Judge Not: The Problem with Parent-Shaming

Child and parent grocery shop while child is upset over not getting requested itemMy 8-year-old had a quiet but furious tantrum at a friend’s recent birthday party. Her tantrums have graduated from flailing and screaming when she was younger, to basically freezing up and refusing to speak or move. It’s an almost elegant way of dealing with extreme anger or, more likely, high anxiety.

When I told the birthday girl’s mother I was taking my daughter home early, she sighed and said, “I would never let mine get away with that.”

On BuzzFeed the other day, Stacia Brown wrote about this issue of parents having opinions about other parents’ choices. She writes about the challenge of staying calm and rational—our best selves—while parenting whiny, loud, or rambunctious kids. Sometimes we can’t, and instead we yell or snap at them. Brown writes, “It is then that the glance—and sometimes the word—of a startled onlooker is also needed. It recalibrates us.” She believes that judging each other as parents can be a helpful barometer of how out of control we’ve gotten in that moment.

Maybe. But the reality is that we can’t always be our best selves. When we catch ourselves and others acting imperfectly, we can sit in judgment, but that has two inherent flaws. One is that we might be wrong about what we’re seeing—we can’t know what’s going on in that family’s life or why they make their choices. The other flaw is that judgment is often shaming and can make the parent feel even more out of control.

Empathy, on the other hand, actually helps. Even when we don’t approve of someone else’s parenting, could we choose instead to feel the camaraderie of one who has been just as frustrated, just as reduced to being temporarily mean or too-easily manipulated? Since it’s true that we’ve all been there, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop criticizing others when they get there too?

At that birthday party, the other mom assumed that I was being a permissive parent, but she was wrong. My daughter was in the middle of a panic attack brought on by the party’s black light, throbbing music, and crowded scene. I know her well enough to know when she needs a break, what she’s capable of pushing through, and how long she can stay withdrawn if she’s pushed too hard.

So in this case, it was easy for me to feel indignation because I was parenting well. At other times, however, I make boneheaded parenting moves. Another mom might see me in a grocery line giving in to repeated demands for candy. Or threatening my daughters with “consequences,” my teeth clenched, after their fifth fight in Target. What would it be like if, instead of feeling like they had to police and “recalibrate me,” other parents offered knowing smiles and encouragement? For me, this kind of empathy would help me feel supported, calm down, and get to my best self more quickly than would their shaming looks or comments.

It’s fairly simple science, really. When we are stressed, our bodies react by pumping adrenaline and cortisol from the brain to the muscles. We need to calm ourselves, or else we’re likely to make quick, hot-blooded decisions. Studies have shown that human beings regulate their nervous systems in response to other human beings. In other words, as the people around us get anxious, so do we. Conversely, when the people around us keep their heartbeats steady, ours steadies along with them. This means that, physiologically speaking, kindness always helps more than criticism.

It’s human nature to judge and find others wanting. It makes sense to believe fiercely that our brand of parenting is best—after all, that’s why we chose it in the first place. And we’ve been scared enough by media stories of child abuse to think we have an imperative to watch other people’s treatment of children. That said, most of us are pretty good parents, struggling along with love and good intentions, screwing up over and over again. And most screw-ups, even those involving raised voices and poor choices, are not at the level of abuse. Unless we see repeated poor treatment or severe physical and emotional cruelty, we should probably keep our opinions to ourselves.

There’s a saying that “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Maybe that mom not picking up her squalling baby at the beach knows the child cries a little before he or she falls asleep. Maybe the dad on the plane is letting his son play five hours of World of Warcraft because the child becomes highly anxious while flying. We can’t know other people’s children, their lives, or their choices.

When it’s asked for, a reasoned bit of advice can be helpful. If you see me grappling with my kids, please call me the next day, offer your experience, and check in to see what I’m dealing with or why I’ve made my parenting choices. But in that moment of struggle, can we all try a little harder to support each other? Parental empathy is indeed difficult. Let’s put as much effort into worrying about the parents as we do into worrying about the kids.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, MFTI, Parenting Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Aviva G

    November 25th, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    Wonderful reminder to choose kindness and empathy, rather than judgement and scolding.

  • claudia

    November 25th, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    Why all of the shaming? It would be so much better if we actually felt love and support from one another instead of being afraid that our every movement as a parent is being scrutinized ad criticized. I know that I have at time made bad choices, I don’t think that there is anyone who can say that they have not. But the fact of the matter is that if we don’t have each other to turn to and lean on, then what’s left? I just think that it is not my job to judge how you do as a parent just as it is not your job to judge how I do mine. We are all in this together.

  • mj

    November 25th, 2014 at 2:55 PM

    the way i see it, shaming gets us no where except maybe make us feel better about our own selves. it does nothing to help the parents who might need a little extra help but who are too afraid to ask for it because this is how those cries for help could be received, with public shaming and ridicule. if i thought that someone was going to be so critical of me then i would never ask for anything either.

  • Tammi

    November 26th, 2014 at 4:07 AM

    I am kind of the to the point that if you have constructive criticism then I will listen but if it is anything other than that, then thanks but no thanks.

  • jules

    November 26th, 2014 at 2:29 PM

    I have seen it, I have felt it, I have watched it, I have done it.
    I guess you could say that I have experienced pretty much every possible angle of the mommy shaming, from being the one that people were talking about to being the one pointing the fingers.
    Having been on all sides,I can say that none of it is really pleasant because you don’t like anyone telling you what you are doing wrong and there is something that feels almost demeaning when you are doing the same thing to another.
    I guess that we all have some lessons to learn as far as how we should treat others and how we would still like to be treated ourselves.

  • Jacquie

    November 27th, 2014 at 8:18 AM

    makes the kid feel bad
    makes the parent feel bad
    so who is even winning at anything when this is the way that we are making everyone feel?

  • Melanie

    November 28th, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    I will admit that there have been times when my child is pitching a fit and someone is looking at me like I am the one causing the problem, I just want to look at them and tell them that if they think that they can do a better job then by all means, have at it.

  • Dawson

    November 29th, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    There are always going to be those times when things are taken out of context. Not always but we really shouldn’t judge others because most of the time we may not know what exactly is going on in their lives and we would not want anyone assuming things about us.

  • EvE

    November 29th, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    Don’t call me a hater but I think that there are times when some parents need a little public shaming. They ignore all of the rude and obnoxious behavior of their kids and quite frankly that drives me crazy! If you are going to let them act like little wild things then let them stay home and fail to discipline theme there because I don’t need to have to deal with it.

  • Vicki J.

    November 29th, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    A courageous voice you have! Thank you for reminding us all about empathy, civility, and the limitlessly wonderfully complex fabric of our collective parenting.

  • jerry

    November 30th, 2014 at 11:03 AM

    Most of the time this goes far beyond someone offering tips and parenting advice- most of this can be downright hardcore and mean. And why? To make you feel better about yourself and your own parenting abilities?
    Well let me just say something right now. I think that if you know that you are a good parent these are things that you are going to want to share in a way that is peaceful and helpful and not in a way that is only designed to tear someone down. I don’t think that anyone who really thinks that they are doing ell will want to be so mean and nasty to someone who could potentially need a little help every now and then.

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