Sitting in the park on a hot and humid day, I am an observer. I am there to keep an eye on my children, to care for their needs, to observe them at play. But I notice and think about much more.

I observe a mom next to me, looking over at her son caressing a dog. He is two; the dog is not his own. She interrupts my thoughts to tell me anxiously that first it was a baby that he was playing with, and now the dog. “I just don’t get it—we are here to play in the water, but he has not stepped foot into the spray. Why won’t he just go play?”

I reply, “He is so sweet. Your son seems nurturing; he is playing with the dog.”

She continues to cajole him to “leave the nice couple alone and go play.”I am also sometimes that mom . . .

I think I am also sometimes that mom, wanting something for my children, having expectations for them, and losing sight of the bigger picture—the specific child that I need to cater to individually.

I observe a dad jerking his son by his wrist as his son squirms away with frustration, the father’s face tense, filled with emotion and impatience. The son looks stressed, upset. I know that I too am guilty of taking out my emotions on my children, showing them a side of me that I am mortified to see mirrored back at me.

Across the park, I see my friend’s husband, who has been single-daddy-ing it all weekend long—a rare occurrence for him. He is sitting calmly with his toddler crawling between his legs, murmuring some Torah from his phone, while the other children come to grab a handful of popcorn or find a towel to wipe their eyes. He is unperturbed; his children are happily playing on their own. He must be grateful because it is 72 hours down and only 6 more to go until his wife comes back. I also know that he is fasting, since today is one of the minor Jewish fast days.

And then there are my own children, running, playing, screaming, waiting excitedly for the water to fill up and dump on their heads, running away, coming back—testing fate. Will the big water dump happen while they wait or while they run? It is not so easy to make objective assessments about my own children; it is sufficient for me to see them happy and playful. My toddler twins at times need me to get up and find them, follow them, push them, get things for them. It is all normal park stuff for normal-enough children. (Okay, they are mine—they are pretty awesome.)

Sometimes it is easier to absorb a lesson for your own life while observing others. On that hot and humid day, I take home two important ones.

The first lesson is from the mom who can’t be happy because her child isn’t doing what she thinks he is supposed to be doing. We are at a splash park; he should be splashing about—right? Not necessarily. Here is a perfectly sweet two-year-old who has an eye for all things soft and cuddly. He has a need to talk softly, caress, hug and nurture, it seems. Why can’t the mother see that? Because it is hard, it is hard to be the mom in the moment. Why can’t she be happy with this beautiful child she has, who finds something else to attract his attention? Something even more positive, perhaps, than watching water dump on his head or the head of a friend. Is it because she has a plan and he isn’t falling in line? Is it about control, or “Mommy knows best”? Probably not, although I don’t know her exact thought process, but I do know my own—and we all make mistakes. I know how often I have an idea about what is best for my children, how they will best have fun or how they will best learn and grow. How often am I right? Often enough that I maintain confidence in my strong intuition about my children. How often am I wrong? Even once is enough to take a few steps back and ask myself the key questions: What is this about? Is this about me, or about my child?

The second lesson is from the dad who is tightly wound, waiting to explode, wanting obedience and structure from his child. All I can sadly see is a mirror in an innocent eight-year-old, reflecting him. And it could have been me. I don’t judge, but I want to grow from seeing that scenario so clearly.

I Is this about me, or about my child?recognize in this dad the old adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” and I recall what the Rebbe taught us: It is not so much about what you say, but about what you do. Be a dugmah chayah, a “living example.” I infer from this, right there in the park, that it is not only spiritual and lofty examples that we set for our children, but mundane ones as well. They take cues from our every word and behavior, from our very demeanor. Looking across the park at my friend’s calm, thoughtful and subdued husband, and his children’s easygoing behavior, was like the bullseye.

My friend and her husband have great kids. Yes, perhaps they are easygoing because it is in their DNA; but even if it isn’t, it is being modeled for them. By a father who has every “right” and “excuse” to be at his “wits’ end.” Yet he sits calmly and patiently.

With a sigh I turn to my husband, who has joined me on the bench, and say, “You know, this parenting thing, it’s really hard work!” The hardest work is work I have to do on myself.