Instead of Judging Our Fellow Parents, How About Offering Empathy & Respect?

We live in an era of extremely high expectations for parents, accompanied by severe judgment for those who are deemed failures at meeting those expectations. Some of the unrealistically high standards for today’s parents come from “experts.” For example, in their notorious “Best-Odds Diet,” the authors of What to Expect When You’re Expecting implied that eating a buttered roll with dinner is an act of sabotage against your child-to-be. Parenting magazines continually offer up reasoned conversation and sticker charts as solutions for family discord—as if the roiling, illogical stew of wants, emotions, expectations, and disappointments that characterize family life can be tamed, if only we remember to count to 10 before presenting our kids with a clear behavior modification program based on logical consequences.

But when it comes to upholding overly high standards and harshly judging parents who fail to meet them, the biggest offenders are other parents. Oh, how we love to scrutinize the parents of our children’s peers, pointing out their many missteps. This can transform natural breeding grounds for parental friendship and collaboration—the bus stop, the playground, the schoolyard at drop-off and pick-up times, group Facebook pages—into breeding grounds for something much more insidious and damaging.

Having spent 13-and-a-half years observing parent-to-parent conversations in settings both concrete and virtual (and participating in those conversation, in both positive and negative ways), I have noticed certain topics and patterns that repeat. Here are five of them, with some suggestions for how we might stop beating each other up and start treating each other with empathy and respect.

When you notice parents whose rules are different than yours (e.g., they allow their child to walk to school by herself—or not, they allow their 10-year-old to have a cell phone—or not, they allow their kids to eat candy—or not)….

Instead of deciding that they are clearly unfit, reckless, foolish parents and listing the many brilliant reasons that your way is clearly the better way….

How about this? Ask yourself, “Is there evidence that this child is grossly neglected or abused?” If the answer is “no” (it will almost always be “no”), indulge in a moment of wonder at the diversity of ways that good parents raise children, then bring your focus back where it belongs—on your own family.

When you notice a child whose parent(s) rarely or never make it to school functions….

Instead of indulging in gossip disguised as concern (“I feel so sorry for that kid. His parents never show up.”)…

How about this? Give that child a bit of your time and attention. Take a photo of her getting an award and send her a copy. After your child shows you her artwork or science project, ask a classmate whose parents aren’t there to show you his project. Assume that if that child’s parents could be there, they would be.

When the volunteer leaders of your child’s scout troop, PTO, dance club, or sports team announce a new program, policy or decision….

Instead of firing off an email or Facebook rant listing the obvious flaws and dire consequences of the decision, or cornering other parents on the sidelines to moan, “Can you believe this?!!”

How about this? Give it some time. The dire tragedies you are certain will result may never happen. If you are still concerned, contact the decision-makers and, after offering your profuse thanks for their time and effort, ask questions so you can better understand their decisions—then really listen to their responses. Still unhappy? Next time there is a call to fill leadership positions, answer it.

When you notice a parent at the playground scrolling through her smartphone rather than watching her child’s every move…

Instead of condemning that parent as an oblivious, self-absorbed narcissist…

How about this? Remember that you are witnessing one tiny slice of another family’s day. For all you know, that parent was up half the night with a sick child or plans to head home after the playground to work on the half-built playhouse in the backyard or teach the kids to bake cookies. Perhaps the parent took the day off from work to spend with her kids, but has a couple of important work emails that can’t wait until tomorrow. Perhaps every parent deserves to space out for a few minutes of Words with Friends or skimming the headlines on People.com. Perhaps it is just fine for kids to play without their every move being supervised and/or applauded.

When a fellow parent spends lots of time on pursuits or concerns that seem silly to you, or that you feel you do not have time for…

Instead of saying, “Clearly so-and-so has too much time on her hands,”…

How about this? Consider how lucky those kids are to have a parent willing to devote so much energy to her family. (I’m using female pronouns here on purpose. It seems that people accused of having too much time on their hands—i.e., spending time doing stuff that other people see as unimportant—are almost always women.) And also, stop being an ass.

What other things do parents do (or fail to do) that earn them (us) contempt from other parents? Share your thoughts in the comments. This exercise in re-imagining our knee-jerk responses to other parents’ decisions could probably become a regular feature of this blog. Our capacity for judging and nitpicking other people’s family dynamics and parenting decisions seems endless.

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Mandy Meisenheimer

    When you notice a child throwing a mega-tantrum in a store or other adult-oriented location…

    Instead of judging both parent and child for being spoiled brats…

    How ’bout this? Remember that the child is crying because he/she is being told “no” about something. That parent is obviously drawing a line somewhere and the kid is disappointed. Yay, Mom! Way to go! It would be so much easier to give in and avoid the public humiliation over that lollypop!

    • Mandy Meisenheimer

      (Not that that’s ever happened to me…)

      • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

        Well said. A temper tantrum may be due to a parent saying “no,” to a child with autism or sensory issues being overwhelmed, to the fact that a parent decided that, even though their child is tired and crabby, they absolutely had to go pick up a few things from the store if there was going to be dinner on the table that night. I’ve heard a few stories from parents who said the nicest response they ever got from a random stranger when their child was tantruming in public was a simple, “You’re doing a great job. It’s ok.”

  • Jeannie

    This is a great post and something I’ve thought of a lot. I have 2 kids on the autism spectrum and we have had our share (OK, frankly I think we’ve had more than our share! :-) ) of public incidents involving dfficult child behaviour. These episodes have helped me, actually, because they’ve made me less likely to assume anything about other kids and parents and, I hope, less inclined to judge. I still have my moments, like when I see a kindergarten girl totter into the schoolyard in platform sandals — but I do try to imagine what’s going on in the background (maybe that was a pick-your-battles day for that parent, and shoes weren’t picked!).
    Thanks for reminding us to give each other the benefit of the doubt a bit more.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Each of these are so good, Ellen. And I’d add the corollary: When I’m doing something and some other parent deems it worthy of their judgment, I ignore them. Who are they to tell me that what I’m doing is bad parenting? My kids haven’t been convicted of any felonies yet!

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      And if they were convicted of felonies, I would never assume that their crimes were your fault!

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        Precisely!


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