Monday, January 3, 2011

Why We Judge

My New Year's resolution is to not judge other parents, or at the very least, to judge less.  This may prove quite difficult in that my writing often chides the overly-involved, helicopter parent.  Still, I think that it will be a worthwhile endeavor to try looking at more situation from the other viewpoint. 

I decided on this resolution while eating lunch with my husband at a small Japanese restaurant in my small Oregon hometown over Christmas break.  Ted and I were enjoying a nice bowl of childless udon noodle soup, when a charming family, made up of two young children, two parents, and a set of grandparents, sat at the table next to us.  The children were perfectly behaved, and the parents brought along a wide array of toys and books to keep them occupied.  However, when the kids' rice and chicken arrived, I felt a pang of disappointment, and I admit judgment, when the mother pulled out of her purse a bottle of organic soy sauce to sprinkle on top of their meals.  Really, I thought, is the occasional tablespoon of conventional soy sauce so harmful that it necessitates lugging around your own person bottle?

But then, I tried to assess the circumstances from a different perspective.  Maybe the son has some obscure and deadly allergy to the chemicals used when farming traditional soy beans?  Maybe the daughter has developed a strange attachment to that particular brand of soy sauce and throws her own private exorcism when approached with rival brands?  Or maybe, it just wasn't a big deal for the mom to toss the bottle in her purse before a sushi outing.  When given the choice between conventional and organic, don't I always opt for organic?  And most importantly, why do I care?

Why do I care?  And, why do parents, in particular mothers, judge each other so frequently and harshly?  In order to help turn my own behavior, I decided to delve more closely into why mothers criticize, instead of support each other.  Here is what I found:
  1. We judge because there are a thousand-and-one expectations on mothers and we don't know how to sort through the pile of pressure labeled as "advice".  When one reader had to stop breastfeeding her infant child after numerous months of coping with a low milk supply, a worried playground mother expressed her concern that the daughter would be left behind in school from lack of the magical wonder liquid.  Another suggested that she lie naked in bed with her daughter and allow her to nurse on demand until her milk supply increased.  While these remarks are at the least obnoxious and at the most possibly devastating to a new mother, I hesitate to declare that these mothers intended to be cruel.  Like all of us, maybe they too are struggling with the enormous demands of parenthood and are also stressed with the task of raising children, possibly even their decision to continue breastfeeding their two-year-old.
  2. We judge because it's extremely difficult to put ourselves into someone else's shoes.  I cannot count the number of times I have been told by strangers at the grocery store to put a hat on my child, or she will catch her death of a cold.  What these well-meaning passersby do not realize is that it took me twenty minutes to negotiate zipping up the coat, and another ten to agree upon shoes, so unless my family wanted to eat a can of black beans for dinner, a hat would have resulted in a total and complete annihilation of the shopping trip. 
  3. We judge because we are all unsure that we are actually doing this whole parenting thing correctly.  The mothers at the park who cast disapproving glances at you while you sit on a bench reading your People magazine are worried that they may be overly involved with their own children.  When they see a mother whose child can play freely on his own, they become anxious that their own children are too dependent on them, and maybe even a bit jealous.  (Who wouldn't love to read a magazine instead of push a child on a swing?)  
  4. Which bring me to this: we judge because we are jealous.  The whole sleep training issue (to cry-it-out or not to let cry) is wrought with both anxious parenting and jealousy.  At least three times a year my local parenting list serves are overloaded with an intense debate about how to sleep train.  The parents who have sleep trained their babies worry that their decision was wrong, maybe even selfish (and God forbid should a parent ever think of herself before her precious offspring).  Hence, these parents tend to judge those who oppose the method as overly attached, or interdependent, in order to find solace in their own decision.  Similarly, those who are against crying-it-out judge those who do.  They claim that letting a baby cry is similar to neglect/abuse and that these children will grow up with severe attachment disorders.  Could these parents actually be jealous of a household where everyone gets at least 8-hours of uninterrupted sleep?  By voicing disapproval, maybe they feel more vindicated when waking up with their baby every two hours?   
  5. We judge because at the end of a hard day, it is easier to admonish the neighbor's parenting style (not you Ellen), than deal with the tantrums our own children are throwing.  It requires far less effort to criticize the mother whose toddler is throwing a colossal fit in aisle #3 after being told "No, you may not have a package of tampons.  Just because it's pink, that does not mean you want them," than to handle the fact that you had to buy three boxes of cereal, two packages of cookies, and a gross amount of cheddar flavored crackers to keep your  little one from melting.
  6. We judge because we are terrified that the mistakes of others could happen to us.  Last year, only a few miles across the Bay from my home, and a stone's throw away from my brother and sister-in-law's house in Oakland, a father left for work and drove to the BART station near his home, forgetting to first drop his infant son at daycare.  Apparently, he was on "auto-pilot" and went about his usual routine, which did not involve swinging past the daycare.  Later that afternoon, the mother called the daycare to check-in and discovered that her son was never dropped off.  Frantic, she raced to the BART station, only to find her son dead in his car seat.  When we first hear this story, as parents we need to judge this couple.  How could anyone forget their baby?  Was the father drunk, stoned, or just an imbecile?  In truth, the couple is just like us, a middle class family with two educated parents.  The tragedy in the event lies not only with the death of the young baby, but the bold reality that this could easily have been us, or may someday be us.  We judge the family to make this situation less painful to bear, so that we can distance ourselves from this type of heartbreak.
So, for this new year, I pledge to stop scrutinizing other people's parenting.  I vow to look at every situation from the eyes of the other mother, who may be having a hard day, may need a little break from her children, or may be on to the correct way of parenting.  From this day forward I swear to keep my mouth shut and my mind open when I see a toddler with soda in his sippy-cup.  Who am I tell another mother what is healthy when my own toddler is insisting on only eating foods that begin with "B"?   This resolution is going to prove very difficult, because I have neglected to tell you the foremost reason we judge- mostly, we judge because everyone else is wrong.


  1. I've been trying this one too. Very well thought out and I especially love the bit about the "own private exorcism"!

  2. I love number 2... Whats the point of fighting over the hat when the second you put it on it gets pulled right off =]

  3. I'm betting wheat allergy on the soy sauce thing -- some brands are gluten-free, some aren't.

    And yeah, I can't believe that I'm judging a mom second-hand. What you said.

  4. Wow. Really? This was your new year's resolution? To try to maybe stop being a judgmental jerk? Uh... congratulations?