When I’m out and about with my kids, sometimes things happen that I know will bring us the judgmental gaze of passers-by: when my two-year-old sat defiantly on the subway platform, kicked off her shoes, and hollered, “I not going!” for example.
There was no way I could spin that to make it seem like I had control over the situation. I knew our fellow commuters were watching, some with disdain, some commiserating. I was prepared to deflect criticism at that moment. I braced myself for it.
At other times, though, it feels like I am just contentedly minding my own business when someone, out of nowhere, lobs a critique my way.
One day I had my kids out in the park by our house. I was feeling really satisfied with myself for having managed to get them off their screens and out of the door. As far as I was concerned, I had triumphed.
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Then, from a park bench across the way, a lady yelled, “You’re just letting him do that?” I looked at my son, who was enthusiastically whacking a tree with a stick (my kids are big fans of hitting things with sticks). Her tone implied that I was some sort of tree-hater raising monsters of destruction.
2019 Mott Poll found that over half of fathers had faced criticism of their parenting – most often from their partners, but also from other relatives, friends, and strangers.
“Almost every parent I’ve worked with has a story of getting verbal or nonverbal ‘feedback’ on their parenting while in public,” Nanika Coor, a psychologist in Brooklyn, told HuffPost.
When – inevitably – you receive a public complaint about your parenting, here are possible ways to respond, and a few other things to keep in mind.
First, identify why the criticism may be triggering you
If, like me, public criticism confirms your deepest fears that you are, in fact, a terrible person – you’re not alone.
Criticism of this kind “triggers a lot of judgment that parents felt when they were growing up. A lot of us adults have these feelings of unworthiness, not being good enough,” Chazz Lewis, educator, parent coach, and podcaster, told HuffPost.
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Emotionally activated like this, we detach from the logical, thinking parts of our brain.
“Their fight/flight/freeze system gets triggered,” explained Coor, “igniting internal feelings of shame, guilt, defensiveness, anger or some combination of these emotions.”
This can lead to us either lashing back at our criticizer or shutting down and running in the other direction.
But instead of immediately reacting, we want to pause and reflect on what the person is saying as well as who is saying it. Where might they be coming from? What is your relationship with them?
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“They may honestly have felt they were helping, or not realized how much they were hurting you. Find a way to let them know you do value their opinion, but you’d prefer they talk to you away from your child, or maybe you prefer they keep some opinions to themselves.”
Think about how the interaction may impact your child
“There’s an opportunity there as the parent to really communicate your values,” said Lewis. Are you going to concede, and show your kid that “the stranger’s opinion is what matters most and we need to avoid other people’s judgments at all costs?” said Lewis.
“Lashing out and attacking them for attacking you, or because you feel attacked, aren’t the values that we’re trying to teach our children,” he continued.
Depending on how the criticism was delivered, you may also – appropriately – feel protective of your child. Geering noted that she has at times placed her body as a barrier between her child and the “unsolicited opinion giver”. She said this both shows the child you’ve got their back and alerts others that you’re in “mama bear” mode.
In such cases, you can shut the criticiser down with a quick phrase. Geering suggested something like, “He’s doing exactly what he needs to be doing. Have a good day.” While Lewis recommended, “I see it differently.”
Coor offered, “Huh — that’s an idea,” “Looks like we feel differently about this,” “Thanks so much — I’ve got this,” and “I hear you — this is what we’ve found works for our family.”
Aha! Parenting added that you can even throw in something along the lines of, “The thing about being a parent is that each of us gets to make our own mistakes.”
Personally, I came to use, “Thank you for your feedback,” to quickly bring such encounters to an end. I found it handy for dealing with all the “It’s too hot/cold/rainy/windy/sunny to have that baby outdoors!” remarks that I received.
“The criticizing person will likely have far less impact on the child than what their parent does in response,” said Coor. But, if your child seems upset by the interaction, it can be worth circling back for a debrief at a later moment.
If you do, Coor advises, “Be sure not to project your own worries onto your child. They may not have been as negatively impacted as you fear. Say only what you saw: ‘I noticed you looked startled when that person spoke loudly to you about crying. Some adults have a hard time hearing kids cry.
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You want to avoid your child feeling shamed by unwarranted and unsolicited criticism.
Geering noted that “especially when paired with a parent scolding or apologizing” such criticism can make kids think, “I’m bad.” “That’s why it’s so important for the parent to step in and reframe things.”
“Kids can think that they caused their parent to ‘get in trouble,’” Markham said.
Sometimes, someone will say something like, “In my day, we’d have smacked him.”
In this case, Geering suggests responding, “We’ve learned a lot about how kids grow in the last couple of decades, and hitting of any kind is never OK. No one is allowed to hit or harm my child. Ever.” You want your child to hear you saying that this is a boundary you will definitely enforce.
Reflect on what you can learn from the situation
An instance of public criticism may offer you an opportunity to practice regulating your emotions and model it for your child.
But there may also be a chance to learn something from the criticism itself. Maybe you really weren’t paying attention to what your child was doing at the moment, and you want to thank the person who called it out.
Markham recalls one such incident. “[There was] a man sitting in front of my 3-year-old on a plane who turned around and snarled at me, ‘That child is kicking my seat!’ I had actually not even noticed that was happening, and it certainly was not malicious on my son’s part. I simply said, ‘I am so sorry. Thanks for letting me know.’ Then I said to my son, ‘That poor man is having a hard time. Everyone deserves to enjoy their plane ride. Let’s be careful not to touch his seat.’”
In other instances, maybe your reaction to someone – either your child or the person offering the critique – wasn’t what it should’ve been. Perhaps you did lash out. You now have an opportunity to learn from your mistake and model this reflective behavior for your child.
Whether you’re trying to emulate your own parents or unlearn old, familiar behaviors, “You’re going to make mistakes,” said Lewis.
“It’s important for us to know because if we don’t know that and we don’t remind ourselves of that, we’re going to beat ourselves up. We’re going to shame ourselves. And that’s going to stop us from being vulnerable enough and open enough to making mistakes and learning from mistakes and improving from mistakes,” he continued.
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“The most important parenting tool is self-compassion,” said Markham. “If we regularly treat ourselves with compassion, we are less threatened by the criticism of others.”
We can’t, and shouldn’t, be aiming for perfection, both because we’ll never get there, and we’re likely to get lost along the way.
When, inevitably, you make mistakes, embrace them as an opportunity to show your child how to do meaningful repair work and deliver a sincere, genuine apology.
Geering reiterated: “It is not your job nor even a goal to be perfect. When you really grasp that concept, it gives you the freedom to walk away from the unsolicited opinion-givers of the world.”
Finally, remember what’s most important to you. “Look at your relationship with your child. If you feel confident about your connection with your kiddo — that’s what’s most important, no matter what anyone else’s opinions are,” Coor said.
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