Brainy Parenting

A parent is concerned about the negative, judgmental comments her parents and in-laws make about her children’s behavior and their parenting. She writes that she and her husband try to implement Janet’s advice (with a mix of Montessori). While she says she isn’t personally offended by their old school opinions, she does worry about “the confusing, sometimes negative, shaming, mixed messages” and how those might affect her children. She’s looking to Janet for suggestions as she and her husband struggle to navigate “the outside noise.”

Transcript of “Dealing with Judgmental Comments about Our Parenting”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question from a parent. I received it in an Instagram message, and she and her husband are concerned about what she calls the “outside noise” of grandparents and other family members, putting their two cents in and speaking to her children in a way that seems shaming and is the opposite of what this parent is trying to do. She’s not worried about being criticized herself, but she worries this will affect her children now and possibly in the future.

Here’s the question I received:

I find that when my parents or my in-laws are around, they tend to speak up about the ways my children behave and our parenting. For instance, if my oldest daughter throws food on the floor, my husband or I will say, ‘It seems like you’re letting me know you’re done eating. Thank you for letting us know,’ and we will promptly remove her food and let her down. In the silence between removing the food and placing her down, I have noticed one of the parents will say something to the effect of, “We don’t throw food. That’s not good.”

This also shows when my oldest and youngest have some sort of conflict. My husband and I tend not to intervene, unless there is some sign of hitting or danger. We try to let them figure it out for themselves. Our parents however, will immediately intervene and say something to the effect of, “You have to share with your sister. That is not how a big girl behaves,” or, “Hey, that’s not very nice.”

I have said to them on various occasions that this is not how we handle these situations and that I’d appreciate if they take our lead, as opposed to jumping in all the time. They see how my husband and I respond, and sometimes acknowledge how patient and good we are with them, and other times will say we’re being too soft and letting them walk all over us. I don’t particularly care about their opinions of our parenting. What I do care about is the confusing, sometimes negative, shaming mixed messages that seem to be happening and how it will affect our children now or down the line. I do talk to the kids about it after the fact, and at times in the moment, but I’m worried about the long-term mixed messaging.

I obviously cannot control the actions of other people, so it seems like I’m just hoping that eventually, my and my husband’s actions will show the parents that the old-school mentality that they’re coming at the children with is not only not what we do, but also ineffective. Any advice that you could give on this topic would be most appreciated. Thank you so much.

Okay, so I was drawn to this comment and this issue because, you may have noticed if you listened here that I like going into topics that have layers, and I see a lot of layers here. The first one is that she is concerned about what she calls the “mixed messages” and how this will affect their children now or down the line.

She’s not really asking what she can do about this outside noise, and I think she realizes that there’s not a lot she can do in terms of trying to change other people. Something I try to help parents realize is when it’s so out of their control, it’s not worth our precious energy.

I did ask this parent when I messaged her back the age of her children, and she said her daughter is just turning three and the younger one is 10 months, so these parents are in the thick of it, very draining time, probably the hardest period of their life as parents because they have a toddler and they have an infant. Those ages are hard and the dynamic between the children is challenging as well. So yeah, she’s doing the best kind of influencing, which is modeling. She and her husband are modeling the way that they would like others to treat their children.

And then it sounds like she has spoken to the grandparents a couple of times. And it’s so hard to change the way we, ourselves perceive these common situations with our children. I mean, imagine as grandparents, it’s really, really hard to change at that point, and the grandparents have to be open to wanting to see a new way. I’m always blown away because a lot of grandparents follow my work, and when I hear from them, I congratulate them. I mean, to me, they are above and beyond because they are being so egoless to be open to: Well, hey, maybe there’s some things that I did with my children that weren’t the best. Maybe there are ways that could work better, that I could see differently.

I hope to be like that myself someday. I hope to be still an open-minded learner as a grandmother. Most people, they’re excited about being grandparents, they love the children, they want to see them raised well, but they do often believe in old ideas, the way that they were raised. It’s very hard to break out of that and see differently. Which is what these parents are doing, shifting some of these dynamics, so that’s so laudable.

But for the grandparents, I wouldn’t waste your energy trying to change them, and I strongly believe, and I’ve seen over and over again that we are by far the most formative influence on our children. The primary caregivers have the most influence. These other people in our children’s lives can be influential, but not in such a formative way, not in defining “self” for our child. We have a much bigger part to play in that, and so the way that we respond to our children will always be way more important. The other thing is that something Magda Gerber used to say, which is, “Parenting is about letting go.”

That means that we are allowing our child to experience other points of view, other influences. Gradually, we are letting go of control of the environment for these people. If you’re like me, it is not a comfortable thing to let go, but this is the job that we have. It’s not to keep our children in whatever we perceive as a perfect bubble and protect them from other people’s opinions and other input.

I know that I had an experience with my father-in-law that was so much milder than what this parent is dealing with, and I was just a nut because I was so excited about what I was learning, how my perspective was changing, seeing everything with new eyes, seeing my baby, seeing how capable young children are. I was seeing it all with new eyes, and my father-in-law, he was just, out of love, doing something, and I said I wish he hadn’t done that.

It really hurt his feelings. I think he’s forgiven me by now. I mean, that was over two decades ago, but it was because I wanted to create this perfect bubble with all the exciting things that I was discovering, and I didn’t want it to be hindered in any way.

So if you want to hear about the story, you can read it on my website. I’m not trying to clickbait people to my website, but I don’t want to get into the whole thing here. It’s called “Accepting Grandparents’ Good Intentions,” and I’ll link to it in the transcript.

I only share that to say I do understand that these parents are working so hard. It sounds like they’re doing beautifully, and here’s this noise coming in, this outside noise that feels like it’s spoiling everything and it’s going to influence my children for life. I don’t believe it will. I would let go of that.

What it might influence is how the children feel about those particular people. So when they get older, as they grow and they have choices about: Do I want to spend time with that person? Maybe they won’t if they feel judged and shamed by them. Maybe they won’t if they feel that person has such a critical eye on them. That’s unfortunate and it is a loss, but these people’s comments are not going to be defining for your child. And they do come out of love and this old-school way of thinking that a lot of people still have — that you see behavior you don’t like and you get rid of that behavior. You use whatever power you have, scolding, shaming, punishment, anything to just get that behavior to stop.

But what’s more effective is to understand the why, understand where that behavior is coming from so that we can help children to alter it, because we’re providing the answer to that question that they’re asking or the need that’s missing for them.

But there are people, and yeah, it’s an old-school way of thinking that this is our job. We’ve got to make them stop. We’ve got to tell them it’s wrong and bad. And you know what, it kind of works, But what happens is that we, as children, internalize all this shame and feelings of distrust for ourselves, and that we’re wrong and we have these bad parts of us, and that just doesn’t help us to flourish as we could in life, and can create a lot of problems. But on the outside, we usually do stop the behavior, because we’re so afraid we’re going to lose the affection and goodwill of these people that we need so desperately.

Another painful part of this that these parents are probably experiencing with this outside noise is that they’re realizing, maybe for the first time: Oh, this is exactly how I was treated by my parent.

Sometimes it’s very obvious and we remember it, but other times, it can be: Whoa, this might be why I have so much shame. This might be why I don’t really like myself a lot of the time. Maybe we never quite put it together, but now we’re seeing it right in front of us. That’s another layer here that is very understandably uncomfortable for these parents. But again, I would really love to relieve them that they can let go of this.

Yes, of course, if something becomes abusive, absolutely, set your boundaries around that person being around. That’s not what I’m hearing here. It sounds like typical old-school shaming stuff. That might mean you don’t want to leave your child in this person’s care for a long period of time. You have to make those decisions. But I would try to proceed with confidence and letting go of, rather than fear and trying to control people, because again, that’s just a terrible drain on our energy.

Another layer here is when we do get feedback like this, even if it’s from people who have a different way that we don’t agree with, if it’s repeated or if it’s given to us by more than one person, there is sometimes a bit of truth there to look at. There is a message.

This mom says that “the grandparents sometimes acknowledge how patient and good we are with them, and other times will say we’re being too soft and letting them walk all over us.” I would consider why they’re saying that, because it may be that these parents are trying to shift these cycles, and it’s a new frontier, right? They’re reading and they’re educating themselves, and they’re doing all these incredible things, being the best they can be out of passionate love for their children. But it’s not like a new suit you can just put on. It’s a process of transitioning, getting comfortable with this different way of seeing. And sometimes what happens is we’re so reticent to be judgmental, that we’re not confronting at all, and therefore, we’re not giving children exactly what they need. So I would certainly take that into account that there might be some truth in this.

It’s like maybe we’re in a public place and our child is running all around, screaming. We realize: Uh-oh, he missed his nap, and he’s so overtired and he’s just not himself. We’re understanding the cause of things. Other people are seeing this unruly child that doesn’t have any boundaries. Both of them are valid points of view, and maybe we can learn from that.

Maybe there is a boundary that I need to set or set earlier. Maybe we should have made sure to hold his hand, knowing that he hadn’t had his nap so that he couldn’t go running, and maybe we should have shortened this trip or not done it at all.

The examples that this parent gives, the first one is if her oldest daughter throws food on the floor, “My husband or I will say, ‘It seems like you’re telling me you’re done eating. Thank you for letting us know,’ and we will promptly remove her food and let her down. In the silence between removing the food and placing her down, I’ve noticed one of the parents will say something to the effect of, ‘We don’t throw food, and that’s not good.'”

So I’m wondering because this child is turning three… I’m wondering if this is common for her to be throwing her food down. Because in my recommendations that I give, I do say to let children know that “you’re showing us you’re done eating, so we’re going to put the food away,” but we obviously don’t want this to become the way our child shows us they’re done eating. It’s usually something that happens maybe a couple of times, and then once children receive that boundary, then they don’t keep doing that.

But here, this child is maybe repeatedly doing this. I don’t know. I’m just going by what I have here, so I could be misreading this. But what’s missing for me in this description and what may be missing for this grandparent to feel less likely to need to comment herself, is some acknowledgement, some noticing that this child is still throwing her food. Why is this going on? That’s what I mean about the possibility that maybe these parents aren’t quite confronting in a person-to-person way what’s going on with their child.

And this is also a thing that happens when people like me try to give scripts or strategies to do things. I do those sometimes, and people complain that I don’t do them enough, but I don’t like to push them. Because a script can put us into this automatic performance mode, like actors that aren’t that great. I mean, the great actors, they know that the script is just something you memorize and you get out of the way, and then you are in the moment as a human being with other human beings. The words are the least important thing. And even your actions are not as important as your motivation for them and what you’re feeling, and what’s going through your mind moment to moment.

I was never that good of an actor when I was acting, but that’s what the good actors do. But when we’re reading a script, it can take us out of that moment where… I kind of wanted to say when I read this, I wanted to say to the little girl, “Hello, why are you throwing food still? Come on. We don’t want you to do that.” Seeing her. Because I wonder if that could be why she’s still doing this at three years old.

It could be that her parents are so thoughtfully and politely giving her a boundary around it, but maybe they’re not quite noticing their daughter there that’s throwing food on the floor.

We hear a lot now about something really important, which is that we all need to feel seen, that this is a way to promote secure attachment with our young children. We let them know that we see them. And these are some of the most important times for children to feel seen, when they’re doing things they know we don’t want them to do, and now we’re doing it again.

So I would consider freeing yourself of the script and being in that present moment, seeing your child, “What’s going on with you?,” looking at them in the eyes and saying, “Where are we here? We’re throwing food. Trying to get our attention this way? We don’t want you to do that,” something.

I know another thing, and I’m guilty of this, helping parents avoid saying “no” too much, because children do drown it out if we’re, “No, no, no, no” to everything. But it’s really okay to be direct and say, “Come on. No, we don’t want you to throw food. Stop throwing food.” It’s obviously better if we’re not dysregulated or not angry or annoyed, or we’re not being overly stern about it. We can be very light, but I would still connect to let them know that you’re noticing.

Again, I’m wondering if the grandparent felt like, “Wait, maybe this child thinks it’s okay to throw food,” so that’s why they said something like, “We don’t throw food. That’s not good.”

This parent says a couple times that she’s worried about the mixed messages that seem to be happening. I don’t really see these as mixed messages because they’re both messages on a theme with an intention. The theme is: we don’t want our child to keep doing this behavior. So it’s not like an alternate message, it’s just a more shaming, judgmental way to approach changing the behavior, and less understanding of the cause.

I’m sure this little girl at age three, she’s known for quite a while that it’s not good to throw food down, that they obviously don’t want her to do this, so I don’t think that is going to be a great surprise or shocking to this girl. The, “We don’t,” I don’t recommend that because it’s not connecting as well as, “I don’t want you to throw food down.”  So, “We don’t” or when we’re talking about ourselves as “Mommy,” “Daddy,” those aren’t as connected.

Then, with her sibling, the why of this… Well, the deeper why is pretty clear to me, because this is the issue that parents most reach out to me about, that yeah, there is a toddler and there’s a baby, or theirs a four-year-old or a five-year-old or a six-year-old, and the new baby, or the new baby’s becoming one. And this a really hard adjustment. It does make you, as the older child, want to be … You just want to be in conflict because, you could adore this baby, but their very existence is a painful, painful reminder of the loss of all that one-on-one focus on you. So yeah, it’s going to be hard, especially at these children’s ages, to be graceful with that sibling.

I do recommend what these parents are doing, which is that they don’t intervene, unless there’s a sign of hitting or danger. But I would still notice. I would still see your child there, so that you can help her feel understood, so that you can help her feel you’ve got her back.

And if she’s doing something repeatedly, like the baby picks this up, and now she takes that away, and now the baby picks this up, and she takes that away, and now she’s got this whole pile of stuff on her lap that she doesn’t really want, but she’s just taking away from the baby… If something like that starts to happen, I would stop my child and say, “I know you don’t want her to have anything right now. I get that. I get that, but I got to stop you. You can give her some things that you’re okay for her to have.”  Or, “I’m not going to let you take this one away too,” or, “I’m not going to let you touch her body like that,” even if it’s not dangerous, but she’s manipulating the baby in certain ways. “I’m going to stop you there.”

It’s gentle, respectful, noticing, acknowledging, and limits, but it’s helping our child to feel: You know, you’re not alone in this. We’ve got your back.

That will help this to start to calm down too, which means you’ll get less noise about that. I mean, for me, it’s way more understandable that this behavior is continuing. It will sometimes continue at every stage of development that that baby gets to, where now they’re crawling, now they’re starting to walk. It can be another layer of discomfort for the older child and this baby, becoming more and more of a person in their eyes, more of a rival. And the old-school way is: we don’t consider that, and we just get mad at you for things that you’re doing because we don’t understand them, and they just look bad on the outside. They look not nice. Whatever this grandparent said. “It’s not how a big girl behaves.”

So every time you’re using “big girl” or “big boy,” tends to be shaming our child into something. Even if we don’t mean that, that’s what we’re doing. And for all children, there are times they want to be a bigger girl or a bigger boy, and other times they don’t want to be the big one. They want to be the little one that’s getting all that nurturing, and holding, and different kind of attention.

Again, kudos to these parents for all the work they’re doing. What you’re seeing in your own parents is showing you how much work you have done and are doing. Try to see it that way with gratitude for what you’re learning, and then maybe being open to this other next step of connecting a little more, seeing a little more, letting your child know that you see and you know that they’re doing something they know they’re not supposed to do, that wink across the room, whatever it is. And stopping your child early when they’re getting caught up in a pattern.

She says, “I obviously can’t control the actions of other people, so it seems like I’m just hoping that eventually, my and my husband’s actions will show the parents that the old-school mentality they’re coming at the children with is not only not what we do, but also ineffective.”

Yes, exactly, and I feel like you’re almost 100% there for them to actually see it. And it’s grandparents. It’s not their primary caregivers.

The grandparents may still go on with a lot of this noise. I mean, it’s really par for the course for all of us, and it’s not just grandparents. But I think you’ll get less of it as you gain confidence. Not that your goal is to make it go away, because we really can’t control that, so back to where I started with letting go of what we don’t control. The Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We can work on developing ourselves, because we’re all on a journey and there may be a little more you can do here.

I really hope that helps. And thank you again for all the support, listening to my podcast and reading my books. I really, really appreciate that.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and  Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

Originally published by Janet Lansbury on May 23, 2021