One mother pulled out a bag of cheese puffs, the sight of which caused the other mother to whip out a bag of raisins to distract her son from the bright orange sticks. As hostess, I offered up homemade oatmeal cookies. Cheese Puff Mom wondered how I had time to bake; Raisin Momma asked if I used whole wheat flour. But all the kids got a cookie and, with full mouths, were quiet long enough to let us mothers forget any differences of opinion and commiserate about work and husbands and children.
The friendship of other mothers is important, but tricky. Everyone parents differently, and everyone has an opinion about how to parent. Passing judgment is easy, and sometimes, especially with first-time parents, is a self-defense mechanism. Parents want to do the best possible thing for their children; if someone is doing something different--even if, or maybe especially if, it's successful--it must be wrong.
But if we all thought that way, we would never have friends. And honestly, some of the best parenting advice I've gotten has come from my friends whose parenting style is nothing like mine. After some trial and error, these are my rules for keeping the peace among my mommy friends, whether they're letting the kids cry-it-out or babywearing 24/7.
Avoid hot topics and giving advice.
For parents, sleep and feeding are like religion and politics: topics to be avoided in polite conversation. Unfortunately, they're also the thing everyone wants to talk about because we all struggle with them. There are so many options--cry it out, attachment parenting, breastfeeding, bottle feeding, organic food, homemade food, etc.--and ultimately every baby and every family is different.
Repeat after me: Smile and nod. Most people want commiseration. They don't want to hear about someone else's solution because what if it doesn't work?
There are instances where people honestly want advice. They might even ask for it. Still, tread carefully. Don't make sweeping generalizations. Temper your words with phrases like, "it worked for us," "you might try" and "if it helps."
Other potential hot topics: chores, discipline methods, pediatrician and school choice, sex education, allowance.
Be a good host and a better guest.
If you're hosting a playdate, think about your guests. If you know your friend doesn't want her kids to have refined sugar, ditch the cookies in favor of fruit. If your friend's child is excessively shy, don't invite an entire class over for a party.
Alternatively, be aware of your own parenting requirements. If your kid only will eat hot dogs--and you're indulging him--don't show up at someone else's house expecting them to have a hot dog. Bring it with you.
And everyone--parents and children alike--should practice good manners. Please and thank you, of course, but I mean the underlying point of manners, which to make others feel comfortable. Disciplining other people's kids always is a sticky point: should you or shouldn't you? If you're being polite, this question shouldn't even come up. The hostess will ignore all but the worst behavior because the child is a guest, and the visiting mother will be so on the alert for bad behavior, so her children aren't rude guests, she'll prevent it before it happens.
Stay out of playtime.
The kids are all right. Really. Leave them alone.
Mothers should be above the fray during playtime. Supervise, yes, but from a distance. Try to avoid interventions, especially over petty differences. Unless a child is hurting himself or someone else, I don't want to hear about it. This no-tattling policy does two things:
- It allows the moms to have time to themselves, which is what we want.
- It prevents mothers from having to discipline each other's children unless absolutely necessary, as in the case of bodily harm.
Plus, it teaches the children to be independent and collaborative. (Did I mention it allows the moms to talk unbothered?)
Leave the kids out of it.
If you can, find something beside the kids to talk about it. This stops the parenting competition before it starts. You can't be bragging about how smart your kid is--or rather, no one can interpret as bragging that anecdote about little Jackson singing his ABCs at 8 months--if you're all too busy talking about the movie everyone wants to see.
Also, most of the moms I know--including me--want to maintain their identity outside of being a parent. Help each other out. Encourage each other in hobbies. Talk about work. Discuss relationships. Find something to do other than monitor the kids.
When in doubt, ask.
As much as I advocate minding your own business and leaving the kids out of it, sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child. Sometimes you need to be able to feed a friend's kid or discipline him or love him. If you are unsure how to do those things, ask. You are supposed to be friends with these people, after all. Be honest with each other.
Being a mom is hard work, but knowing that you're not in it alone makes those rough times seem easier. And never underestimate the power of community: join a MommyTeam or find friends on the Message Boards.