If you found this article via social media, you’ve probably already scrolled past three posts about parents being judged. Maybe it’s the mom getting shamed in a grocery store checkout. Maybe it’s a mom at a gas station being judged for leaving the kids in the car. Maybe it’s a mom group implosion.
Such posts assume that other people shouldn’t be judging our parenting. But maybe they should.
In a refreshing article about judgment, JJ Keith addresses the problems of shifting from a society in which grandparents were the only parenting experts to one in which there are countless experts offering their opinions, often unsolicited.
Faced with so many differing parenting philosophies, each with its own “resident zealot” about a particular parenting issue, Keith realized that what she wanted was not confidence in her parenting. She wanted insecurity.
Keith presents a case for judging other parents, just not as we currently imagine it: “By surrendering to insecurity, I’m finally free of the worry that other people are judging me because I know that they are. And that’s fine! And sometimes they might even be right!” Keith admits, after revealing she didn’t brush her baby’s teeth for the first year, “Sometimes I need horrified onlookers to make me realize that I could be doing better.”
Here are the six people who can help you invite that healthy insecurity:
Mom group member
Mom groups sometimes seem like gauntlets. You’re all first-time parents. In the back of your mind, you know that none of the other moms know what they’re doing, either. And yet, every time one of them speaks, it sounds like an accusation. Conversations about breastfeeding, sleep training, parenting roles, or daycare are all potential land mines.
If you had a rough birth experience, you’re probably having trouble listening to glowing stories from other moms. If your child is not smiling, or cruising, or standing as quickly as the other babies, you’re likely to get nervous. “I don’t understand how some moms can work” might sting a bit if you’ve made the decision to go back to your job.
But is the “criticism” from mom groups actually intended as such? Or is it like that first week of college, when everyone is trying to look like the smartest person in the room, desperately afraid of being found out as the dumb one?
What if we extended the benefit of the doubt to our fellow mom-learners and focused on what benefits a mom group can offer, like improving health outcomes for you and your child, before during, and after delivery.
One study of prenatal group care found that the infants of women enrolled in prenatal group care were less likely to be small for gestational age. The chances of preterm delivery were also lower. The women were more likely to space out their pregnancies, leading to improved health outcomes for both the mothers and infants. Another study suggests that women who attend postnatal groups have a lowered risk for postpartum depression.
The most common accusation about parent judgement is leveled at the non-parent. “She doesn’t even have kids. She can’t give me advice.”
That is absurd.
As career advice-giver Dan Savage often reminds his listeners (many of whom are straight people asking a gay man for sex advice), what qualifies a person to give advice is that people ask for it. Think back to the last time you got mad at a non-parent for offering you advice. Were you perhaps talking about your problems? It probably seemed to them like you were asking for advice.
Whether or not you asked for it, it’s ridiculous to think that the only people who can give you advice are people who are just like you. In fact, many of us seek out advice from people specifically because they are not just like us. We look to siblings and best friends to give us wise counsel. Why shouldn’t we look to those same people even if they don’t have kids? They know us better than anyone. They are also the people in the world most likely to offer their honest and frank opinion.
The “helpful” stranger
You’re doing everything you can to just hold it together and get through the grocery store when the helpful stranger tells you that you shouldn’t be using a pacifier. Or that you shouldn’t be giving your kid those sugary snacks. Or that your sleeping child’s head is at the wrong angle. Or that your kid is too cold and needs socks (the socks he has already removed three times). This can be exasperating.
Instead of submitting that poorly-conceived advice to Sanctimommy or tweeting angrily about the injustice you’ve just experienced, pause and consider the source of advice. This is a person who probably sees that you look tired. She might even see a glimpse of her past self. She wants to reach out, and the baby’s socks seem like a good start.
Pause and think about why you’re angry. This stranger is clearly touching a nerve, but perhaps it’s not her behavior that needs to change. When you find yourself reacting so angrily, ask yourself why. Are you feeling insecure about your parenting? Are you panicked that everyone in the store is judging you and lashing out accordingly?
Next time, instead of harboring resentment, stop and chat. Maybe that woman will hold the baby while you finish checking out. Maybe you’ll get a good decades-old parenting story. Maybe you’ll make a new friend.
Your pediatrician’s office lays naked all of your concerns about your child. Is he progressing on pace? Is he a healthy weight? A healthy height? Is his brain developing as it should? Are there signs of serious illness? All of those questions are underneath the actual naked child screaming in anticipation of the shots he’s learned to expect from the visit.
Of course parents are vulnerable in this situation. As a result, they might interpret what the pediatrician says as judgment of their parenting.
Do you feel judged because the pediatrician won’t accept your child because you refuse to vaccinate? Do you feel judged because you don’t want to give your child formula supplementation even though your pediatrician strongly recommends it? Do you feel judged because your pediatrician suggested you put more sunscreen on your child? Do you feel judged because the pediatrician told you to switch to two percent milk or avoid more than six ounces of juice per day?
You’re not being judged. Your child is being cared for.
In these moments, it helps to remember that your pediatrician isn’t “your” pediatrician at all. You are not the patient. Your child is. Your pediatrician is looking out for your child’s interests above all others. That will inevitably lead to some tension if you disagree over what is “best.”
One caveat: Do you feel judged because you promised your child there would be no shots, but the pediatrician says there will be two? Or because you lied to your child about where you were going and now he’s screaming? In those cases, the pediatrician probably is judging you for making him look like the bad guy.
Many parents fear the grandparents’ advice because they think their babies will be less safe under their care. Parenting advice has changed a lot over the last 30 years. Today, we know a lot more than our parents did about safe sleep, infant feeding, and a host of other issues. This will also be true when we are grandparents. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to toss out advice from grandma and grandpa.
If you’re getting mad at a grandparent who suggests a different burping method, sleep training solution, or feeding schedule, it may help to see where that advice is coming from. Just like you, your parents battled the insecurities of new parenthood. Just like you, they struggled to find the things that worked. They can probably still remember the relief of settling into a routine with their children.
Now think about how tightly you cling to your favorite parenting advice, whether it’s the book that has sat on your bedside table for baby’s first year or a private facebook group. That particular parenting philosophy has helped you navigate a time of incredible uncertainty – also true for the advice your parents and in-laws give you. It got them through many sleepless nights. You and your partner are evidence of this.
As repellent as some of this grandparent advice may seem, it may be worth trying.
Your spouse or co-parent
In “Primates of Park Avenue”, Wednesday Martin chronicled the lives of the “Glam SAHM” community, where women of high-powered husbands received a “wife bonus” for excelling at parenting. The book sparked a debate about whether or not husbands should judge their wives’ performance of parenting. It also sparked a lot of judgment about this unique group of mothers.
Bonuses aside, a frank discussion about what you expect of each other as parents and a yearly (perhaps even quarterly) review could help most of us be better parents.
Employees receive regular performance reviews, not just to judge whether they are good at what they’re doing, but also to set goals for the next months and years of their careers. Although your spouse or co-parent is not your boss, giving each other a regular “parenting performance review” may give you an opportunity to discuss your parenting strategies and philosophies with each other.
That extra time spent thinking about the future may make you more successful parents.
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s and now business-whisperer to many aspiring startups, describes visioning as “figuring out what we want success to look like.” It’s not an action plan with specific goals, but rather an image of where a business will be at some specific time down the road.
The basic idea is simple: develop a picture of what the future will look like, and you can do a better job getting there from your present.
By actually listening to each other’s thoughtful judgment of your parenting, you and your spouse or co-parent can work on this larger visioning picture, which can help you set the course for what the next five, 10, or 15 years will look like for your family.
Every few weeks, some great feel-good story surfaces about people who help without judgment, like the person who came to the rescue of the mom dealing with a Target tantrum. These stories are wonderful reminders of the good people out there who will help other moms out.
But these stories are also concerning because they suggest that moms are in need of rescue, that somehow every other shopper’s experience is being ruined by the yelling child. How many times has another child has actually bothered you while you were walking the aisles of Target?
Yes, you’d probably be annoyed by a child crying at the movie theater. You’d probably be annoyed by a toddler throwing food toward your table at an expensive dinner. But the anger or annoyance you imagine everyone at the grocery store has toward your screaming child is probably mostly in your head.
People are generally generous and kind, and all of us work through difficulties – whether they be pint-sized or existential. The person who most needs to curb judgment may be you.