By Angela Noel Lawson
February 4, 2019
Recently, my son hosted a friend for a sleepover. Around six in the evening, I began to think of dinner for the kids. I opened the closet where we keep cans of soda and the odd extra can of soup. Then I pulled from its depths two cans of diet root beer. As I handed a can to my son’s friend I said something surprising. Something that, on the surface, was a non-event. But when I looked deeper I found the seeds of an insidious parenting problem.
“Well,” I said, remembering my struggle in the soda aisle between the regular and diet option while at the grocery store the day before, “I guess you have to decide between the sugar and the chemicals, am I right? But, of course there’s no caffeine either way, so there’s that. Anyway, I went with the diet.”
Meanwhile, the fourth-grader waited patiently, hand outstretched for his drink. Feeling vaguely foolish, I dropped the can into his open palm.
The rest of the evening proceeded as sleepovers do. They watched movies, built forts, and dumped Legos pretty much everywhere. But it was my non-event comment that bothered me. I couldn’t banish a simple thought: Why had I burdened this young man with my reasoning on diet versus regular?
Only one answer seemed right: I’m afraid of being judged for my parenting choices.
Parents Judging Parents
Google “parents judging parents” and pages and pages of results appear. Explanations on why we judge, why we should stop, how to stop judging, and what to do when you’ve been judged abound. We seem to need to look down our noses on others to prove our choices in child-rearing are “right.” This is, in my view, a classic case of brain elves (or cognitive biases) at work.
Brain Elves as Judgement Machines
I think, for example, my way is best because of my own childhood experiences (confirmation and anchoring biases), or what parenting books I read recently (availability heuristic), or what the moms or dads in our neighborhood Facebook group say about this or that thing (false-consensus effect).*
Of course, all of us want our kids to be safe, to have every advantage we can give them, and to grow up strong in body and mind. But, then someone gives my child an extra Skittle or says yes when I would have said no and suddenly I’m putting on my black robes and preparing my gavel.
Personally, I believe my brain elves take over for one core reason: I’m desperately afraid I’m doing it all wrong.
The Four Rs
In my house, we focus on building four character attributes in our son. We call them the four “Rs.” They are: Resilience, Responsibility, Respect and Relationships. The Rs in practice look something like this:
- When you think you’re going to win Monopoly and you don’t–be a good sport (resilience).
- When you want to watch TV but there’s homework to do, do your duty first (responsibility).
- When your mom tells you to clean your room and you say, “relax” that’s not okay (respect).
- When your buddy doesn’t want to play the same game as you do, find a compromise (relationships).
Of course, lessons must be learned. Like when Jackson went to a birthday party and thew up all the birthday cake and candy he’d eaten. But we talk about this stuff, about respecting our bodies and being responsible in our choices. But we all fail and compromise plenty.
The Myth of the Perfect Parent
Compromise comes in many forms. For example, I’ve taken a hard line on caffeine for the most part. But I still filled a small cup with coffee and let Jackson try it. We say no TV on school nights. But, sometimes I’m a little too tired to make dinner conversation. So we watch a family-friendly show instead and cluster around the coffee table. In other words, we try. But, I don’t believe an extra hour of TV will kill him. I don’t think an extra Reece’s Pieces once in a while will lead him to obesity. I doubt one or two sodas a week, diet or regular, caffeine-free or no, will materially impact his long-term health. We’re shooting for balance here–not perfection.
And yet, just a few weeks back, I’m explaining my parenting choices to someone else’s child, as if he’s just waiting to report on me to his parents. Which he surely is not. His parents are lovely people, but I’ve no doubt they have their own basket of compromises. Clearly, we’re all just doing the best we can. Though it may seem like one parent or the other has it all together and is always sticking to the program of perfect parenting–they aren’t. I know this. Yet, it’s so very easy to forget.
Uncertainty is Reality
Judging each other isn’t helpful. And fearing the judgment of others isn’t helpful either. I know it’s my brain on overdrive, trying to control the uncontrollable. It doesn’t like the unquestionable truth about life: There are no guarantees. My brain tricks me into thinking I have control and know what I’m doing. Tricking me is the best way it knows to keep me alive and functioning. And that’s a really good thing. Where it goes wrong is in the process of trying to boost me up, it cuts others down. This kind of judgement is definitely a sin against the four Rs–each and every one of them.
But the question remains, how can I successfully complete one of the most important jobs in my life when I basically have little or no control over so much? How can I raise a thoughtful, kind, resilient, contributing, and capable human being when I don’t know what I’m doing?
My plan is to start with a theory of parenting–the four Rs are working for us. But I also realize too much rigidity makes it impossible to do the other thing we’re here to do. Namely, enjoy the experience of loving, learning, and living together.
So while I’ll continue to think about the choices I’m making for my family and for myself, I’d like to try to lighten up a bit on everyone–myself included. I might not always know what I’m doing as a parent. But I do know I’d rather focus on what we’re all doing right, as opposed to what we occasionally might get wrong.
And next time, maybe I’ll buy the regular root beer or perhaps a Cherry Fanta. No apologies or explanation required.
Your turn: Have you been judged or judged others? Do you have a parenting theory?
*Just in case you’re interested:
- confirmation bias–where we favor our existing beliefs over other opposing points of view.
- anchoring bias–where we adhere to first impressions and initial information for unreasonably long periods of time despite evidence to the contrary.
- false-consensus effect–where we think more people agree with us than actually do.
- availability heuristic–where the most recent information is given undue weight.