How curiosity can help you feel less like a sh*tty parent

By Carla Naumberg

Judging others, and ourselves, is one of the hallmark behaviors of Shitty Parent Syndrome. Hell, it’s a hallmark behavior of being a human trying to make sense of chaos. Our brains don’t like uncertainty and unpredictability, especially when the situation feels unsafe. When you don’t know if that long squiggly thing on the ground is a stick or a snake poised to.strike, jumping to conclusions might save your life. Judgment is an instinctive reaction, and it’s also one that we have continued to practice so often and so frequently that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. 

Here’s a perfect example: Just this morning I went to make my beloved first cup of coffee, and when I went to push the button to start the brewing process, nothing happened. The blue light didn’t come on. There was no magical gurgle gurgle drip drip sound.  

I pushed it again. 


Just silence and darkness. (And if this all sounds a bit dramatic to you, then clearly you don’t have the same relationship to coffee as I do. It’s OK. I forgive you.) I flipped out, and my thoughts exploded. My beloved coffee maker was broken. And I’m pretty sure my husband said something about this model— the perfect model—being discontinued. Not only would I not have my perfect cup of coffee this morning, I WOULD NEVER HAVE IT AGAIN. 

I went into panic mode. My breathing got all shallow and my stomach twisted up and I lunged for my phone so I could look up how early my local Dunkin’ Donuts opens and in the process I tripped over the cat, who made a horrible marowr sound before shooting me an awfully judgmental look and sprinting off. Fortunately, my husband came downstairs just at that moment and saw me frozen in the middle of the kitchen, clearly freaking out. I explained the situation—how our coffee maker was dead and we needed to get on eBay IMMEDIATELY and begin hoarding coffee makers. My husband ignored me as he calmly walked over to the machine, turned it around, looked at the back, and plugged it in. 

And that right there is the difference between judgment and curiosity. I immediately jumped to the Worst Possible Outcome while my husband was able to get curious about what was going on with our coffee maker. (Although, for the record, I still think we should be buying backup coffee makers off eBay.) 

The vast majority of us react to our own snafus by skipping straight past the trial and jury deliberation and heading straight to pulling out our gavels. BANG. Conversation over, decision made, conclusion reached. You screwed that up, and you are sentenced to a lifetime of believing you are a shitty parent. Each time we find ourselves guilty, we shut down any possibility for further exploration, clarity, or understanding, which is exactly what we need in that moment. How can we do things any differently in the future if we don’t even understand what actually happened in the first place? 

Each time we nail ourselves with a super judgy second arrow, we get so distracted by all the ways we suck that we don’t have any brain space left to get curious about what actually happened, why it happened, how we feel about it, and what we might want to do next. And when we get all worked up and freaked out about whatever’s going on, we’re far more likely to default to a fight, flight, freeze, flip out, fix, or fawn response. And if we haven’t taken the time to get clear on what’s actually going on, our gut reaction isn’t likely to be terribly effective. 

We’re told that curiosity is this beautiful and powerful perspective that we should nourish in our children, and it absolutely is. But curiosity can also be freaking terrifying, especially when we’re pretty damn sure we don’t want to know the answer to whatever it is we’re supposed to be curious about. I’m not going to lie to you or pretend that curiosity will always feel good, because there will absolutely be times when exploring your own experience or the reason why your ten-year-old downloaded BDSM manga will uncover some fairly shitty first-arrow realities. But when you know that you won’t have to face any second arrows, and you can trust that you’ll treat yourself with compassion instead of contempt, curiosity doesn’t seem nearly so scary.  

The bottom line is that curiosity is the antidote to judgment, and it’s awesome in a bunch of different ways: 

• Curiosity brings us back to the present moment, which is the only place where we can get accurate information and insight (aka clarity) about what’s actually going on. 

• Curiosity has been linked to increased happiness and intelligence, stronger relationships, and a greater sense of meaning in life. 

• Curiosity is a powerful and effective way to get out of our reactive reptile brains and bring our prefrontal cortexes online, which helps us calm down and think more clearly and creatively. 

• Curiosity is an inherently kind response to whatever is going on. It’s a way of communicating to ourselves and our children that we’re not scared of or horrified by whatever we’ve done or are doing or aren’t doing. No matter what, no matter how bad things may seem, we’re worthy of time, attention, curiosity, and care. 

Carla Naumburg, PhD, is a clinical social worker, and the author of You are Not a Sh*tty Parent, from which this essay is adapted. You can find her online at

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