Thou shalt not judge…

Another day, another internet mob. This time, it’s because of a baby at a Taylor Swift concert.

At first glance, it’s just another cute photo that’s popped up in your feed.

A baby, bathed in a soft purple glow, seems to be fast asleep. Her head rests peacefully on a comfy, cool lilac puffy coat, surrounded by adults dressed in colourful clothes. Taken from another angle, a second photo shows that the baby is actually wearing noise-canceling headphones, and an adult is crouching to watch over her.

This baby nap is happening on the floor of Paris La Défense arena, where the adults minding her were part of the 40,000-strong audience that came to see U.S. pop icon Taylor Swift’s show as she kicked off the European leg of her Eras Tour.

The comments under the photo show that people, in the words of Taylor Swift herself, need to calm down: “Get ur baby off the floor and GO HOME”, “call the police”, “hold your damn child”…
But this is not an abandoned baby left on the floor in a stampede, as some outraged comments seemed to suggest. This is a baby that was brought along by people who thought to use noise-canceling headphones, and were allowed into the 40,000-seat concert venue (even though, admittedly, the venue website “doesn’t recommend bringing children under the age of four, even if accompanied”).

As someone who thinks and writes a lot about early childhood development — including the actual physiological and behavioral impacts of modern parenting choices — my first instinct was to engage the haters on the merits of their arguments.

What’s the big deal about putting the baby on the arena floor on top of a blanket? Healthy toddlers spend much of their days on floors, both inside and outside the home. What about the daily activities that can be more dangerous than going to a friendly music concert? Pushing your baby across a busy street in a stroller, taking her for a ride in the car, choking on who knows what…

The floor is lava… not

But the truth is that this is not a question about how to be a modern parent; it’s about being a modern person.

Even inside the supposedly positivity-inclined Swiftie universe, this is what social-network-fueled human interaction looks like these days. The stakes inevitably get raised when there’s a child in the middle, and parenting choices are immediately up for debate and discussion.

Going to a Taylor Swift concert to have fun and dress up and dance is a no-no. Staying at home without getting dressed is also a no-no. Going to a comedy night while breastfeeding is bad.

Why do we always rush to judge each other as parents? Does it make us feel more secure about our own choices when we criticise the choices of others?

Thou shalt not judge

According to a global survey published in 2021, 82% of respondents said they felt very judged by others as parents. Around one in ten parents (12%) say they feel judged “very often”, with the percentage even higher in India (28%), South Africa (23%) and Mexico (19%).

wrote about this a few years ago, shortly after the survey came out, pointing out that parents are correct in saying that they feel judged: four in five non-parents (81%) say they *do* judge parents. The top reason for judging parents is how they manage their children’s behaviour, followed closely by how their children behave.

While the research doesn’t cover how much parents judge other parents, this is definitely a thing too. For example, this week, Nacho, my partner, published some reflections on how fathers set themselves up against very low standards to make themselves feel better. Referring to a piece by U.S. science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, Nacho mentions the phenomenon of dads who think, “Well, at least I am not as bad as that guy!”

Unfortunately, as both Nacho and Wenner Moyer point out, fathers who compare themselves against “a fictionally bad” dad end up feeling quite content with their own contributions to the family. “He certainly doesn’t feel like he’s not doing enough. There’s no incentive to change his ways, to do more,” writes Wenner Moyer, citing studies.

While they make a point of highlighting that men tend to hide behind this narrative to avoid getting involved in more caregiving or housework, I think judging others makes us feel superior and validates our choices.

Always to blame

The list of things people get judged for as parents is long. This mother in Australia was judged for breastfeeding her baby at a comedy show (and asked to leave the venue). This mother felt judged for wearing brown lipstick and Dr. Martens. Mothers are judged for having children too late, or too early, for having too few, or too many, for breastfeeding too long, or not enough.

And beyond judging parents, there are cultural elements too as to how much the presence of babies in public is tolerated. I have never seen people complaining about young children at raucous soccer stadiums in Argentina, but children in pubs in the UK are definitely a big taboo.

In the United States, where The Atlantic magazine called judging parents a “national sport”, moral judgment interferes with children’s risk-taking ability. For example, in a 2016 study researchers found that people think that leaving children alone “is immoral and therefore dangerous”.

Even in the hypothetical case of a child being left unattended because a parent had been in a traffic accident, people still found the parents responsible, the study found. In the long run, inhibiting children’s ability to take risks, or to play freely, can interfere with their healthy development. (See my podcast recommendation below for more on this!)

Supporting instead of judging?

What I keep coming back to is that we know that when we judge parents instead of supporting them, both the parents and the children fare worse. This is because judging can add stress to an already stressful situation. Imagine the scene: you are in a store, your child has a tantrum, you get stressed by people looking at you, and you become harsher with your kid, who screams louder. Could you let that parent know that you know it is hard instead of a judgmental look?

So back to the concert. Could that same judgemental Swiftie have also chosen to approach the baby and parents to see if they are OK or need help — instead of anonymously reporting them to the entire world?

***A previous version of this article appeared in Worldcrunch.

What I’ve been reading

This piece by Mariela Castañon is heartbreaking. It looks at the despicable conditions of children living in prison with their mothers in Guatemala, and at a tragic case of a baby’s preventable death. The debate around whether babies and their mothers are better off together or separated when the mothers are incarcerated is a very complex issue that I have looked at in the past. No clear answers are available because a lot depends on the context and on what the living conditions of those babies are — both inside and outside the jail.

What I’ve been listening to

Going back to my text above, a big question in parenting (and judging parents) is the balance between play, risk-taking and safety. None of us wants to put children in our care in danger, but we also know from research that exploration is important — and it is fun! In this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, journalist Shankar Vedantam interviews U.S. psychologist Peter Gray about how the balance between exploration and risk-avoidance has changed in modern society, and what we can do to make sure our children can be more free.

What I’ve been watching

This TikTok video cracked me up at the end of a long day (and I needed it!). It is a kindergarten class, and you’d be surprised by what a child rhymes the words sit and fit with. The child is obviously brilliant, and so is the teacher’s reaction.

What’s been inspiring me

Stay-at-home mothers are not housewives, and a U.S. grassroots organisation, Family and Home Network (FAHN), set the record straight on Wikipedia, which used to redirect from the stay-at-home mother page to housewives. “At-home mothers must not be misidentified as housewives,” says Catherine Myers, FAHN executive director, and a member of The First 1,000 Days community. “Stay-at-home mothers are often ignored or stereotyped in cultural and political conversations. Although they do essential work, they’re not considered part of the workforce and their work is not counted in the GDP,” says Willow Duttge Tepper, member of the FAHN Board of Directors. I would love to see more of this grassroots work to make sure that we contextualise the everyday language we use — let me know if you know of more incorrect Wikipedia entries to be fixed!

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

📷: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash, judge’s gavel on a white background.

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