It’s a sunny Sunday in winter. Greece is in lockdown, parks are closed, but the beach is open to all. I arrive at Kavouri, south of Athens, with Lorenzo; we carry a bag of buckets, spades, scoops and other beach toys. We sit down, and he starts pulling them out, but he soon notices a plastic straw on the sand. He picks it up and sees another one a little further on. He loves picking rubbish, and I am not sure where that comes from. (Cue in a joke about me being from Naples and him trying to subconsciously work through my home town’s waste management problem.) So we pick a plastic bucket and walk around the beach picking up rubbish: plastic straws, nylon fishing lines, the odd toy. It’s been windy, and a lot of stuff has ended up on the beach. People also use it for lockdown parties, I suspect from the odd beer cap. Some parents look at me; I smile back, mutter some words, I even say that I have a strange kid. An old lady tells me it is dirty and dangerous to pick up rubbish. I wonder. I join Lorenzo, head down, and follow him, trying to be in the moment and shake off other people’s eyes. Lorenzo seems happy. Isn’t that all that should matter?

A recent survey of parents across 28 countries showed that four out of five parents (82%) feel judged. The proportion is higher in Singapore (92%), the United States (92%) and Poland (91%). Around one in ten parents (12%) say they feel judged “very often”, with the proportion going up in India (28%), South Africa (23%) and Mexico (19%). What’s interesting is that the judgment that parents feel appears to be more than just a perception: 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. (By the way, the research doesn’t cover how much parents judge other parents, but I’m sure that is a thing too!)

This is to say, it is not all in my head. When I feel people shaking their heads when Lorenzo picks up rubbish on the beach, I am most likely not making it up. The thing that puzzles me is that what’s considered acceptable behaviour in children and parents constantly varies, across time and cultures. A mother at Disneyland in Paris was told off for breastfeeding in public. Another person may be judged if giving the bottle. I know an Italian grandmother who loudly disapproves of her Danish daughter-in-law’s habit of making her children nap outside in winter.

In a TEDTalk that Najuan, a member of this community, suggested, Yuko Manakata, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who researches children’s development, talks about how little parental behaviour actually affects the outcome of children. “The one consistent message is that if your child is not succeeding, then you’re doing something wrong,” she says. “The science supports a completely different message, which is quite empowering. Trying to predict how a child will turn out based on choices made by their parents is like trying to predict a hurricane from the flap of a butterfly’s wings.

If you’re a parent, you’re like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in China, explains Manakata: “Your child is the hurricane, a breathtaking force of nature. You will shape the person your child becomes — just like the butterfly shapes the hurricane — in complex, seemingly unpredictable but powerful ways.”

Manakata refers to a 2015 meta-analysis of thousands of studies following over 14 million twin pairs in 39 countries. By comparing and measuring all the studies’ outcomes, the researchers concluded that genes influence who children become – much more than the environment. Of course it is not that simple. It’s the constant nature vs. nurture conversation, which has now slowly evolved in nature AND nurture: both our genes and our environment shape us, and they do so in ways that are not easily measurable. The main point is that every child will respond to a parent differently: if you have siblings, can you think off the top of your head how your parents influenced you differently? I certainly can.

The point is that no particular kind of parenting leads to direct results. So how can we judge parents for their children’s behaviour, if that is the case?

It’s a hot Sunday in summer. Our closest beach is full of waste, washed in by the tide. I sit down with Lorenzo in the shade, and he falls asleep. While he sleeps, a young couple walks around collecting the rubbish in a plastic bag. I join in and pick some up too, and other adults do the same. When Lorenzo wakes up, we go for a walk, and we get to a rock that separates one stretch of the beach to a second one that is almost completely covered by the high tide. As soon as he catches sight of the covered up sand, Lorenzo screams: basura! (It’s rubbish in Spanish.) He’s right: there’s so much rubbish around, the couple has not come so far in their cleaning efforts. There’s a pair of old shoes, bottles, plastic cups, some socks. I imagine friends spending a drunken after-office night here and challenging each other to swim, one of them leaving behind his work shoes. The high rock wall forms small caves on the beach, and Lorenzo’s small hands manage to reach for tucked-away plastic cups in these corners. I collect what I can in one of the old shoes and tell Lorenzo we need to find a plastic bag to collect more. As we walk, a few people give me dirty looks. But I feel proud: I hold the plastic bag high in my hand and tell Lorenzo we’ve done a good job. I see the young couple, and we compare our booties: our bag is bigger, and heavier. There is rubbish in the sea too, but we can’t get it this time. I tell Lorenzo we will come back with a fishing net next time, and gloves too.

What about you? If you have children, do you feel judged by others for your children’s behaviour – and do you yourself judge others? And if you don’t have children, do you judge parents, and what for? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to send me an email or sign into the website and leave a message below this piece.

What I’ve been reading

An argument in the car on the way to football practice. She is five and hates the corners in her rice cakes. He is an assistant coach to her football team. “You’re really not the coach. You just inflate the footballs,” she says. And ouch! It hurts, even as a reader. It is so relatable how Swedish writer Fredrik Bakman describes his relationship to his daughter in this piece for the Guardian and how becoming a father helped him find an identity. It is such an honest account, from a male perspective, written with such sensitivity that it had me in tears a couple of times. I highly recommend it.

What I’ve been listening to

A warning: Smiling While Pushing, the first episode of The Darkest Light podcast, uses visual descriptions of birth trauma. If you’re pregnant, you may want to skip it or at least be prepared for what you hear. That said, part of the point of The Darkest Light is to inform more women of what could go wrong and why specific systems give you little choice for birth options that are better for the mother – and the baby. Sri Lankan journalist and writer Kanya D’Almeida put together this podcast to start processing her traumatic birth. D’Almeida talks to her mother about what it was like to give birth in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and compares that experience with her own birth story from 2019. Just one generation apart, but such differences. An intense, powerful listen.

What I’ve been watching

In the Dutch documentary series Talking Heads, host and children’s hairdresser Marko Suds talks to eight- to 12-year-old kids while cutting their hair. In this version for Aeon, Suds meets Marijn, who wonders about his sperm donor father; Taysen, who’s tired after spending the night up watching a TV programme; Zhuan, who has Tourette’s syndrome; and Annemarie, whose father has had a stroke. I’m not sure how I feel about certain questions (Do you miss your father? Suds asks Marijn. But the boy has never met his sperm donor father…), but I do think that the style is overall interesting. I just wished we didn’t have to put children in such a weird spot to ask them what they think.

Who’s been inspiring me

I’ve had a good laugh with Scottish comedian Eleanor Morton and her Tudor Wellness Guru video. “You have too much blood,” she says. “So we’re going to drain about three pints of that with a couple of leeches.” It made me think of all the harmful beliefs women were subjected to (including the wandering uterus theory, that I will come back to at some point!). Wait for the final punchline on inserting a jade egg in your vagina. It refers to Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness website Goop that US-Canadian gynaecologist Jen Gunter has written about many times, explaining how jade eggs are not based on scientific evidence.

What members have been saying

It’s been quiet on the website over the past couple of weeks (*hint, hint! I’m waiting for more comments!), but I’ve been receiving many emails. Alba referred back to the story about pregnancy harassment in Japan and said that it reminded her of Empress Masako, her openness about her struggle to give birth to a male heir (she had a daughter only), and how much these pressures affected her mental health. As this article in the New York Times puts it, Japanese media saw her as “a walking womb in waiting”. I look forward to hearing from you!

With love and care,

📣 Catarina Fernandes Martins, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Castelo Branco, Portugal. Thanks, Cata! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

📸 Photo credits and alt-text: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash, brown wooden tool on white surface.

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

6 thoughts on “Why do we judge parents?

  1. I so recognize what you’re saying and I definitely feel like we are judged. In turn we judge each other too even if trying not to do so. In Dutch society it’s very normal to receive comments (Belgian society is the complete opposite and I much prefer it), even from total strangers, on how you’re handling your child. It feels very intrusive, unkind and often misplaced. It’s even worse in families and particularly with the women in the family: I can’t even count the times my own mother or grandmother made remarks or overruled me in front of my daughter, and I really wish they would stop doing that. Their ideas can be outdated and most of all they’re from a time in which they were taught there was only one good way to raise children. I hope we transition to a society in which we don’t judge but have confidence in (other) parents. Especially women and other parents in general should support and offer kind, constructive advice, rather than judge. When our own confidence is not undermined every time by others, I believe in turn we’ll be able to be better parents and actually turn to each other for help when needed knowing that you won’t be judged.

  2. I agree with you, Irene and Patricia too, It is a pity many people judge others, not only about the children but about all the facts of life. I think it is in the schooling system to learn to judge others. If you don’t do the things the way the teacher says, you are wrong and in trouble. Most people learn to play it the way the group wants. If a new generation does things differently, the older ones criticize because it isn’t the way their group did it. Sometimes they are jealous about the freedom you take and they never dared to take.
    So I think you just do what you think is the best and let others talk what they want. You know what is best for you and your child, I can see that in the way you write about him. Love is what a child needs and the rest is peanuts.

  3. That’s so interesting, thanks Irene.
    I would like to learn better how to ignore others’ gazes and comments (even when they are in my mind, this is also a thing). Maybe it would be good to learn how not to self-judge oneself, also. Let me give you an example. I am very worried about feeding my baby correctly (no sugar, no salt, possibly organic food, etc.) but still feeling constantly wrong or doubtful. One fine day a friend of mine told me that she weaned her child with… chocolate cookies. So, what should I do? Blame her or blame myself for being so strict? Maybe none of the options is the one.

    1. Viviana! What a great response you have! You will find that the newsletter coming up goes a little bit into this issue of self-judgment which is probably key in the matter, as you suggest… Interested to hear what you make of that, so stay tuned!

  4. What an interesting question Irene, if I feel judged as a parent and judge others as well. Yes I do…more often than needed. Every time I am heading with my two kids to a playground close the kindergarden I work, I feel hundred eyes assessing every verbal and non verbal message I send to the two boys. Every time one of the boys gets into his furious mood just right the corner of the neighborhood or exactly at the moment the other one is tired and cries to be tilled up, I feel judgemental eyes over my neck. Specially when I meet people who know me as a psychologist in the first place, I get preoccupied by what they are possibly thinking: “Now let’s see how she is going to handle her own kids, not hiding beside theories and advice”.
    As inevitable part of this vicious cycle I myself judge other parents as well. At least what has changed over the last years is that I recognise how non representative and unfair it is to judge by a moment I happen to witness, let alone the complexity of differences across cultures, sub-cultures, generations, class differences, gender issues etc
    It is a great question mentioned above: what happens when we are being raised and educated in societies that judge us from a very young age, across all life aspects, separate us to those who “succeed” and those who “fail” and consequently teach us to judge as well?
    What kind of society do we really want to live in and raise our children in?
    Your newsletter, Irene, made me think of the very interesting work of Trudy Dehue, for instance in her book De depressie epidemie, though not directly refering to parenting.

    1. Dear Electra,
      Thanks so much for referring me to Trudy Dehue’s work, I’ve never heard of her and I will check her work out and share with my colleague Tanmoy too (who specialises in mental health).
      I think that the extra pressure you feel as a psychologist too must be a hard thing to carry around.
      The thing that most resonates of what you said is this: “I recognise how non representative and unfair it is to judge by a moment I happen to witness, let alone the complexity of differences across cultures, sub-cultures, generations, class differences, gender issues etc” This is so true and important. We can all have bad weeks, outbursts, and we all prioritise things differently. While some may think that certain actions are important to support a child’s freedom, others may find that limits are more important for their child. So, yes. Within certain limits, judgment is quite pointless, but hard to shake off our habits…
      Have you read any psychological work that addresses this issue specifically, about how not to judge and feel judged?

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