By Catherine Pearlman
“Are you breastfeeding?” the stranger asked while I waited with my baby to order a drink at Starbucks.
“Um, Well…” I said sheepishly, “it’s complicated.”
I picked up my iced coffee, collected my lingering morsels of pride and shamefully shuffled out the door. Then I sat in my car and wondered why, exactly, did a woman who didn’t even know me care about my breasts, my daughter and how I choose to feed her?
Shortly thereafter, I went to Bloomingdale’s with my newborn. I thought I’d run in, grab a few onesies and rush home. But then I was accosted by another stranger who let me know, in no uncertain terms, that it was far too cold to take a baby outside. Then, like a boxer throwing one last uppercut toward the head of a crumbling opponent, she looked at me and snarled, “And what kind of mother risks a baby’s health to do a little shopping.”
The advice for parents from well-meaning friends and family members begins even before the birth of a child. You hear it all, 1,000 times over: Breastfeed, take time off of work to bond, co-sleep, read, put baby on back to sleep, make your own baby food, buy only organic BPA-free everything, do baby yoga and massage, use natural soaps. On and on and on and on.
With the invention of smartphones, the Internet and the 24-hour news, cycle parents are being watched (and recorded) more than ever. This puts parenting on the front line for all to see and judge and—far too often—shame. It’s those watchful eyes from the public that impact our parenting the most. We end up making choices because we are afraid of being embarrassed.
It’s almost impossible to avoid feeling the competitive pull of parenthood. We all want the best for our kids. If our neighbor is making her baby food from scratch, we think we should, too. “It’s easy,” she’ll tell you. “I blend organic peaches, grapes, apples, tomato and …” Does that sound easy to you? If a close friend starts tutoring her child to better prepare her for an upcoming placement test, it is hard to resist the urge to begin tutoring too. Parents don’t want their kids left behind.
However, what works for my neighbor or friend, might not work for my family. Jobs, schedules, temperaments, allergies, abilities, strengths, financial means, philosophies, values, siblings, religion, culture and more all play a part in how we raise our children. Those differences are perfectly fine. There is no one way to raise children. And as long as we aren’t abusive or neglectful we should be entitled to parent as we see fit.
The problem is our kids aren’t robots who perfectly follow our instructions and whose behavior is exemplary. Sometimes they act out in public. Kids whine and tantrum for a cake pop or chocolate milk or a new Matchbox car. They can be obnoxious in restaurants without an iPad. They complain about running errands. They misbehave at the most inopportune times. All the while the checkout person, waiter and onlookers are watching parents to see how they react. The playground moms are watching you. The stay-at home moms or the working moms, they are all watching you. The members of the PTA, they too, are watching you.
When parents feel those watchful eyes they often feel shame and guilt. And they tend to make parenting mistakes that will make life harder in the long run. Quelling a tantrum with that cake pop will only ensure more tantrums because the child will have learned the behavior is highly effective. Yet, parents often try to cut the unpleasantness off before it begins. That’s a big win for kids.
Instead of feeling the pressure to parent in public to suit others, here are 5 tips to parent your way.
- Don’t take it all too seriously. Parenting isn’t an exact science. Provide love, support, education opportunities and a safe place to land in troubled times and your kids will be just fine.
- If you are having a bad day, laugh. Laugh at the comments from nosey strangers. Laugh when your kids show up to school and you forgot that is was Cowboy theme day. And laugh when the babysitter quits right before you have an important meeting at work and you are forced to drag two hungry and tired children with you. Just laugh. It will make it better.
- Surround yourself with nonjudgmental people who build you up instead of tearing you down. It’s easy to feel we have to keep up appearances but that does no one any favors. Instead find you tribe of moms and dads who let you be honest about your parenting struggles. These parents empathize instead of criticize. These parents don’t care if your kids watched 18 hours of television over the weekend.
- Hold on to your values. It’s tempting to be swayed by popular trends. But if they don’t fit who you are, they aren’t for you.
- Remember, strangers aren’t raising your children. You are and you are the one who will bear the brunt of the consequences of their misbehavior. Don’t let others shame you from disciplining as you see fit. If that means ignoring a giant tantrum in the Target parking lot, so be it.
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW is the author of IGNORE IT!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction. She is the founder of The Family Coach and an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University. Follow Catherine on Twitter and Facebook.