Parenting is hard enough, why do we judge each other?
Parenting is hard. It’s relentless, exhausting, and sometimes terrifying. So why do we make it harder by judging each other?
This topic is nothing new: we’re all familiar with the prevalence of parents being judged by non-parents, of parents judging each other, of online mum shaming and the apparently endless Mummy Wars.
In this 2017 survey, a majority of mothers reported that they had been criticised for their parenting choices. We’ve all experienced judgement – a comment here from a family member about returning to work, a remark there from a health professional about sleep training – not to mention completely unsolicited advice from meddling strangers about how you should be handling that tantrum.
If there’s one thing everyone has an opinion about, it’s how you should raise your kids.
This has only been intensified by the Internet: while a nasty comment about how you’re feeding your child might once have been made quietly behind your back, now it can be anonymously posted for you and the world to see.
I’ve felt judged most recently because I had a third child, thereby straying from the only socially acceptable number of children (two, preferably different genders). Reactions have ranged from speculating about my mental health, as in I “must be crazy”, or there’s no way I’ll be able to cope with that many kids, to barely-veiled queries about the effectiveness of my contraceptive method.
Sadly, no matter how often we notice this phenomenon, no matter how often we write about it, it just seems to stubbornly persist, like a toddler refusing to get in their car seat when you’re running late for school.
Could it be because, if we’re honest, most of us contribute to the problem by engaging in that judgement ourselves?
Parenting tends to evoke very strong opinions.
It’s an exceptionally emotive area, being based not just on our feelings about our children, but also on our childhood experiences.
Often our judgements come from a good place – “if they just did that differently then their lives would be so much easier!” or “maybe they don’t know that grapes are a choking hazard?” – but even well-meaning advice can feel like judgement, particularly to someone who may already be lacking confidence in their parenting choices.
I suspect that deep down, many of us are exceedingly insecure about how we’re raising our children. If we believe that what we do as parents is the most important contributor to our children’s mental and physical health, to their future success and wellbeing, then it’s unsurprising that we’re worried about getting it wrong.
Parenting is not like an episode of MasterChef (surprise, surprise!)
Parenting makes us vulnerable to criticism like nothing else does, for suddenly the outcome of our choices is out in the world, showing everyone how well we’re performing.
We so badly want to do it well, yet raising a child is like making an incredibly complex recipe, with thousands of ingredients, and having to wait decades to see how it will turn out, never knowing exactly which ingredient has made the difference.
The easiest thing to do in this situation is to project this insecurity onto others by judging them, because the alternative is so scary: if I see another parent doing the opposite to what I’m doing with my children, and their children are doing well – if they’re right, does that mean I’m wrong? Does that mean I’m not doing the best for my kids?
It’s more comfortable to judge the other parent for their choices than to examine our own. It’s reassuring to highlight the faults of others when at heart we’re scared that we’re the ones failing. It’s easier to judge than to admit that secretly we’re envious that another parent has made a choice that we weren’t able to make.
The irony is that to judge another’s parenting is to assume that there’s a ‘best way’ to parent, when in fact there are as many ways to raise children as there are grains of sand on the beach.
Today’s parents have access to innumerable books, blogs and articles telling us what to do. Yet gold-standard parenting is like shifting sand, depending on which information we’re accessing or which “expert” is currently getting airtime.
Parenting approaches contradict one another, and they all have pros and cons, making it just about impossible to know which one to employ.
Did you see that?
When we see another parent making what we view to be a less-than-perfect parenting choice – a mother ignoring her son, say, who is running around the supermarket screaming and throwing things – we often automatically jump to judgement rather than empathy. We take the situation at face value, forgetting that we don’t know its context. Because it’s easier to judge than to be empathic, and if we did take the time to do that, maybe we’d remember that at some point we’ve all been that parent.
Consider that situation for a moment, the tiny snippet of that mother’s life that you’ve witnessed. Maybe you’re drawing conclusions about how she routinely cares for her son, about who she is as a person, about her son and his behaviour. But what do you really know about that mother and son, and the complex, multi-layered factors that have led to that moment in the supermarket? As a counsellor, I often speak to parents about how the behaviour we and our children exhibit is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps that mother is “letting” her child misbehave because she has lovingly disciplined him a hundred times that day and has nothing left. Perhaps she’s suffering from depression and feels helpless. Perhaps she’s exhausted from being up all night with a baby. We’re just as quick to judge the child, yet his context is unknown to us, too. Maybe he’s reacting to being bullied at school that day. Maybe he’s exhausted from hearing the baby cry all night, and just can’t regulate his emotions. Maybe he has a disability.
Parent and let parent
Instead of judging others for not making the same choices as us, couldn’t we just accept that different things work for different people? That my child doesn’t respond to the same methods as yours? That my capacity to parent “perfectly” isn’t the same as yours?
That instead of one ideal way to raise children, there are many approaches, and all have merit?
That underneath it all, we’re all actually doing the same thing – our best?
It’s natural for us to judge; it’s how we’re wired. Empathy, compassion, seeing the good in people – these things take more work. But imagine the benefits if we actively made the effort to practise them more, if we tried to support each other, if we considered the rest of the iceberg, if we smiled at that mother in the supermarket rather than making her feel worse about an already challenging situation.
Parenting is hard enough. Let’s not make it harder.