Imagine a world where good parents don’t feel they are under attack. There are no hovering neighbors or relatives preaching their views about the right way to raise a child. There are no cutting remarks or small-minded, hostile gossip campaigns. No simplistic, one-size-fits-all pronouncements; no nasty, anonymous blog comments; no authority figures who misuse their power – however well intentioned – by making crucial, public judgments based on their personal opinions and unsupported folk beliefs.
I’m not sure that anybody actually lives in such a world. But some parents may feel they do. If your social environment is made up of people like you, and the people in power – politicians, police, medical providers, social workers, and so forth – share your cultural perspective, you may not encounter much conflict. It doesn’t mean that parenting is easy, or that you don’t make mistakes. But you don’t feel you expose yourself to harassment by sharing the details of your everyday life.
For many people, however, there is a mismatch. It might be something broad, like a whole set of ethnic traditions and values that sets one apart from the majority culture. Or it might relate to a single issue, like sleep training or breastfeeding. Whatever the extent of the mismatch, it puts the parent in conflict with others. She can’t reveal her parenting practices, be open about her lifestyle, without inviting disapproval, rejection, or animosity.
What’s the big deal? Shouldn’t parents be under scrutiny?
It’s the most important job in the world. A naive observer – perhaps especially a childless observer – might argue that you shouldn’t fear judgment if you’re a good parent. Maybe you’ll draw fire from a few cranks and know-it-alls. But if you can’t handle that, if you’re not tough enough to withstand a little conflict, you shouldn’t have kids.
And there’s the problem in a nutshell. You shouldn’t have kids. Criticisms of parents often include this implication, and it’s not lost on the parents. Sometimes the implication is less extreme. You are harming your child. But in a world where society protects children from unfit parents, the two implications are closely linked. The menace of interference – of strangers intervening in our most intimate family relationships – hangs like a storm cloud over many angry debates about what’s good or bad for kids.
Moreover, you don’t need a visit from child protective services to suffer the consequences of negative public judgments. Everyday verbal sniping, disrespect, and ostracism are sufficient to damage your health and harm your psyche. The mere threat of these is enough to keep people from voicing independent thoughts, as de Tocqueville noted in the 19th century, and contemporary anthropologists like Christophe Boehm think hostile gossip, shaming and social rejection played a crucial role in human evolution.
In ancestral hunter-gatherer bands, people who were unfazed by public disapproval – and therefore unlikely to change their ways—risked banishment and death. No wonder, then, if we are wired to find other people’s malign judgments very aversive and very stressful.
So for many parents, being subjected to frequent, negative judgments isn’t just annoying. It’s threatening. And while I’d like to tell these folks their reactions are unwarranted, I can’t. I’ve seen too many people patronized, manipulated, or mistreated.
It starts early. During her pregnancy, a friend of mine asked a nurse about medical recommendations against eating soft cheese. What was the evidence against it, and what, in actual numbers, was the risk? She got a very chilly, sanctimonious answer: “I would think that if there is any risk at all, that’s all you need to know.”
As my friend put it afterwards, she felt she had been branded a whore for asking a reasonable question, and of course the whole premise was absurd. My friend was taking a risk every time she drove herself to the doctor’s office. Just about everything entails some sort of risk or cost. To make intelligent decisions, we need to weigh the costs against the benefits.
But while this story has its comical aspects, the problem it illustrates isn’t so funny. Lots of women may find themselves stuck with medical providers who don’t respect their intelligence and autonomy. In my friend’s case, the rebuke of “Nurse Ratchet” set an antagonistic tone for the remainder of her prenatal care visits. What a waste.
And what about all the other people in our lives? The neighbors, relatives, coworkers, teachers, social workers, and members of the legal system who can make misery with their ill-considered judgments? It’s time we reckoned the real health costs of haughty, dismissive, and hostile judgments against parents.
I don’t know of any research about the effects on parents in particular, but there is persuasive evidence that people who feel targeted by socially prejudiced judgments suffer poor health. In one study, people who said they had to be very careful or guarded in their everyday lives in order to avoid harassment also reported more sleep problems. Other research shows links between perceived racism and stress reactivity, elevated stress hormone levels, hyprtension, depression, and anxiety.
What should we do about it? I’m not arguing that society should turn a blind eye to everything that happens at home. Parents don’t have unlimited rights. If that were true, children would have none. They could be neglected or abused with impunity.
What I am arguing is that before we publicly condemn a parenting practice, we need to answer some important questions:
1. Is there scientific evidence that the children are being ill-served?
You may not approve of another family’s traditions. Maybe they look weird or unfamiliar to you. But if there is no scientific basis for concluding that a practice is harmful, your condemnation amounts to a heavy-handed expression of your personal taste.
2. Assuming that a practice is risky, detrimental, or less beneficial than the alternative, is the effect big enough to matter? Is it big enough to justify the damage your condemnation will cause?
As I note above, most things come with costs. The important question is whether, on balance, the costs outweigh the benefits for a particular family. For instance, breastfeeding might be the ideal, but if circumstances make breastfeeding a very stressful or financially difficult option, formula feeding may be the better way to go. Parents don’t make their choices in a vacuum. They consider the big picture, which includes the broader context of family resources, needs, cultural traditions, and personal values. Humans aren’t the only creatures guilty of harassing parents.