Raising Richmond: When strangers comment

Three real life interactions my son and I have experienced while out and about in the world with other people.

The Good

I was in the thick of a five-day solo parenting stint when I decided enough was enough. My son, JR, and I were going out to eat.

The way I figured it, dinner out killed two birds with one stone. Bird #1: I wouldn’t have to plan, cook, or clean up dinner. Bird #2: The trip would help pass some time before bed. (Bonus Bird #3: Someone would bring me wine.1) So we packed his book bag with coloring books, crayons, and a few toy cars, and headed over to our friendly neighborhood eatery.

The place was pretty quiet, as expected at 6:00 PM on a weeknight. Our server sat us down in a booth tucked in the back of the restaurant. We ordered our drinks and dinner, and JR settled in and did his thing: he colored, asked what certain words on the menu spelled, practiced writing his name, and constructed a parking lot for his cards out of sugar packets and straws.2 When our dinners arrived, we dug in, chatting about this and that.

As JR finished eating and I calculated the tip, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

I turned to find a lady with shoulder-length brown hair and a neatly buttoned cardigan standing next to our booth.

“Is this your son?” she asked.

Panic set in immediately. Was JR too noisy? Did he throw something when I wasn’t looking? Did he burp loudly, and I didn’t notice?3 Was she going to give me shit about my empty wine glass? Why was this woman coming up to us?

I nodded.

“I just wanted to tell you I thought he behaved so well in here tonight, “ she said, smiling. “It’s wonderful to see a little boy be able to sit down and enjoy dinner with his mother.”

I stuttered out something resembling a thank you as JR beamed and blushed with equal intensity. She patted my shoulder gently.

“No need to thank me, honey. I know mamas don’t get to hear things like that very much–even though they really need to.”

I think JR and I both felt like we were floating as we headed to the car that night. And to this day–almost a full year after this interaction took place–when we walk or drive by the restaurant he’ll point and exclaim, “That’s the place where the lady said I did a good job!”

— ∮∮∮ —

The Bad

We all walked into the elevator at the same time: me, JR, and an older man, probably in his mid-70s.

“Is that a boy or a girl?” the man asked, wagging his finger toward JR.

Even though I knew in my brain that we were the only ones there, I looked around to make sure he was talking to us.

“Him?” I asked, pointing to JR.


“Well…” I paused, thinking my original response would’ve cleared up any questions, but apparently this man needed further confirmation. “A boy. He’s a boy.”

He gave JR the once-over, taking in the shaggy blonde hair and hot pink Converse sneakers that my then-three-year-old little boy rocked so well.

“Really? Huh,” he said. His expression was hard to read. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was genuinely surprised or trying to make some sort of point, so I just gave him a quick smile and let the subject drop.

The elevator doors slid open, and the man walked off ahead of us. JR and I ambled along hand-in-hand for a little while before he stopped and looked up at me, his blue eyes slightly rimmed in red.

“Mama? Why did that man not know I’m a boy?”

“Well, bud, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because you’ve got really great hair. And some people think certain colors are for boys and certain colors are for girls. But we know that’s not true, right?”


“I mean, Daddy is a boy and he wears pink shirts all the time, right?”

“Yeah…” he answered with a tentative nod.

He still has longer hair, but the pink sneakers fell out of favor pretty quickly after that day.

— ∮∮∮ —

The Ugly

“JR, I need you to stand up.”


“JR, there is someone behind us in this line. We need to move. Please stand up.”

More ignoring in favor of squatting in front of the candy display, fiddling with those Baby Bottle Pops4 that he always asks for and never gets.

“Jackson Ross Catrow. Stand up.”

Suddenly a voice behind me chirped, “Say it in a nice way, Mommy!”5

The comment came from the woman standing behind us in line, the woman smirking at me, the woman whose shopping experience I was attempting to make more pleasant by asking my son get up off the damn floor.

Wait…did she…is she…did she just call me “Mommy” while passive aggressively commenting on my skills as a parent?

Nevermind that she didn’t know me, my son, or the day (or week or month) we’d had. Nevermind the fact that I wasn’t being unkind, just firm. Nevermind that this particular mother-son interaction was just one of hundreds that took place that day, many of which involved me saying lots of things in “nice ways” lots of times, over and over again to a child who is really, really good at being a typical four-year-old boy. She said it, and everyone heard it–including JR who decided to run with it.

“Yeah, Mama!” he wailed, as I heaved him off of the floor. “You need to ask me in a nice way. You’re not being nice to me!”

He continued his shrieking as I abandoned our shopping cart and carried him out to the car, all the while attracting withering stares (either of concern or annoyance–I was too blinded by my rage to be sure) from our fellow shoppers.

Embarrassing a complete stranger and laying the groundwork for an epic, public temper tantrum? That was quite a twofer you scored yourself, lady. Hope it was worth it.

— ∮∮∮ —

We’ve all got stories about crazy and wonderful things strangers have said to us and our kids. Leave your best and worst in the comments.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Just one glass with dinner. Relax. 
  2. I stared off into space, mostly. As an introvert, parenting by myself for several days can be really, really hard. Sometimes I just need to let my face glaze over for a little while. 
  3. Not an unlikely scenario. We burp a lot in our house, and I probably wouldn’t notice if he did it in public. I’ll own that. 
  4. Worst concept ever. I mean, come on
  5. I haven’t experienced many legit record scratch moments in my life, but this was one of them. 

Photo by: futurowoman

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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