I was coming back to campus on the bus last night and I ran into a small child.

She was a toddler, probably two at the oldest. She had an older brother who looked to be five or six and a baby sister who was less than a year old, and a mother. They were waiting for the same bus and we were all sitting at the transit station.

I’d encountered a few tiny humans on my trip already that day and I was watching these ones out of the corner of my eye because I can’t get enough of kids and these were totally adorable. To clinch it, the little girl walked over to me at one point and said hello and patted my hair saying it was pretty. Then she touched my earring and asked what it was and I told her “Earring.”

I was having fun with her, and she was being totally sweet, but her mother yelled at her to come back and sit her butt down. I said “She’s fine, it’s okay” because I wanted the mother to know I didn’t mind so she wouldn’t get mad at the toddler. But the mother insisted the child join her and didn’t even acknowledge me.

I sat in silence as the toddler rejoined her mother. The mother was talking sweetly to the baby, and the little boy was sitting politely and quietly, and the toddler got bored and walked over to me again and touched my earring and said “I like your earrings.”

I smiled at her and said thank you and let her touch the earring (a bit nervous she’d accidentally pull it but otherwise not caring that she was playing with it) and again her mother yelled at her to come sit down and be a good girl.

I thought of saying something again but I didn’t know how I could convince the mom that I wanted nothing more than to interact with her incredibly sweet daughter. I started feeling really bad for her, and I realized I had to stop interacting with the kids or they’d get in more trouble with the mother. So I stared straight ahead and tried not to be too conspicuous.

But I couldn’t help hearing what the mother was saying to the toddler. She was telling the toddler to look at the baby. “Look at your sister. She’s being so sweet and quiet. Mommy’s little baby. Look at her so sweet and perfect. Hi baby, mommy loves you.”

I became quietly furious.

I could see the reaction in the toddler. She was upset she couldn’t make mommy happy like baby did. She talked to the baby, then tried talking to the mother, but the mother was too busy cooing and awing over the baby and saying how sweet and perfect the baby was. When the toddler started crying and raising a fuss about something, the mother yelled at her to sit down and shut up or mommy was going to get mad. When the baby started crying and raising a fuss about something, the mother still yelled at the toddler: “Look what you did. You made the baby cry. Poor baby. You made the baby cry.”

It was triggering memories from my own childhood, my mother constantly comparing me to my siblings. Asking why I couldn’t be good like them. Asking why I wasn’t sweet like them. Calling them “perfect” and yelling at me for not being perfect. For not making her happy. Blaming me for making my siblings upset and not even asking if they did anything that made me upset. Scolding me for being curious, being outgoing, being chatty, being me.

My mother making me feel like childhood was a competition, and my siblings were not my friends but my rivals. Pitting us against each other so we strove for the best behavior in order to be the “perfect” one at each others’ expense. Gloating when we got the prize. Mocking each other for not being good enough children.

I flashed forward into my head to what this toddler will be like when she’s my age if her mother continues to compare her to her siblings, continues to pit them against each other. Not only will her children have trouble in their relationship with her, but with each other as well. How fully can you love a sibling you’re constantly being compared negatively to? How comfortably can you trust a parent who only loves you when you’re being perfect and sweet?

It hurt my heart to think of that perky little girl beaten down by low self-esteem and struggling with self-image and interpersonal relationships. It hurt me to see so much of my past in someone else’s present and it made me sick to project my present as her potential future.

I dread the day I have children of my own and am tempted to do what she did.

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