We hear it from moms all the time, “don’t judge me!” So, let’s talk about judgment. Do we really not want judgment to exist? Do we not want it to exist for us?
When we say, “don’t judge me,” what we really mean is “don’t make me feel uncomfortable for my beliefs and my behavior (whether or not I’m doing harm).” We don’t actually want to do away with judgment. After all, it’s why humans exist today. At its core, judgment is a crucial gauge for self-preservation. We look at another person and assess whether or not they are a threat. Is the person wielding a knife and chasing us? That person gets a judgment of “dangerous.” If a person murders a little child, they too get a judgment of “dangerous.” And, that’s not a bad thing. It’s what keeps our society from imploding. We need judgment. See, we really have no problem with judgment when our collective perception of the threat is high enough, but we are often at odds over the threat level inherent in parenting decisions that have longer-terms outcomes.
That’s why we find ourselves taking sides when our basic threat assessment instinct translates into more complex ideas. Should we put our babies down to sleep on their stomachs? Should we put cereal into milk to get a baby to sleep through the night? We know the empirical risk (a higher rate of death for stomach sleepers and cereal drinkers) and we know the science (source and source). So, what do we do with that information? Herein lies the rub. Many parents are willing to make more rational, less risky decisions when they receive information in a neutral manner, especially when they discover it themselves through education. So, the problem isn’t being corrected. The problem is being embarrassed and/or not knowing what else to do. That’s really what leads us to avoid being judged. But we can learn and grow when we listen and lean into the discomfort.
Now, if your goal is drama and shaming, none of what I’m about to say applies to you. There are groups online, like on Facebook, that were created with drama in mind. They are completely uncensored and you subject yourself to roasting when you join, but it’s completely by choice and there are mutual understandings upon entering these groups. And, if you are a member of a marginalized group who needs to express strong emotions, do that. You are not personally responsible for educating anyone, though, when you do, the message is incredibly powerful.
But, if your goal is to let someone know that something they’re doing as a parent is potentially dangerous and encourage a change of heart, try these tips for delivering that uncomfortable, negative feedback:
- Separate the Thought/Behavior from the Person. Let’s go ahead and do away with the entire concept of a “shit parent,” mmkay?
- Do Not Condemn. While judgment is evaluating where a person stands with respect to your value system, condemnation is forming a negative, often self-righteous, opinion of the person based on your judgment. We are all works in progress and we all have areas of growth. Avoiding condemnation keeps us oriented toward understanding and care.
- Adjust Your Attitude. Rather than looking at another person as an ignorant buffoon, see who they really are: someone doing the best they can with the information and resources at their disposal.
- Pick Your Moment. This one’s pretty tough, especially for those of us who have some trouble reading social context. But, to the best of your ability, try to offer constructive criticism when a person is not down or on the defensive. No matter how gently you word your remarks to a person who is being harshly criticized, you run the risk of being lump into the dog pile. There’s no harm in waiting for another opportunity.
- Be Empathetic. If you don’t understand why a person chooses risky behaviors, find out. But, don’t ask questions simply to pounce. Ask questions to get to know the other person. Also, think about your strategy. Posting a furious message online to someone could elicit thoughtfulness, but most likely won’t. Think about your end goal.
- Obtain Consent. Whenever possible, you can prepare the other person by asking “Do you have the energy for some feedback from me?”
- Be Direct. It can be hard to tell someone outright how we feel, so there can be a tendency to use compliments to soften the blow. However, they can be received as dishonest. Just get to the point. “I wasn’t sure how to say this, so I’ll just say it…” or “I noticed something I wanted to mention to you…” or “I don’t know if you knew this…”
- Affirm the Person. I know I just said don’t compliment and I meant it. Compliments are positive judgments about people. “You look nice today!” Affirmations are expressions of respect. “I know you’re the type of mom who would do anything for you kids, so I wanted to mention something to you…”
- Try Plussing. Plussing means giving constructive criticism that requires we add something helpful if we’re going to offer negative remarks. Click here to find out how plussing works.
- Be Prepared to Find Out You’re Wrong. This process goes both ways. We don’t know everything about everything. We see things from a particular perspective that is informed by our knowledge and experience. However, we could well be wrong. For instance, if you throw studies at me about how detrimental screen time is, I’ll probably turn right around and tell you how beneficial video games can be. We can miss nuance when we’re unwilling to listen and, in doing so, we miss opportunities for learning.
- Accept That You May Not Be the Right Person for the Job. Different people respond to different things. Have you ever been in a conversation, said something, and then someone else says the same thing in a different way and folks just get it? I’ve been there often. In many cases, I’m not speaking a language the other person needs in order to understand.
- Back Off. If you’re not getting through, leave it alone. You have done what you can do and trying to beat the person down with your knowledge will lead only to a broken relationship.
Of course, all of this is based on the strength of your relationship. The closer you are, the harder it is to give negative feedback but the more your words will matter. I have a dear friend who has a very traditional view of parenting. When I first got into Peaceful Parenting (and admittedly couldn’t stop talking about it on social media) this friend was about done with me. In the beginning, we had minor spats about things. Over time, it became something of an inside joke between the two of us that we were so different. But, out of our relationship, I came to better understand the challenges of parenting while Black and she came to appreciate the dangers of spanking. We’re still not on the same page where parenting is concerned, and even if that never happens, we care about each other.
It has always been difficult for me to recognize how others are perceiving me. It’s not that I’m not empathetic. I have deep wells of empathy that leave me washed over with emotion when I let myself feel too much. But, that interpersonal, cognitive empathy continues to elude me to this day. It takes a lot of effort to grasp what’s expected and what people need from me. So, I offer this advice knowing from trial and error how effective it can be. People just want to be seen and cared about. I think we can all do that for each other.