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.
34 thoughts on “Parents Judging Parents: I’m Afraid I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”
I like to think I don’t care about other parents judging me, but I really do. Not all the time, but I catch myself doing similar things like you did above. So, I care. And yes I judge myself an awful lot too. I have good days and bad days. Days when I think I’m doing ok at this parenting thing and days when I think I’m the world’s worst mother. And oh yes I’ve been judged. I think it was worse when I used to go to baby/toddler groups. I think there was a lot more judging then. And I’m sure I wasn’t immune to it myself!
I do find those types of groups to be both good and bad–for just the reason you mention. When I’m around a lot of other parents, it tends to increase my anxiety level. Which I’ve notice manifests in me being hyper-aware of my son’s behavior, which isn’t always fair to him! It’s one of those things that require near constant vigilance on my part to be aware of it.
Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂
Yes! The hyper-vigilance thing! I do that too and it’s so unfair on them. Bless them. It’s a reminder to let our kids be kids and not sweat the small stuff. Easier said than done of course.
When we were new parents and living in Washington DC, we were in a very judgy environment. People constantly compared growth milestones, but primarily the ones their kid had already nailed. I was as bad as the rest. Very near the time I moved away from DC, I was in a conversation about vocal milestones. I mentioned a kid that wasn’t progressing as quickly as my daughter. The childless man I was talking with said in his sophisticated British accent, “Yes, I suppose they all even out after a year or so.” That one comment hit me like a slap in the face. I was so embarrassed. I immediately started checking my comparison meter, and questioning why it mattered to me how other families worked. Now, I have no time or energy for talk like that. I rate myself as a middle of the road parent and really don’t care what the other parents think about me.
Oh what a beautiful moment! Isn’t it truly incredible what we hear sometimes when we least expect it? And kudos to you for letting this comment stop you in your tracks and change direction. Even though I’m always startled by these moments, I can’t help but be grateful for them. And I’m even more grateful that you shared your learning with me (and others).
I think when we learn from these little slaps, we don’t have to get run over by trucks in order to learn the lesson. Would you agree?
Having been run over by a truck, I can confirm that it’s a good way to learn a lesson. I agree with you. If you accept and analyze those annoyed/snide/sarcastic comments rather than lash back at them, there’s something to learn. I wasn’t necessarily the easiest person to know back then, I really had it all figured out. BTW, GMP is going to start publishing some of my old posts so thanks for that link-up. Plus they’re being really nice and lavishing me with praise,
Um, you were actually run over by an actual truck?
Good news on GMP! They found a great writer. All praise deserved.
Well, it was a minivan, and I was hit on my bike so I didn’t actually get under the wheels but the results were the same. I was pretty messed up.
We judge others for so many things, especially parenting. It is how we figure out where we are in the world, unfortunately. We want to feel accepted and appreciated for what we do and assessing others in comparison naturally comes with that. “Well, at least I didn’t do that…” Parenting is hard enough, we could all use to offer more praise than criticism! But I do believe we are the ones who judge ourselves the worst. My mom once told me about how she still feels guilty for the one time when I was in 4th grade and she didn’t take me to the doctor right away for pain in my toe (turned out I had embedded a needle all the way in it). I had NO memory attached to that being a deficit on her part. But then I think about the scar my son has on his back because he scraped it on a screw in his bunkbed that I added when the old one was lost but it was a tad bit longer and stuck out. I have to remind myself of my mom’s confession and guilt every time I think about his scar. Oh, that Mommy Guilt! BTW, love the picture of you and your family, Angela.
+1 for loving that photo! 😀
I think your mom must know mine! 🙂 She’s shared similar confessions with me and I feel as you do: I don’t even remember! It’s a wound I didn’t feel. A shot across the bow rather than a direct hit.
You’re right to think about your mom and put your own “guilt” in perspective as a result. I too try and do that (with some success). No doubt my son will carry some scars, but what I feel bad about and what he actually counts as a wound later in life are definitely going to be different. Just like our moms and us…
I know it’s probably too much to ask to have a parenting epiphany and never judge again, but I do hope we can all be a little kinder, first to ourselves, and then with others.
It’s so so nice to read stories like yours and know we can relate.
(And thanks for the comment on our picture–it is a fun one :))
I’m forever feeling judged on my parenting.. the words from my mum of “how to do you have such disobedient, undisciplined children” this is the lady who berates them and calls them stupid and possibly the main reason why I have no confidence. Feeling judged by other mums, all the advice in the media, all the supernanny advice. All the what is the right way to raise a child, is there a right way. My kids are very hard work but im sure there are harder out there. Plus I encourage them, I try to even when something is not to good.. stupid just strips confidence. It’s hard as a mum to follow your gut and follow your parenting style, following what is right for and your family.
Absolutely. It’s funny too that it seems so easy to criticize or advise, as if ANY of us can claim to know how to parent any particular child. The variables are endless!
For sure there are certain things we can do–like consistent discipline, and modeling behavior etc. But, it wasn’t all that long ago that the “right” way to raise a child was to never hug her! Or “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Theories change, but parents like you (and hopefully me) that are willing to shift, adjust, observe and try again will raise resilient kids. 🙂
You are very right Angela. There is a balance I think between discipline and not knocking them down.. trying to encourage and support and not shatter their hopes.. but also teaching them right and wrong. Being mum is not an easy job and there are so many that will watch and judge!
Such a balance!
I am really going to try and be one who doesn’t judge. I know the thoughts will still occur to me, but I’m going to try and stay aware of them and let them pass without letting them fester–or worse say them out loud. I will let you know how it goes!
Good luck Angela, I am going to try too, but it Is hard to stop the judgement!
Yeah, it really sounds like you are too hard on yourself as I am sure you are an awesome mum! If it makes you feel better, I didn’t get around to judging people as parents. I am just so impressed with everyone that manages to bring up kidlets in this crazy world!
Before I had a child, I alternated between thinking parents were just shy of insane or just shy of becoming saints. I now know for certain it’s neither. Raising a child is a bit like skiing. First you have to get the basics down. And then try to apply the skills to different terrain. Hopefully I’ll keep getting better! (at parenting and skiing. :)) It’s all about practice–and avoiding falling off cliffs.
That gives me slightly more hope! Although, we’re all pretty close to the edge of those metaphorical cliffs!
A few week ago my kids and I took a walk with my parents on the trails up at their farm. As the kids were running and diving into the little bit of snow that covered the trails, my dad turned to me and said something that I’ll never forget.
He said: “Being a grandparent is the best. I’m not saying I didn’t like being your parent because I loved it. It’s just different being a grandparent. When you kids were growing up, I’d worry about if your mom and I were doing things right, and I’d worry about how you’d turn out. Now, I see that you kids turned out great, so that worry is gone, and now I just get to enjoy your family when we get together. Playing with the grandchildren, and seeing them run, play, and laugh makes me the happiest person in the world.”
I think that most parents worry. I know that even though my family loves homeschooling, I still have that little brain elf that sometimes makes me question if we are doing the right thing – mostly because it’s not the “norm”. But then I keep reminding myself that the kids are happy, they’re learning, and we are thriving as a family. What more could I ask for?
What I’m saying is that I think it’s perfectly normal that you worry. I also think it’s okay to offer the occasional sugary soda. We as parents do the best we can do, and that’s all that we can do. You are right when you wrote that we can’t control everything, and that’s okay too.
I loved this essay of yours, Angela – another honest parenting post that most parents will relate with, and sympathize with. You’re a great mother (I know, I know, I write it a lot, but it’s true).
Gosh! I could NOT imagine a more perfect explanation than your dad’s on why there’s so much anxiety in parenting! That’s exactly right. Until we know that we’ve raised a successful human it’s all so uncertain. You have a very wise dad!
Homeschooling is one of those things, kind of like breastfeeding, that we’ve shifted our societal mindsets on. At one time homeschooling was the norm, right? Then we had the option of school and it was like–no more homeschooling, public school is better! But, I think you’re right–we have the gift of equally valid choices.
I LOVE the stories of your family’s adventures. I have no doubt whatsoever that your choice was and is perfect for your family. If I had your skills I might have done exactly the same. It seems a magical way to grow up.
One of my favorite things I see you doing is following your children’s natural curiosity and enriching it. It’s inspired me to do the same on more than one occasion. 🙂
Your comments always make me smile – thank you!
We were judged constantly for many of our parenting decisions: No pacificiers. No meat, no chocolate, no white flour, no white sugar, no caffeine. No limits on television or screen time. No bedtime. No ‘eat what you’re served’ but instead a ‘what do you want’ attitude towards meals. The list goes on of how we differed from many of the parents around us. This wasn’t a competition for us though so it never seemed to bother our children. We raised them to understand that people are different.
I’m delighted to read your take on this! And from what I’ve read about your children, you’ve prepared them perfectly for life. Isn’t that the whole point? We all might place one value or choice over the other, but the point in the end is to inspire the children we raise to become the best version of themselves they can possibly be.
Thank you so much for sharing your perspective!
Angela, I don’t know if what I did led to my children being such great young individuals – or if it is despite me! I think we all stress and worry too much. I think the problem comes when we do not have the courage of our convictions. I have lived by an important premise: “My choice should not invalidate your choice. If it does, you need to reflect on your choice.” I am a strong believer that everyone has a right to assert their own beliefs and opinions – as long as they don’t attack another for theirs.
That’s an excellent philosophy. I’m going to remember that one. I really like it.
I think we judge others and ourselves in almost everything we do. But I think why judging parenting skills consumes so many is because we’re so new to it. It’s not like work where eventually we find the routine or experience hones our processes. Even with multiple children every child is unique. Even with a single child, every age is unique.
Your 4 Rs are an excellent guide. But I would say after years of compromise we did that wrong . It should be collaborate. Let everyone in on the decision even if ultimately you reject all other opinions. As a parent you have that right.
And one thing I learned now that I have an adult child, I still judge myself!
Beautifully said! I think you’re right about the collaboration versus compromise–it’s also collaborating with the circumstances at hand, or even co-creating. Because every day is different in it’s own way.
I try not to worry about other parents judging me, but those little imps find their way into my brain sometimes and leave me feeling insecure and guilty. Just like you, all I want is for my children to grow up healthy, happy and able to cope with the world. I eat junk food, so why should I deny them? I simply try to teach moderation and balance in all of our activities. Thanks for your insight 🙂
Moderation and balance–that’s the perfect advice I think. The “Middle Way” might feel like a tightrope sometimes–but one worth walking in my opinion. Thank you for reading!
Ooooooooooooooooh I have all the feels about this. We’ve gotten a lot of crap from the elderly in our church about our sons’ behavior. I’ve cried about it, yelled about it. I’m not proud of any of that.
But so often we quickly turn upon ourselves because of the judgment of others. I never once thought the boys could have some sort of disorder. It took the behavioral specialist at their school to observe them and comment that it could be a sensory integration disorder. BAM. So much of their behavior makes sense–the out-of-control actions in new environments, their hatred of change to the routine. Granted, Biff still likes to vie for authority like a lot of other kids, but I think that’s because he just doesn’t want changes to how things are, and in his classroom, they’re now being met with more rigorous challenges with focus and work (handwriting, etc)
So now we’re trying to make steps in the positive directions. And any time someone gives me a look or says a wry comment about what we’re doing, I just give’em a look right back. They don’t know my kids, and they don’t know how hard Bo and I are working, and so they should be happy they’re not getting a punch in the face for their rudeness.
Sorry, I’m salty today 😉
Exactly. They don’t know you’re kids. It is SO SO easy–too easy–to judge what we don’t know.
And frankly, you shouldn’t have to explain (not that you are). It’s a strange line to walk I think. On the one hand we parents shouldn’t feel like we’re on high alert to the judgment machine–ready with an explanation for WHY we do, or why our kids did what they did And yet sometimes it helps. So very complex.
I think what I’d like to practice is more curiosity and less judgment. But wowee wow is it hard sometimes.