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When my first child was an toddler, we lived in a neighborhood full of grammas. These old, Russian ladies would sit out on the sidewalk and watch over the all the buildings on our street. They knew everyone, and they knew the second someone stepped out of line. One day I was walking with the baby in the stroller, who was happily munching on Cheerios or Goldfish or some other here-kid-eat-this-we-gotta-go snack. As we passed one of the local grammas, she started yelling, pointing at the baby, then pointing at me, and shouting at me in Russian. I panicked and whipped the stroller around to check on the baby, convinced he was choking. But no, he was still happily munching on his snack, his fist full of cereal shoved halfway into his mouth. I tried to assure Russian Gramma that he was fine, but she was still shouting, gesturing to his mouth, and shaking her finger at me. I realized she disapproved of his fingers being in his mouth. When I later recounted this story to a friend, I commented: “I may not speak Russian, but ‘You’re raising your baby wrong’ is a universal language.”
If I were to stop and count the number of times each day that I’m sure someone is making a judgement about how I parent, you would probably judge me for spending so much time on that instead of actually parenting. As humans, we like categorizing things — black or white, big or small, good or bad. Making these snap judgements about whether a behavior or action is good or bad makes it easier for us to continue on with our day and not think too hard. That child tantruming in the store? His parents clearly don’t discipline him. Boom. Done. I don’t have to spend time thinking about that child, his mother, her story, her circumstances, and how I could be a friend to her in this moment. It’s easier to categorize her in my head and move on.
The biggest problem with making judgements about everyone else is that we start to do it to ourselves. My kid is having a meltdown in the store because I said she couldn’t have a candy bar. I SWEAR we use perfectly appropriate discipline techniques at home, but she missed her nap today, it’s the day after Halloween, and her brother got to eat a candy bar yesterday. Oh, and she’s two years old (which, seriously, is a reason to tantrum all on its own). I’m mortified as my child lies on the floor, screaming that she wants a Snickers, and even though I know I’m doing the best I can, I KNOW that other people are judging me … because I judged someone else in this situation a week ago.
Cue the negative self-talk: clearly I AM a bad mom and have no businesses being out in public with this tiny terrorist. Then, instead of calmly dealing with irrational toddler, I yell at her, drag her to the car, and spend the next 15 minutes crying about how I’m losing control of my life, because of the disapproval I am SURE is being silently flung in my direction.
The constant feeling of judgement (whether perceived or real) also has an unintended consequence of isolating us. If I vent to someone about how tired I am and their reply is, “You should enjoy every moment! Some people can’t have kids!”, do you think I’m going to confide ANYTHING to them again? If another mother shares in a group that she’s at her wit’s end and just needs validation, but all she hears is advice for things she should try in order to fix herself or her baby, do you think she’s going to share next time she needs support? When parents struggle to balance work and childcare, yet are told “If you couldn’t take care of your kids, you shouldn’t have had them,” we all internalize this belief that we need to be taking care of our children alone, yet constantly at the mercy of everyone else’s watchful eye.
So how do we stop the judgment? First, we have to recognize when (and why) we judge each other. There’s an annoyingly accurate saying “when you point your finger at someone, there are three other fingers pointing back at you.” My snap judgement about that other mother letting her kids have toys at the dinner table probably stems from something in my own upbringing — my dad never being home for dinner, my mom never eating, and both of them yelling at us to have perfect table manners and finish everything on our plates. So I pause, recognize that I’m judging another parent, and try to see the situation more clearly. Are her kids causing a racket with those toys? Maybe, but those toys are allowing that mother and her partner a few minutes to have a conversation over dinner. That toy may be a reward for something really outstanding that that child did today, or it could be a gift from a cherished friend or relative, and the child just couldn’t bare to part with it yet. Maybe this toy is a comfort object, and without it, the child faces such anxiety it makes it impossible to leave the house. Seeing the situation with calmness and clarity opens up the possibility for compassion.
When we practice compassion for other people, it naturally becomes easier to practice it with ourselves. When I’m *SURE* that another parent is judging me for staring at my phone while the kid is at the playground, I can pause, realize that I’M the one judging myself, and decide what to do next. Can I have compassion for myself, knowing that I’m giving my kid space to play while I catch up with a group text? If there were a mama sitting next to me, doing the exact same thing, would I give her the stink-eye for looking at her phone, or realize that this group text is probably the only grown-up conversation she’s had all day? By taking the time to recognize our judgement of others and ourselves, we can give ourselves the space to see each other clearly and practice the empathy that we all crave.
There are some people who are going to flat-out tell you you’re raising your children wrong. There are others who are going to give you the side eye in the grocery store or at the playground, and may or may not talk about you after you leave. Unfortunately, those people have not yet figured out what’s going on in their own lives that compels them to judge how you’re living yours. But you and I can have compassion for each other, and recognize that we’re doing our best, and the next time you see me in the store with a toddler screaming for a Snickers, come on over and tell me how your kid did that the day before. It may remind me to have compassion for myself as well.