After weeks of avoiding the question of who – if anyone – has the right to judge the relative success or failure of parents, I had an experience that bumped the subject to the forefront of my mind.

What was intended to be a brief, last-minute trip to the grocery store before my daughter’s dinner, bath, and bedtime turned into a late-running, lengthy fiasco thanks to rush hour traffic and a glut of people with the same idea.

As I wove my shopping cart through the congested aisles, I couldn’t help but notice the same black-haired, blue-eyed boy over and over again; seven years old but already strikingly handsome, this kid was tearing around the store, parting the crowd everywhere he went with a child-sized cart-cum-battering ram.

A little sister rushed after him, always a few steps behind but positively glowing with admiration and exhilaration. Then the father, also handsome but less striking for his lack of devilish glee, which appeared to have been replaced with a willfully vacant stare and hangdog mug. Not once did I see him speak to or look at either of his children. In fact, the only thing connecting him to these kids was their undeniable resemblance and vague but consistent conga line.

By the time I was ready to check out, my daughter was hungry and tired and on the verge. The lines were depressingly long so I looked for one harboring babies or small children, knowing the very sight of other kids is usually enough to keep mine entertained. There in the nearest line were those mischievous blue eyes, so I maneuvered into position behind him and his family.

All went according to plan until my daughter, now out of the cart and nestled in my arms for a better view of the kids, turned her head suddenly and cracked it against mine. After ten dreadful seconds of silent, wide-eyed, open-mouthed limbo, she unleashed her most devastated/devastating caliber and decibel of screaming sobs.

Yes, the entire store seemed to hush and turn in unison horror towards us. (I’m pretty sure this actually happened.) Yes, it was stressful and uncomfortable and embarrassing, but I decided to ignore my surroundings as best I could and focus on comforting my overextended baby. The boy and his sister were staring, so I smiled at them and hoped they might take up the cause of cheering her.

This is not what happened. Instead, the boy’s watchful expression spread into a roguish sneer. He turned to his little sister, took a deep breath, and let out a fake wail. “Wah!” he jeered. “WAHHHH!” His sister’s eyes widened. Then she grinned hugely and joined in, the two of them giggling and mocking with wicked delight.

I was completely taken off guard by their meanness. For a moment I dared to hope that their teasing would accidentally entertain and soothe my unhappy child, but it only freaked her out on top of everything else. I checked my anger by telling myself that these were just kids being kids, that they didn’t know any better, but these thoughts inspired questions: Where’s the adult? Why isn’t anyone stepping in to stop them from taunting a crying baby and explain why such behavior is unacceptable?

Suddenly I remembered the man – the one I assumed was their father – and looked for him. There he was, still waiting in line, standing less than a foot in front of his kids, averting his eyes and doing his best to appear preternaturally oblivious to the chaos that was unfolding directly beside him.

My anger grew. I turned away from the kids and began murmuring to my daughter. The woman in line behind me caught my eye and smiled, shaking her head. She motioned toward the little boy. “Ugh,” she said.

“At least my disruption’s still a baby,” I said, a little louder than necessary. “I wonder what their excuse is.”

Needless to say, this interaction got me thinking about the whole judging-of-parents question once more. And then, like magic, more inspiration fell into my lap. Again, stay tuned.