(Originally published in San Diego Family Magazine, April 2012)
We all do it, whether we have kids or not – judge parenting. If you are a parent, chances are good that someone thinks you’re not doing it the way they would. While us parents are tossed around by public opinion – from being a working mom to how our tired and hungry children behave in public – there is still nothing more annoying than the opinion of the childless.
The bearers of childless parenting opinions will declare they, in fact, know more about parenthood than you do. Some pride themselves on biting their tongues in person, but waste no time using body language or the Internet to convey their righteous disapproval. They often tire of being told they would understand if only they had a child themselves because, after all, they have a former babysitting career, are Aunts and Uncles, or my personal favorite, they are dog owners.
In the article titled, Photography is Not a Crime, published June 11, 2011 in the San Diego Reader, Barbarella, a self-proclaimed childless “Diva” writes that parents are “irritatingly protective of their children” and aren’t aware “how ridiculous much of their sheltering really is when you separate fantasy from reality.”
This in response to a father who put his hand in front of this child’s face when Barbarella stuck her camera in it. She writes, “Any parent who claims to care about his child must assume that every adult holding a camera in his child’s vicinity intends to kidnap, rape, kill and bury the kid.”
Perhaps the topic of discussion here is overprotective parenting, or (call me crazy) common courtesy, but is a woman without a child herself any authority on the appropriate amount of protection a parent should provide?
“I would have to argue, no,” says Dr. John Duffy, Clinical Psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. Duffy says, “A non-parent can understand the logistical elements of parenting. What they don’t understand is the emotional path of parenting, like the fatigue of having an infant or the anxiety of letting your teen go hang out with her friends for the first time.”
This anxiety is where parents are labeled “paranoid.” There is admittedly some truth to the modern phenomenon of parents being scared silly by the 24-hour, ratings- driven news cycle, informing us of abductions, abuse and predators. Yet every parent has their own threshold of acceptable parenting, like whether their kids get to school by car or by foot. Duffy says it is oftentimes an instinctual response to how we ourselves were parented.
“In the last generation, we have become more aware,” explains Duffy. “We are accused of being helicopter parents because we know how things can go wrong from our own childhood and we are hyper vigilant for ways to correct that.”
Parenting today is a game of high stakes. We believe that whatever decisions we make for our children – from how much TV they watch to how far to push them out of their comfort zones – is a major factor in the kind of adults they become. Duffy reveals that his office is like a confessional for parents who tell him everything they’ve done wrong – or think they’ve done wrong.
It is when parents have so much invested in raising their children with the best of intentions that unsolicited opinions can sting. Dr. Robin Lanzi, Assistant Professor, Department of Health Behavior, School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, refers to this as the “Mama Bear” reaction.
She explains, “When you hear people talk about someone getting under their skin – where heartbeats are raised – that’s their instinct to protect their young from what they think is an attack.” Lanzi, a mother of five boys herself, says, “It’s less about what is said, but how it is said and how it is perceived. It’s hard for people who have children to hear assertions from others who don’t because it feels harsh and judgmental.”
Lanzi makes the argument that while a person may not have children themselves, they could still have valid opinions because they experienced parenting from the opposite perspective. “There may be somebody who played those roles growing up, like being a parent by default to siblings, or knowing what being an only child felt like for them.”
What is important as a parent, according to Lanzi, is to pick your battles. “You have to be confident in your abilities as a parent and be patient with your child, with people confronting you about your child, and with yourself.”
My first moment of public judgment was when I let my two-year-old daughter scream at the top of her chocolate bunny-deprived lungs in the seat of a grocery cart while I carried on with my shopping as if the only sound was the smooth 80’s jam on the PA system.
What the childless don’t realize is that it takes a rock-solid will, a feat of intense patience, and a momentous act of courage to be the parent and teach a child in these moments what is and is not acceptable behavior. Not giving in to a screaming child is, in my belief, what is creating a well-adjusted young adult later.
During my standoff with my child and the eye-rolling childless, one woman strolled by and said with an understanding only a veteran parent can have, “Hang in there. It will pass.”
“Parenting that way is mighty,” claims Duffy. “It can look like you’re a bad parent when things appear to be out of control to others, even when you are acting deliberately.”
Though we all think we’re experts at it, every parent is uncertain about parenting and every non-parent lacks experiential credibility. Until you experience the agony over decisions that will build your child’s confidence, but keep them grounded; make them cautious of strangers, but not fearful of the world; give them independence, but not endanger them; instill discipline, but not screw them up for life – all without knowing the consequences for another 20 years – then you are no more qualified to have an opinion on parenting than I am to perform surgery on your child-free brain.
Here are six tips to help my fellow parents cope with the annoying opinions of the childless, and everyone else.
- First determine whether you feel the judgment is valid. When someone does offer an opinion, it may be an honest attempt to help. If you feel the advice is coming from a good-natured place, you could actually learn from it.
- Don’t be afraid to bring levity to the situation. If you can make a joke or laugh, it can ease the anxiety of the parent, the child and any others that are jumping to conclusions.
- Trust your instincts. If you can strip away your insecurity about parenting, your instincts are going to be a good guide. Parents are not perfect – you don’t have to be and your kids don’t need you to be.
- Pick your battles. Decide how much you want to invest in a situation where you feel put on the defensive. Think about how you would want your child to react in a difficult situation and then model that behavior.
- Don’t worry about what other people think. If you are overly concerned about what others think, your own judgment will be clouded.
- Don’t be so quick to judge. We need to assume that we don’t know what underlies anything we look at in terms of a parenting issue. If we ourselves judge others, our kids learn to do the same, and that is difficult to undo.