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Parenting by numbers

Ducking into my local supermarket on Saturday five minutes before closing time, I was reminded by my four-year-old just how mutual our teaching of each other is.

In the doorway was a woman trying her best to keep it together and stay rational while her toddler screamed and kicked at her feet.  As we hurried past, Miss Four said loudly: "That's naughty isn't it mum? He's a naughty boy."

I didn't know who was more embarrassed - me or the poor mother trying to negotiate with her three-foot monster.

In the car heading home, I thought about how quick we are to judge the parenting of others and the behaviour of their children, even when we've all been there, or most likely will.

I still remember the first public tantrum thrown by Miss Four, back when she was two. We were in the children's section of a department store.  My mild-mannered toddler stopped at a rack and stared up at a T-shirt emblazoned with a Yo Gabba Gabba logo.

"But I want this one," she declared.

As I denied her wish, she flung herself onto the floor and howled at the top of her lungs. Negotiation was hopeless. Embarrassed, I did the only thing I remembered my father doing when I misbehaved as a child - I walked away.  My angel morphed into a devil child and screamed louder.

Getting looks of displeasure and condemnation from other shoppers, I put back on the shelf items I had intended to purchase, picked up my monster and went home. And who did I want to blame for her "naughty" behaviour? The marketing and merchandise department of Nick Jr and MTV Networks for making the lives of parents in shopping centres across the world far more difficult than they need to be.

Last week a Townsville mother, desperate to teach her 10-year-old that actions have consequences, caused a stir for making him stand in a public park with a sign hanging around his neck saying he was a thief.

Now, while the parenting techniques of Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, don't particularly appeal to me, I can see how this woman must have felt. After many attempts to deter her son from shoplifting, she was obviously at her wits' end. She tried to teach her child right from wrong and acted through the prism of love and care for his future as a young man.

From the moment you become a parent, everyone - even those without kids - has advice. Everyone has the answers, everyone is an expert and no one else would let their child behave like that - not in public anyway.

Being a parent is hard work and we constantly judge ourselves as much as everyone else around us. Anyone who has been there knows that.

While my child isn't in school yet, remembering how much grief I caused my parents as a teenager, I fear it doesn't get any easier. But it is between these hard moments that the joy of love and the incredible teachings from our children make the whole experience worth it.  I've always thought that, on the whole, having kids brings out the best in people.   

As parents we care a lot about the impression we have on our children; what kind of people they will grow up to become. We have strong opinions on what works and what doesn't. Overall, most parents honestly want to do the best by their children - it's innate for us to care for them more deeply than ourselves. Parents sometimes need help to manage and also understanding when we attempt to set boundaries. Rather than criticising from the sidelines, we should offer more support to one another.

Public policy is all too quiet on the importance of parental support and teaching, until of course things get out of hand. Well-resourced parent and child support programmes and offering flexible work hours to help parents spend more time with their children to build rapport and respect can help. But a little more humility and understanding from strangers in the supermarket wouldn't go astray either.

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