Piper, Please Don't Drop Him

I'm still a little obsessed with the Sarah Palin's family. I'm most interested in 7-year-old Piper Palin and the way she treats her baby brother, Trig. I thought her attempt to spit-smooth his hair at the Republican convention was cute as kittens, of course. But I'm riveted every time I see Piper holding the baby—at the convention, at the vice-presidential debate and most recently at an ice-cream shop in Colorado where she was lugging the little guy around in one of those heavy car-seat carriers. It's clear to me that Piper loves her little brother; it's less clear that she will be able to avoid dropping him on national television.

I say that not in criticism of Palin's parenting skills. I know my 8-year-old daughter loves little kids, and asks to hold any baby she can get her hands on. And if I had a baby, I'm sure I would let my daughter hold the little tyke all the time. The difference is that no one would be watching. There wouldn't be television cameras around or bloggers ready to document my every maternal misstep. I'd like to think I'm no Alec Baldwin, that I would never leave a scathing, name-calling rant in a cell-phone message for my child—even if I were in the middle of a nasty custody battle, or, say, really stressed out about work. But deep down in my heart, I know the real difference is that my message wouldn't end up on TMZ. I sometimes say things in anger to my beloved child that I later regret. Deeply. Because I think we all behave a little differently with our kids when we think no one is watching.

Heidi Lewis, a stay-at-home mom in Studio City, Calif., understands the difference between public and private parenting. Lewis, who has 6- and 10-year-old sons, describes herself as "a Nazi mom at home and a super-sugary mom in public." Recently at dinner, her younger son ("the one with the mouth on him") refused to eat his vegetables. Over and over, she asked him to take just one bite. "All of a sudden, I heard the words come out of my mouth, screaming: 'I don't care which orifice you put that broccoli in, just shove it in!' " she says. She was able to regain her composure only after her 10-year-old pointed out how nutritionally useless some of the options might be. "If my husband had been there, he would have been mortified," Lewis says.

Vicki Greenleaf, a publicist in Los Angeles, says she thinks everyone she knows would admit to being a different parent in private. The dissonance is most obvious to Vicki when her 8-year-old daughter acts up in a public setting, and she has to figure out how to deal with it. "I remember one time at Nordstrom, my daughter was being a total brat and just wouldn't listen, so I dragged her behind a rack of clothes and gave her a swat on the bottom. I had to do it on the sly because I didn't want anyone to see me. I was worried about what other people would say or do."

I know I should be as patient with my daughter when she's explaining in great detail why she can't possibly practice the piano as I am when we're in a crowded store, but it seems unrealistic that I will ever completely close the gap. Putting our best foot forward when we are under scrutiny is basic human nature, as is occasionally being driven completely insane by your children. Maybe it's even a good thing. Trying out more publicly acceptable strategies with kids—calmly explaining why they shouldn't open up every single sugar-substitute packet in a restaurant rather than screaming at them to stop, for example—is a teachable moment for us parents. "We're always telling parents to try things differently," says Dr. Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "This is an opportunity to do it and see how it works." I'll try to remember that the next time we're working on C scales.