When I was a little girl, we spent a lot of our vacation time in the Poconos. To this day, the smell of bug spray and pine needles and driving through winding, densely treed roads brings me back to the little house my uncle built with his own two hands in the woods of East Stroudsburg.
There is a black bear population in that area, and although I never actually saw one directly in front of me while I was growing up, I do remember staring in awe at the claw marks that were left in the screen on the porch one morning when we had accidentally left food out on the table. I also remember various family members sharing their own “close encounters of the black bear kind,” describing creatures as shocked to see them as they were to come across a massive black bear.
The little bit of research I have done on black bears makes them strike me as fairly Zen. Eighty-five percent of their diet is vegetarian, with the animal portion consisting mostly of insects like bees, as well as fish. They keep mostly to themselves, scavenging for food and marking trees if they need to communicate with each other. Confrontations with other animals are rare and usually due to hunger rather than any territorial claim (I can relate to this as I, too, am cranky when I get hungry). They are quiet, gentle giants, minding their own business unless provoked, and even then, according to Wikipedia, “Black bears rarely attack when confronted by humans, and usually limit themselves to making mock charges, emitting blowing noises and swatting the ground with their forepaws.”
As a child, my mother warned me about the possibility of coming upon black bear cubs. Apparently, one of my cousins found one once, and started playing with it – it was just so darn cute. When his mother (my aunt) saw him with the cub, she whisked him into the house in a state of panic, because she knew that if there were cubs, the mother bear must be close by. Our mothers explained to us that, yes, they are cute, but a bear cub’s mother, like all mothers, will become very protective of her young, and her sheer size is capable of killing you, even if she doesn’t mean to.
Sometimes I feel like a Mama Bear. I try to mind my own business, avoid unpleasant confrontation, and I like to eat fish and veggies. And I, too, feel it is my job to be fiercely protective of my young. Like the Mama Bear, I try to coast through life pretty peacefully, but every now and then, something gets on my last nerve and I yell and stomp my feet. Then I might emit a blowing noise (take a deep breath) and lumber away to collect myself.
When my son was three, he went through this phase where he would smack anything he saw that was red. The phase just so happened to correspond with the holiday season, when on any given day countless people would walk by his stroller wearing festive red sweaters. There was one instance when I was paying for a gift at the Children’s Place in our local mall, and my little Houdini somehow managed to wiggle his way out of the stroller buckle and underneath the snack tray to get out of his stroller. Before I could catch him, he had toddled to the register next to us where an older woman in a bright red sweater was paying for her purchases.
Right across her back.
Now it couldn’t have hurt. He was only three. It was like being smacked with a Q-tip. But I was really embarrassed.
I stooped down so that I could look him in the eye. I was JUST about to say to him, “No hitting – we don’t hit people,” but before I could even get out, “Nnn,” the woman shocked us both by smacking him back. Yup. You heard me. That woman smacked my child on HIS back.
I stood up in shock, silent for a moment, and then words came, although I didn’t know what they would be until after they were already out there. They may as well have been grunts and blowing noises.
“Do NOT put your hands on my child.”
“He hit me first.” (Seriously. That’s what she said.)
“He’s three, Ma’am. What’s your excuse? I can’t teach him not to hit people if the grown-ups hit him back.”
There was a moment of tense silence. The people working the registers were frozen. The woman and I stared at each other eye to eye, wondering who would growl or retreat first.
“If he were MY child, I would give him a good spanking.”
“Well he’s not your child. He’s MY child. And you are not to put your hands on MY child.” (Grunt, stomp, stomp).
I was shaking. She grumbled some more and left the store. I thought of about 100 better things I could have said later. Roaring things. I don’t remember any of them now.
What would I do differently if it happened again today? Maybe nothing. As the Mama Bear, I said what needed to be said in defense of my child, and had she gone after him again in any other way, I may just have swatted her to the death. Although not on purpose, of course.
I realize that writing this today may be a day (or seven years) late and a dollar short, but here is what I want to say to that woman as a human being rather than as a stunned Mama Bear:
Dear Lady in the Red Sweater,
I am sorry my three-year-old smacked you, but I stand by what I said, which is that you have no right to put your hands on him or any other person’s child. We are never going to solve issues of violence and aggression in this world by modeling violent and aggressive behaviors. We also need to respect other people’s parenting strategies, hopefully with a little kindness and with the understanding that we don’t have the whole picture of a family’s struggles when all we see a is the snapshot of those lives unfolding in public. You will be happy to know that my son doesn’t hit people wearing red any more.
Mama Bear of a Really Energetic Boy
I probably could have written that seven years ago, too. But what I may not have considered back then that I can offer today thanks to a little time and perspective is this:
Dear Mama Bear of a Really Energetic Boy,
Please do not judge the lady in the red sweater. She may have been having a really bad day/week/life. A person who smacks a three-year-old stranger is likely having a much worse day than you are. You didn’t need to do anything more than what you did, which was to be the Mama Bear who protects her son and then knows when to walk away.
Black bear original photo found at http://www.bear.org.