat in front of the kid stroking a Labrador (or similar large dog).The kid joined in and all was well. The old man turned to me and said it’s better to distract them than force them. That kinda sucked at the time, but it’s proved useful since then.


    • Great stories! The pain, the humiliation, love it! And yes, distraction is waaaaay more effective than brute force, although a blow with a blunt object is sometimes the only way to go 😉
      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!


  7. You’re not alone. My 4 year old twins test my patience regularly. Just this morning my daughter refused to get into her car seat because I wouldn’t let her have an ice-pop. I threatened on telling Santa, elf on the shelf, granny, you name it. We were late in the end and I felt like a crap mum. 😦


    • We’re all leading similar, parallel lives, with much the same concerns, fears, annoyances, and triumphs. We’re diving in murky water, trying to find a silver ring. Mostly I’m happy to just not get eaten by a crocodile.


  8. You are NOT ALONE. I too play cardboard-cut-out Mum in public at times. In fact only this week on the beach I put on a spectacular performance in front of my visiting parents and a bunch of strangers… until my patience snapped with a grizzling 4yo who would NOT let me put suncream on her.

    You also made me laugh with your very precise 128 incessant and conflicting demands. Carry-on parenting!


    • Why is sunscreen such an issue? I know I hated it as a kid, as my children now do, but what’s the deal? Anyway, it’s always good to have partners in crime. Carry-on yourself!


  9. So perfect. Yes. Absolutely. I think about this VERY OFTEN. I wish I were much more like my public self all the time. And it is downright difficult for me to pretend to be public me when I’m really being private me.


    • It always is. But is suppose with a handle like dirtboybr it must be even more of a struggle. 😉
      I suppose the trick is to strike a balance between our private/public selves so we don’t lurch our children through the uncertainties of living with a Jekyll-and-Hyde parent.


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