When First Impressions Shouldn’t Count: Learning Not to Judge

One warm fall day, I decided to take my ten-month-old daughter to our favorite park. She was reclining in her stroller, munching on an apple slice, and I was enjoying the sun, what was likely to be a last delight before the cold Boston winter. As we approached the park, I glanced at the swing set to see if there were other children my daughter's age. The park was empty save for a young woman pushing a child on our favorite swing. I could not see the child as he was blocked by the green plastic bucket seat perfect for older babies. I did, however, see the woman, and my nose crinkled in distaste.

As a new mother, I was especially sensitive to questions of child rearing and development. I had read shelves of books on parenting and was trying my hardest to be patient, gentle, and responsive to my child. So when I saw this young woman gesticulating wildly to the hidden child with what appeared to be a scowl on her face, I was immediately reproachful.

She had shoulder-length hair tinged with green, a series of piercings in one ear, and a small silver stud in her nose. She was wearing a t-shirt that had been through too many washes. A thick metal chain dangled from one pocket of her faded black jeans. I wondered if she was the child's mother or caregiver, and considered which was worse.

As we got closer to the playground area, I noticed that the woman was bending down to the child and grabbing his hands in hers with a forceful grip. I cringed in revulsion and pity. I stood at the playground gate and, while maneuvering my stroller around the poles, turned my head to see the poor pint-sized victim. He was a little blond-haired boy of three or four, with pop-bottle glasses and large plastic hearing aids protruding from his small ears. Looking more closely at his face, I noticed that he had the familiar features of Down syndrome. My disgust turned to shock as I realized that this overbearing woman was in charge of his delicate care.

We entered the playground and my daughter immediately reached her chubby hands out towards the swing set, her voice making an impatient whine.

"Okay, sweetie," I said almost too loudly, "let's go ride on the swings."

I didn't want the woman to think that we were moving over to the only other occupied area merely to spy, even if that was, admittedly, my less-than-noble intention. I turned the stroller in the direction of the swings and attempted to gracefully push the tiny plastic wheels over the wood chip surface.

As we slowly rolled over to the swings, both to gratify my daughter's craving and to satisfy my own unhealthy curiosity, I looked more closely at the interaction. The boy seemed to be enjoying himself, smiling and pointing at various objects around him while the caregiver looked on with amusement. Then, when the boy became too energetic she would stop the swing, look at him pointedly, and ask "What do you want?" while signing the words. The boy would roll his head away and resist responding. She would then ask the question again and again until the boy responded "more" in a strangled voice, while making a sign with his hands. She would smile, say "good," and continue pushing him.

I became wrapped up in this pattern until my daughter snapped me out of my enchantment.

"Eh!" she grunted commandingly, straining her little body against the stroller straps. I vacantly reached down and lifted her out of her stroller, settling her on the adjacent swing. I turned and smiled pleasantly at the woman, giving myself an excuse to further observe the interplay. She nodded and turned back to the boy, resuming her task.

At one point the child refused to answer her question, looking distractedly at the playground. She held his hands tightly but gently to her chest and repeatedly asked "What do you want?" until he answered. I continued to watch, absorbed, until I felt a rattle hit my shoe.

"Aba," my daughter exclaimed, "Baaa!" and threw her body backward, attempting to catapult herself out of the swing. I realized that a long afternoon at the park was not meant to be. I lifted her out of the swing and placed her back into the stroller. I began slowly pushing the stroller towards the exit, distracted by the scene I had just witnessed.

I felt more than a little ashamed. Not only had I put my parenting abilities on a higher pedestal than this caregiver, but I had originally assumed that this woman was practically a monster when she was, in fact, ably providing care that I wasn't sure I could ever have the patience to give. As I was about to enter the Yomim Noraim, each day I would implore Hashem to judge me favorably. How I could make such a request when my judgment of my fellow man was often anything but?

I looked back at the woman at the playground and was about to say goodbye when I heard her start to sing.

"Baa baa black…" she began, and then paused. "Sheep!" the boy said triumphantly, and pumped his legs. She continued this nursery rhyme, periodically stopping to let the boy fill in the words. Her expression held a mixture of determination and contentedness.

As I continued to watch the engagement, the woman's features appeared softer–she had warm brown eyes and a sweet smile. I noticed that her tired out t-shirt sported a friendly cartoon character. The chain on her pants, once menacing, was connected to a toy ring of plastic keys.