“I Can’t Believe Someone Would Do That!” Why Parents Get Mad at Other Parents.

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A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine wrote a really interesting blog piece on whether the focus on keeping children from swearing is misguided (you can read it here). The comments that followed her piece were the usual mix of insightful, complimentary, and argumentative. Some readers really seemed to connect with her perspective, some politely disagreed, and some were flat out rude and disrespectful. Of this last sort, at least one person suggested my friend had harmed her child by listening to rap music when she was pregnant and another seemed to question whether she was fit to be an educator.

The funny thing is that these comments were relatively tame compared to those comments you might find elsewhere on the internet. In fact, you can hardly avoid witnessing a rage filled debate when you visit the Parents Magazine page on Facebook. Posts about flash card applications for your smartphone prompt arguments over the role of technology in parenting and posts asking people how they spend their Sundays lead to arguments about the role of church. Even their “Messy Eater Photo Contest” prompted some comments about how it is wrong to let kids play with their food.

Meanwhile, just a few months ago, I found myself embroiled in my own little Facebook debate on the appropriateness of the “cry it out” approach to sleep training. While things stayed civil, there were certainly points in the discussion when I felt angry. All of these examples, coupled with many others, have made me start to wonder: Why do people get angry over the decisions that other parents make?

On the surface, it does not really make sense. Typically, we get angry when we are provoked. We get angry when we think we have been treated unfairly and when we feel we have been harmed. So why would anyone care if another parent lets his or her child play with food at the dinner table? How is it that they feel provoked or harmed by that decision? Likewise, why would someone feel unfairly treated or harmed by my friend’s decision to listen to rap music while pregnant?

Of course, there are times when it makes perfect sense to be angry over another’s parenting. Instances of abuse, neglect, etc. are an outrage and everyone should be angry about them. But, I don’t think that spending Sunday morning at the park or zoo instead of church falls into that category.

Not surprisingly, there is no research on this. It is a rather specific topic that no one seems to be exploring. Consequently, my thoughts on this are not driven as much by research as they are by theory and observations. With that in mind, here are some possible explanations as to where the anger might be coming from.

Insecurity. Parenting decisions are both difficult and deeply personal. Whether it is how long to use a car or booster seat, what to do about tantrums, or the best way to potty train, parents have to make tough decisions. When you add that there are countless and conflicting sources of information, it is easy to feel insecure about the decisions you make. When someone makes a different decision than you, it might make you feel like you are doing something wrong. If you are from the “cry it out” school of sleep training, someone saying they never let their child cry might feel like a provocation. If you never let your child play with his or her food, a Parents Magazine tribute to messy eaters might make you feel like they are saying you are too strict. Consequently, you feel angry, a common response to feeling as though your decisions and abilities are being questions or insulted.

Confidence Building. Related to this issue of insecurity, a second possibility is that the anger one feels in these instances helps build his or her confidence. In other words, if you do not always feel like the perfect parent (and most do not), maybe judging someone else makes you feel better about yourself and your abilities. When you are at dinner and see parents letting their kids eat something you would not let your kids eat, becoming angry at them might actually boost your confidence and make you feel better about something you are actually feeling insecure about. In a sense, what you might be thinking is, “I don’t have all the answers but at least I don’t do that.”

Indirect Provocation. Finally, some people may see decisions other parents make as a symptom of something bigger. For example, the regular church goer might see someone who does not take his or her kids to church as a symptom of societal decay. Someone who does not make their kids say “please” and “thank you” might be considered a symptom of a bigger problem, the lack of manners and civility in society today. These decisions then do feel like they are provocations, at least indirectly, to the person who witnesses them.

Something interesting happened as I was writing this post. I had to take a break to go pick my kids up from daycare and when I was there the teacher asked me if my four-month old was sleeping through the night. I said no, that he needs to be fed once in the middle of the night. I also mentioned, as sort of a side comment, that we put him to bed pretty early compared to most kids. She was somewhat shocked by the time we put him to bed and asked if we had considered a later bed time for him.

I admit, it made me a little angry and defensive to have her question me like that. It probably should not have. It is reasonable for a daycare worker to ask about certain habits and I imagine, from her perspective, she is wondering if a later bedtime would mean that he would take better naps when he is at daycare. I certainly would not get angry if someone challenged me in a similar way over a decision I made at work (i.e., I do not get angry when I am challenged about my attendance policy or my position on extra credit). But, like most people, I am sometimes insecure about the decisions I make as a parent and, even though I believe that an earlier bedtime is best for him, it is still easy to feel defensive when challenged.

It was a timely example given that I was writing this post when it happened. The good news, though, is that a little bit of introspection helped me work through it and better understand why I felt as I did.

By Ryan C. Martin

5 thoughts on ““I Can’t Believe Someone Would Do That!” Why Parents Get Mad at Other Parents.

  1. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for this article. I agree on your points there Although if I may add, few of those judgement actually come from well-intention, ‘out-of-control’ motherhood instinct, that while we all feel adults should be responsible of their own life, kids in this case should not… and that explains the urge to jump right in and ‘save the child’. Grandparents are perfect example of this, or others used to doing it as profession (doctors, social workers, shrinks…).

    I try to think of that as a reason behind anyone’s opinion on how I raise my son. That way I can still breath, and listen without being defensive.

  2. I experienced a similar but even worse problem about a year or so ago when picking my son up from daycare. This was an in-home daycare and, to make matters worse, the woman who runs it has been a friend of mine for about 8 years. My mother actually picked my son up that day and my friend proceeded to tell my mother that something was “wrong” with him. She said he would ignore her and perhaps he had a hearing problem and might be deaf and then she went on to explain that he also should be talking by his age (he was not quite 2 yet). I know my mom was angry but bit her tongue and told me later that day. I was so outraged! I could not believe that she would A. go to my mother with this instead of myself or my husband and B. think that she knew so much about my son after being around him for what was probably a total of 5 days! I never brought him back there again and was angry at her for a long time. I agree that most of the anger comes from feeling insecure about our decisions but unsolicited advice is definitely something that people need to learn to withhold unless asked. Anyway, my son is 3 now and talking and hearing perfectly fine. I sometimes think that people project their own insecurities on to other people. Perhaps she was feeling insecure about things her own child was or was not doing…Either way, as parents we all need withhold judgement because most parents are trying their best and truly doing what they feel is in the best interest of their child. No one is perfect and parenting is a learning experience just like everything else in life.

  3. This is a really interesting post and I think we are perhaps all a little guilty of judging other parents sometimes. I think you are right in that this is most likely down to insecurity about our own parenting, in my case anyway. Criticism can be really hurtful and I fear it is very easy to do online. I was recently left a rather nasty comment after a post I wrote having missed my one year olds first steps when I was at work. I decided not to publish it as they were not brave enough to leave their name but I was still very hurt by it.

    We all have different approaches to parenting and what works for one child will not work for another. We should try and support other parents a little more rather than criticise. This post is a really good reminder of that.

  4. One source of anger for me about this phenomenon is unsolicited advice. In the example you cited, you didn’t ask the daycare provider for advice on your son’s sleep habits, but she went ahead and suggested/told you her opinion. This happens countless times with family, friends, and strangers alike.
    For my part, I don’t offer advice. If people ask, I frame any answers within the experience of what worked for me or what worked for one of my children–I don’t tell them “what to do.”

    So, why is there so much unsolicited advice? Does this stem from the same places? Insecurity, guilt? Because I know the reason it makes me angry: I feel as though their “help” assumes I haven’t considered the options, done my research, tried other methods, made the best choice, etc. And while I might be able to take that kind of obtuse logic from a stranger (well, I’d ignore it), it frustrates me that my family and friends don’t seem to give me (or the decisions I’ve made) the benefit of the doubt. I’d prefer it if they just assumed I was doing everything perfectly *for my children* and chimed in when I had questions.

    • Jen,

      I completely agree with your feelings about unsolicited advice. Additionally, Facebook seems to have made the problem worse, as posts about frustrating/exhausting parenting experiences are often followed up with advice giving comments from others. My experience has been that it happens with parenting in a way that it doesn’t seem to happen in any other aspect of life. If I post that I had a bad day teaching or just got back from a bad run, people don’t feel the need to encourage me to try a different teaching technique or drink more water. Most the time, they say they are sorry, that it’s normal to feel that way sometimes, and that it will probably get better if I just keep at it.

      What’s really a shame is that, unless the person asks for advice, what they probably really need and want is empathy. They probably want someone to listen to them, tell them they went through something similar (without advice), share their own stories, etc. and not to try and tell them how to “fix” it. The advice has the exact opposite effect of what they want, as it essentially shames them by suggesting (just like you wrote above) they haven’t thought it through.

      As to where the advice giving comes from, I think you are probably right that some of it stems from some insecurities they have about parenting. In other words, the best way for someone to feel like they were the perfect parent is to tell other people how to be the perfect parent. To be fair, though, I suspect some of it comes from a real, though misguided, desire to help. I remember in the earlier years of my marriage, I would too often try to solve my wife’s problems when she brought them up to me. It wasn’t because I thought I had all the answers or because I was insecure. It was because I wanted her to be happy and didn’t understand what she was really looking for.

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