Maybe it’s okay to judge parents after all

By Gail Cornwall
@gailcornwall

“Don’t judge.” We hear this well-intentioned admonition a lot these days, as parenting takes center stage in pop culture and “shaming” generally is, well, shamed. But is passing judgment on someone else’s parenting all bad? I don’t think so—and I’ve been on the receiving end of it.

It started with my son’s hair. I wrote an article about helping him feel confident about his blazing orange locks despite the unsettling attention they garner from strangers. In the accompanying picture, my four-year-old sits staring at a magazine cover featuring NFL star Andy Dalton, awe of the grown redhead causing my boy’s pacifier to hang slackly from his mouth. Plenty of people commented on the substance of the article, but a significant number took issue with his binky instead.

Some were aggressive. “I’m more concerned that a 4yo has a pacifier than the color of his hair. Wtf?” wrote one.

“[All I] can think when I see this is why the hell does a 4 year old have a binky in his mouth,” said another.

A third broke it down for me: “You are not only messing up his growing mouth, but you are enabling him.”

To them, the issue seemed cut and dry: (1) only babies should be given pacifiers, (2) allowing a child to keep one is therefore poor parenting, and (3) it is the right of anyone to say so. Each point is more complicated than it might seem. Of particular concern to society is the last.

First though, back to binkies. Common wisdom requires weaning because pacifiers tend to cause an overbite, but my son has a natural underbite. His dentist thought a little more pressure in the opposite direction might save us all the pain of braces down the line. We also had reason to suspect a genetic predisposition to needing oral comfort. I sucked my thumb into middle school, and my brawny, woodworking husband was rarely seen without a “dummy” until, at age five, he traded his pacifiers for a giant bag of gum. When we tried to pull the plug from our son’s older sister too early, our previously happy, good sleeper became a sullen insomniac.

Some of the commenters anticipated gray areas like these. One hedged: “[A]h why does he still have a passy???? Unless he’s younger than he looks.”

A few readers even acknowledged the questionable appropriateness of their binky policing: “People are gonna hate me for this probably but I just can’t get over how this 4 year old still has a pacifier,” one wrote.

Their hesitance makes sense given the current anti-shaming movement, especially as it applies to parenthood. In the past year, three incidents involving children who found themselves in danger of animal attack (known colloquially as the “Cincinnati gorilla mom,” “Disney alligator dad,” and “Canadian sea lion parents”) were followed by an initial flood of tweets and posts condemning their caregivers, and then a second wave of commentary urging the critics to back off.

Ron Fournier of The Atlantic wrote of the zoo incident: “We’re too quick to judge…We don’t know what events led to [the] tragedy, much less whether it’s part of a pattern of this mother’s behavior….” I said something similar when I defended my hands-off, iPhone-on approach to the playground: “You may happen to see a mom’s single 10-minute block of phone time for the whole day…And maybe that other mom who’s giddily chasing her squealing brood around the park has all that energy because she planted them in front of the TV for four hours that morning. You just can’t know.”

But here’s the rub: just because a judgment doesn’t apply in a specific case or isn’t conveyed in the kindest, most tactful way doesn’t mean it serves no purpose.

In All Joy and No Fun: the Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior wrote that American parents have few guideposts: “There is no folk wisdom,” she said. “‘In old static cultures,’” she explained, quoting famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, “‘one can find a standard of behavior…but in America, there is no such fixed standard.’” That can be freeing, but it also sometimes leaves us feeling rudderless in a sea of conflicting expert opinions and rocked by waves of successive parenting fads.

Criticism of my four-year-old using a binky helps establish a norm based on the most recent research on pediatric dental health. When another mom stares me down for texting by the swings, she communicates a similar community standard: parents have a duty to unplug periodically to give their kids attention. The case of post-tragedy blowback charts the same course. Yes, freak accidents happen, it seems reasonable to expect a kid to be able to wander a few feet without being mauled by a wild animal, and targeting grieving parents with vitriol is unconscionable. But there’s still a positive value—children should be protected from bodily harm as much as possible—buried in the criticism.

Moreover, judgmental looks and comments show that people care about someone else’s baby. And that is a beautiful thing, a reflection of our desire to connect, to become a village once more. I told myself something similar when random people felt up my bulging belly and later stuck their heads into my newborn’s stroller. The impulse that denied us personal space would also drive folks to pitch in and help care for my children.

In other words, assessing and remarking upon other people’s parenting can be what anthropologists call “prosocial” in the same way that gossip can actually help build relationships and community. Juli Fraga, Psy.D., who sees patients at the University of California, San Francisco told me, “When psychologists say ‘prosocial,’ we don’t mean that all unsolicited advice is helpful, only that the practice, on the whole, works to the benefit of humans.”

Certainly some ways of expressing concern are more constructive than others. To say the internet has a tone problem is like declaring “Hamilton” had an acceptable opening season on Broadway: both are truisms and massive understatements. There’s also a special restraint required when dealing with new parents who tend to be sensitive to input. And issues of class and race come into play. As an affluent white woman, it’s easier for me to brush off the negative impact of judgment—dirty looks and a piercing comment or two—than it would be if a stranger’s opinion were likely to trigger a visit from Child Protective Services.

Those things aside, I worry. We intend for our “don’t judge” and “to each their own” approach to lift up individuals, but telling us we have no right to care about each other’s children and create societal norms for their upbringing may undermine a world of love and community more than it creates one. I say go ahead and comment on my kid’s binky. I’ll listen, think it over, and make my own judgment. Whether I agree or not, I’m glad you give a damn. Or, at any rate, a “WTF.”

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find her walking down the streets of San Francisco next to the kind, well-adjusted kid with a binky in his pocket. Connect with Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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