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Let’s Lean Into Parenting Schadenfreude, People

young girl throwing tantrum in grocery store
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I’m not proud about what I’m about to say, but I was at the playground recently and I witnessed something slightly unpleasant, a scene that was just a little untoward, and yet it made me feel… kinda good.

Let me explain. A young boy aged maybe 4 or 5 was having a meltdown of epic proportions. It was hard to gauge the exact reason of his hissy fit (he didn’t want to play or go home or sit or seemingly do anything at all except scream and throw his shoes), but he was having some big feelings and letting everyone within a one-mile radius know it. I could see his parents exchange exasperated glances, as the mom bounced her other child—a fussy infant—and asked her partner what time it was. “Almost 5 o’clock…witching hour,” he whispered in response. As someone who was about to go home to my own baby and the dreaded witching hour, I could relate and even sympathize. And yet, seeing this particular scene play out gave me, well, a little bit of pep in my step.  

To be clear, I wasn’t reveling in this family’s misery or feeling smug about my own brood (that would be rich—my own kid was running around pants-less). This isn’t about judging other parents because god knows, we deal with enough of that noise already. But it was such a relief to see another family having a bad day too.

Indeed, I’m guilty of parenting schadenfreude (i.e., pleasure derived from another person's misfortune) but honestly, is that so surprising? After all, every day, we’re inundated with images on social media of picture-perfect families and tips for the current child-rearing approach du jour, aka gentle parenting, where we are told to never scream or lose our cool with our unruly offspring. Combine this with the fact that parents are judged by how well-behaved our children are, and it’s no wonder that seeing another family struggle gave me a moment of comfort.

And the more I tell this story, the more I realize I'm not alone. “My son has a raging temper so whenever I’m at a playdate and see another kid scream at their mom or throw a punch, I’m like, Phew…not me this time,” one of my mom friends recently confessed. But guess what? That’s a totally OK way to feel, experts say.

“In these situations, empathy is at play creating the intuitive feeling of having something in common that relies on socially shared emotional experiences,” psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee explains. “When you see a kid having a tantrum at the grocery store and you smile at the parent, empathy is being conveyed through non-verbal body language that you understand. One of the fundamental basic needs of all humans is to be understood,” she adds. In fact, per the expert, sharing an eye roll with the mom at the playground whose kid is refusing to let anyone touch his toy truck “can elicit trust, comfort, and deescalate feelings of distress.”

So to those parents who have felt just a little good when witnessing another child have a tantrum, I’m here to let you know that you are not a bad person. You’re simply taking a moment to revel in the shared misery that is raising kids, and appreciate a (rare) moment when your child isn’t the problem.

And as for those times when you catch strangers dealing with an annoying—but totally normal and surmountable—challenge, I say let’s embrace it. Three cheers for the child throwing his shoes at the playground! Hurrah for the kid who refused to wear a swimsuit and went to the splash pad in his undies (oh wait, that was my child)! Let's normalize less-than-perfect children and all the messy, difficult stuff that comes with it.