Parent Judging: Why Is Everyone an Expert on Other People’s Kids?

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The following is an actual scenario that I experienced in real life.

I was sitting with my family in the little cafe area at Target. (Naturally.) My husband was waiting in line at Starbucks, and my four kids, miraculously, were sitting and/or playing quietly while I worked on my grocery list.

A mom and her two young boys were sitting at the table next to us, and at one point I looked up, caught her eye, and smiled. She did not smile back. That should’ve been my first clue that something was wrong with her. Instead, her eyes had a panicky look that said, “Help! I’m being eaten by fire ants and I don’t know how to get them off of me!” For a minute I considered slipping her a note that read, “Just blink twice if you’ve been kidnapped and need the cops.” But then I thought, Nah, those two little boys have at least ten years to go before they’d be capable of kidnapping.

So I went back to my grocery list. A moment later, the fire ant lady called to me. “Excuse me, are you with him?” Her panic-stricken eyes indicated she was referring to my 5-year-old son, Raymond, who was still being remarkably quiet compared to his usual Target behavior.

“Yes,” I said.

“What he’s doing is dangerous. You need to make him stop.” She squeezed her lips together into one, thin line.

I glanced over my shoulder at Raymond again. Had he gotten a hold of a knife or a blow torch since the last time I peeked? It didn’t appear so. He was climbing up and down from a stool over and over again. Climbing up and down. From a stool. A clean, 3-foot-high stool, just inches away from his mother.

I crinkled my eyebrows and looked at her like, Are you serious? But she just opened her eyes wider and squeezed her lips tighter.

So I said, “He’s fine.”

Fire ant Lady: I am very uncomfortable with my children seeing this! He’s setting an example for others! This is a public place!
Me: Well, you’re free to take your children somewhere else.
Her: You’re allowing him to climb on a surface that people eat on!
Me: He’s climbing on a stool. People don’t eat off of stools.
Her: I’m sure the staff wouldn’t be happy about this. You’re putting them in danger. I could call someone over!
(Psht. Good luck with that, lady. They love me here.)
Me: You know what? You can raise your children, and I’ll raise mine.
Then she loudly proclaimed to her children that what Raymond was doing was WRONG and DANGEROUS and they were not to follow his example. After that she stomped off in a huff and actually DID complain about me to a woman who works at the Starbucks counter! The employee told me about it, laughing, and said she wanted to hide in the back till that lady left the store.

GOOD GRIEF!!! OK, I know all you moms out there have experienced at least one judgmental comment from someone, somewhere. Everyone seems to be an expert on other people’s kids. Amiright, ladies?

As I steamed over my encounter with the Judgmental Stranger of The Year, wishing I’d come up with a more cutting reply than, “You raise your kids and I’ll raise mine,” I wondered: What is it with people who want to tell every parent they see that we’re all doing it wrong? Why can’t they resist criticizing us? Do they really have nothing better to do?

I reached out to Lenore Skenazy, founder of the book, blog and Twitter feed, Free-Range Kids. Here’s what she had to say:

“America has a new favorite spectator sport: parent judging. Almost anything parents do/say/read/give to their kids can and will be interpreted by the masses, usually in the least favorable light possible. It’s as if there’s a lollipop waiting for anyone who can explain how when X did Y to little Ava, it all but assured that Ava will never recover.

“We have been encouraged to turn on our fellow parents by a media that lives to shame, a litigious society that avoids even the mildest of risks, and a general, ungrateful sense of doom and distrust, despite the fact we live in the safest times in human history. The rest of the world and all of human history would LOVE to live in 2017 America, yet we treat it like World War III out there, wondering why anyone would ever trust her kid to walk three houses down to the bus stop.”


And to that I say, “Amen!”

To all my fellow moms out there, can I please ask you for a favor? Can we please all just agree that no matter what we witness another parent doing or not doing, unless we actually see them beating the kid, there’s a good chance it’s not child abuse? The majority of parents are not abusive or neglectful, and I say this as a social worker who spent the first few years of my career in foster care. There are awful parents out there, but it’s more than likely that the woman you see at Target letting her son climb on a stool is not one of them.

And while we’re at it, a child’s parents are the people who are most qualified to judge whether an activity is safe or not. Here is a short and incomplete list of things that are not dangerous for kids to do.

  1. Wait in the car for 5 minutes while mom runs into the store.
  2. Walk to the bus stop by themselves.
  3. Climb a tree.
  4. Ride a bike.
  5. Eat whatever the heck food their moms want to serve them.
  6. Sleep in a car seat.
  7. Jump on a trampoline.
  8. Run.
  9. Play.
  10. And a zillion other things that will not fit in this blog post.

And if you encounter one of these judgmental strangers like the lady I met at Target, do me a favor. Use the comeback that I SO wish I had thought of while she was standing in front of me: “Oh, don’t worry. He has to do ten more of those to earn his beer and cigarettes. Later I’m going to make him run with scissors.”

I love getting comments from my readers! If you’ve got a judgmental stranger story to tell, please do! Another safe kid activity to add to my list? Send it over! And please, if you’ve got a story about a time that someone could’ve judged you harshly but treated you with kindness instead, I’d really love to hear those. That’s the stuff that warms my heart!

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36 comments

  1. “The rest of the world and all of human history would LOVE to live in 2017 America”. I can’t speak for the entire human race of course, but I definitely do not want to live in America.

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    1. Sorry, it sounds like you must’ve had a bad experience at some point. I think what she meant was, this time and place is one of the safest we’ve ever seen in the history of the world, but a lot of people treat it like there is danger lurking around every corner. Certainly, there are reasons people would rather live in another country, even if you just like it better somewhere else.

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  2. I had a friend who went to the park with me and our kids. Her kids played on the playground but when one of my kids was playing with rocks she got very stiff. Rocks are dirty. You don’t know what has gotten on that rock. (I wish she hadn’t pointed that out!) She wasn’t rude about it, but it made me realize that most parents have at least one unreasonable fear that makes them behave unreasonably. I knew an otherwise wonderful parent but her children, the entire 13 years of public school, were never allowed to go on a single field trip. Another parent I knew- no spend-the-nights at anyone else’s house- ever. Yet another mother had a terror of cellphones and the wireless streams sending electrical impulses through our bodies. Of course what you’re describing is the type of person who tries to inflict her fears on others. We could all wander around all day being afraid of streets and cars and swimming pools and germs. We might single out a particular fear that no one else has thought of and go on a crusade to rid the world of parents who allow their children to play on stools. But aren’t we to be pitied in a way? After all, it is usually just plain simple fear that drives us. I guess a good response to this lady might be, ‘all right, I see your concern, but don’t worry. I’m sitting right here and I won’t let him fall.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and I get that many people have unreasonable fears–me included. I have sky-high anxiety sometimes. But like you said, it’s when they try to inflict their fears on others that it becomes a problem. (Or, at least, that’s when other people’s fears become a problem for us. I know the anxiety can be a serious problem to the person who holds it regardless of how they treat others.)

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  3. Oh yes the judgemental strangers. I have had my fair share and snark remarks. We are part of the mothers club so why are beating each other up instead of supporting each other. However when I offer an sympathetic smile I’m not sure if I look just overly crazy as in mothers flee in a different direction. Might practice it my mirror 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “What is it with people who want to tell every parent they see that we’re all doing it wrong? ” Well, duh, because you ARE doing it wrong. I did it wrong, my mother did it wrong, your mother did it wrong, every parent in the whole wide world has done it wrong. But most of us manage to keep our mouths shut when we see just how wrong every other parent is, because we know we’re probably not perfect, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My daughter was about 4. We were in the grocery line, talking about our vegetarian choices, our beautiful food, in comparison to the fast food restaurants which didnt serve much by way of vegetables. (My daughter refused meat when she was weaned, so we joined her)
    The woman next to me : “you know that you are abusing your child and going to cause her to be deprived and bullied because she can’t go to McDonald’s”
    I looked at her, froze for a second and burst out with uproarious laughter….and said, “seriously? You gauge successful child rearing on going to McDonald’s? My daughter spits that crap out”. (Seriously…one awful play date at the restaurant tortured her, she was begging me to leave)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What is with people??? You’re “abusing” her by not taking her to McDonald’s? Good grief! I would’ve loved to see the look on her face at your response.

      When will people learn? Someone else making a parenting choice that you disagree with does not equal “child abuse!” I bet she was feeling insecure about her own food choices, and she lashed out at you in response. Regardless of what you feed your child, that is up to you as a parent and no one else. I’m glad you felt secure enough to not let that get to you.

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  6. Last summer I had taken my girls (3,5&7) to the small splash pad and playground. As they played I glanced up from my kindle a few times (I was engrossed in the newest Harry Potter book) and even snapped a few pictures. I noticed this other mom kept circling the area and I caught her watching me. After a bit we moved over to the playground so they could dry out a bit. I moved my chair and resumed reading. A few minutes later she followed with her children. She bee-lined straight for another mother and started whispering and nodding. She kept looking over and doing the pointing with her head thing, lol! She never had the nerve to actually say anything but her judgement was clear. I really wanted to say, “Look, I homeschool my kids, we are together 24/7. I bring them places like this to NOT play with me!” I posted on Facebook and laughed, yes, I am the mom at the playground not playing with my kids…that is why we go there!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with you! And I can’t stand it when people judge moms for reading or using technology while their kids play happily on their own. Remember that woman-hating blog post a couple years back, “Dear Mom on the iPhone”? Ugh!

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  7. She should leave if she’s not comfortable. Maybe she had no kids and doesn’t understand that was normal. The picture reminds me of the SNL church lady!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was on a train with my daughter who was just under a year old. I had a meeting to attend and my sister-in-law had been looking after her. On the journey back, child & I were crammed into the only carriage with room for a push-chair. Along with another mummy & child. She struck up a conversation with me which was genial up to the point that she discovered that I had been *gasp* WORKING that day. She then went on to tell me that really it’s better for the children if their mummy stays at home. Disgustingly, I found myself offering excuses (I still cringe at this!). She then proceeded to get off the train at her posh suburban stop. What I *wish* I had said was this, ‘Well, ever since my husband went to prison, I had to go back to work full time in order to house and feed this little one. You know how it is…’.

    Judgemental cow! GREAT post!

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    1. I don’t know how I missed this when you first posted it! Oops! Ugh, I can’t stand when people insist on pushing their own ideals onto everyone else. And isn’t it always that way, that we come up with the great comebacks after the situation is over? That’s why I love being a writer. You can put that judgmental cow in a scene and tell her off properly!

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  9. A big one, it is OK for your kids to play outside without a parent standing outside staring at them.

    Last year we lived in an apartment complex in a nice part of the city (it was also closed in) and I let my 4 year old daughter play outside with her 4 year old friend. They had a T shaped section they were allowed to play on. I lived on the (-) part and the other kids mom lived on the (l) so we both peaked out every so often and checked on the kids along with them coming and checking in. One day, another mom walks home with daughter and tells me, “Your child is playing on the top of the stair case in a chair. It’s very dangerous and no one is watching her!” I responded, “The other kids mom is over there, she keeps an eye on them over there, I keep an eye on them over here.” “NO!” She raised her voice. “She could get really hurt! NO ONE is watching them.” I said, “Well, you’re right that playing on stairs isn’t safe. I will talk to the kids, Thank you.” I tried to be gracious. I spoke kindly. She responded, “You need to learn to watch your children!” That’s was it. “OK. Thanks for the information, but I know how to raise my own kids. Goodbye.” I wish I had come up with something better at that moment too.

    Great article. Thanks for the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that is a good one! We live in a quiet, safe neighborhood too, and I let my kids play in the front yard all the time. My 2 year old can’t be trusted not to run into the street, so I only let him play in our fenced back yard if I’m not out there, and only if one of his older siblings is playing with him. I also have a 9, 7, and 5 year old. They’ve all been playing out there without me for more than a year (the older ones for longer).

      It’s up to the parents of the child to judge whether or not their kids are ready to play by themselves, not some lady walking by. Everyone thinks they’re an expert on other people’s kids.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

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