Becoming a parent has made me eat my words. A lot of them. Before I had my son, I had plenty of opinions about the best way to raise kids. If a mom mentioned in passing a TV show that their 18-month old enjoyed, I’d think to myself “that kid shouldn’t be watching television! Pediatricians recommend no screen time before age 2!” At social functions, I’d silently judge parents who would let their little ones just eat junk food. From discipline techniques to bedtimes, I had endless opinions about what parents could be doing better.
Dealing with the struggles of real-world parenting has been a major wake-up call. At a recent Super Bowl party, my son basically ate hamburger rolls and cookies for dinner… I see now that getting your kid to eat apple sauce when everyone around them is eating junk food is essentially impossible. His normal diet is pretty darn good, and we’ll all survive some unhealthy snacking during the occasional party. And yes, my son (now 20 months old) watches TV. What started as a distraction technique so I could clip his nails has turned into a twice-a-day Peppa Pig habit (is there a support group for that?) I used to decry parents “using TV as a babysitter,” but now I question what that even means. TV keeps my son’s attention long enough that I can do dishes, switch the laundry and prep for dinner without an unhappy toddler crying for attention. I’m not exactly eating bonbons and taking a bubble bath while my son binge-watches cartoons. At times I do worry about possible ill effects, but I’ve come to accept that as parents we all fall short of our ideals.
When it comes to parents judging one another, I’m definitely not alone. I never cease to be amazed by the viciousness of the comments on seemingly innocuous parenting blog posts. One mom shared a video of her baby playing with a beach ball, and was attacked for exposing her child to PVC. A mom sharing a humorous post about the difficulty of sleeping with her baby in the bed was accused of putting her whole family’s health and well-being at risk because co-sleeping causes sleep deprivation. I read a piece from a breast cancer survivor who couldn’t breastfeed, asking for moms to be less judgmental about formula feeding. She was criticized for not exhausting all options, such as finding a wet nurse. “What is wrong with these people?!” I thought to myself. Why are other moms so intent on attacking these women, who were just trying to share their experience with others?
To a certain extent, our tendency to judge other parents comes from a place of genuine concern. When it comes to raising kids, the stakes really couldn’t be higher. I doubt that anything we do in our lives will affect another human as profoundly as raising a child. We create the foundation for their entire understanding of how the world works, and play a critical role in shaping their character (no pressure). This is a hugely important task, and we worry when we see parents acting in a way that we think will screw up their kids. I remember how truly distressing it was to witness parents cursing out their children on the subway when I used to commute to work. And if parents are acting recklessly or cluelessly such that their children are in actual danger, we have an obligation to speak up. But what about the parenting decisions that are not overtly harmful, but simply different from those we make for our own families?
Parenting is a lot like that famous George Carlin quote about driving – anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac. When we see parents who are more permissive than us, we think that their kids need more structure. When parents are less permissive than us, we think they need to relax and let their kids live a little. But this still doesn’t explain our eagerness to look our noses down at the parenting choices of others. I suspect that at least in part, the root of this judgment is our own insecurity about parenting. We struggle daily, agonizing over how our every word and action will impact our children. When we “catch” other parents doing things wrong, it gives us reassurance that we’re doing something right. We may not be perfect, but at least we’re not screwing up like those parents over there. When we hear about other parents’ struggles that we haven’t faced personally (sleep issues, picky eaters, difficulty with potty-training), we tend to attribute those problems to something the parents did wrong, as opposed to random chance. This reassures us that we have our own great parenting skills to thank for not having experienced those challenges with our own kids, affirming our own parenting skills in the midst of self-doubt and worry.
Regardless of what drives this tendency, the reality is that there are some very different ways to parent that result in happy, healthy kids. I know moms who co-sleep with their toddlers, and moms whose babies slept in their cribs from the day they came home from the hospital. I know moms who work full-time in demanding jobs while their kids attend daycare, and moms who leave their careers to be home with their children. I know moms who raise their kids vegan, and parents whose kids live off of grilled cheese because they refuse to eat anything else. These moms all have great kids. There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. That’s a terrible expression to use in the context of parenting, but it’s true. Just because other parents don’t make the same choices that we do doesn’t mean that they’re doing something wrong. At the end of the day, most of us are doing our damnedest to raise our children to be happy and healthy. I think it’s time to stop pointing fingers and start lifting each other up. This parenting thing is not easy. In fact, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. So instead of rushing to judge what other moms and dads are doing, how about spreading a little good will and supporting one another even if our parenting perspectives differ?