As any parent knows, it’s frighteningly easy to sit back and judge another mom or dad’s style of parenting. Whether it’s questioning a parent’s decision to feed their baby formula over breast milk, how parents discipline their kids, or how they handle their toddler’s tantrum in the middle of a grocery store, we all have an opinion — and many aren’t afraid to voice their criticisms, particularly if it’s aimed at a family member.
So it’s no surprise that a new study confirms parent-shaming is all too common. Six in 10 mothers of children ages 0 to 5 say they have been criticized about their parenting decisions, according to a June 19 report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan. The report is based on responses from a national sample of 475 mothers with at least one child between ages 0 to 5.
The study authors found that discipline is the most common topic of criticism, followed by nutrition and sleep.
The research revealed that half of criticized mothers say they avoid people who are too critical, but that can be tricky when it’s a family member who is judging you. In fact, a clear majority of shamers — 61 percent — are family members. A parent’s own mother or father was most likely to criticize a parenting decision (37 percent), followed closely by the child’s other parent (36 percent) and by in-laws (31 percent).
So why do we shame each other? “In some cases, things like breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, some of that [shaming stems from] people feeling a tiny bit ambivalent about their own choices,” Sarah Clark, co-director of the study and associate research scientist in the department of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, tells Yahoo Beauty. “And when you’ve struggled with something and decided that the best thing is X and you see someone choosing something else, it calls into question your choice a tiny bit — and therefore, they must be wrong. But there are very few things that are ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Putting your child in a car seat is right, but what daycare they go to or how you feel about breastfeeding is just a choice.”
However, not all criticism is negative. In some cases, it can motivate a parent to seek out more information, which can be helpful — if not lifesaving — if, say, a mom or dad is being criticized for a car seat harness that doesn’t properly secure the child (a hot-button topic, if ever there was one). The study found that 60 percent of parents who were shamed about a specific topic searched for more information on it, while 53 percent reached out to a health care provider to get his or her opinion on the subject. As a result, nearly 40 percent of the moms surveyed said they made a change in how they parent.
But sometimes moms have more current information about childcare than, say, older family members issuing a critique — such as not using bumpers in cribs anymore because of the potential risk of suffocation — and seeking out information can actually confirm that the parent’s decision was the right one. In fact, the study found that the majority of moms — 67 percent — say that criticism made them feel more strongly about their parenting choices. “In other situations, the research might validate a mother’s parenting choice or provide ammunition with which to refute criticism,” noted the study authors. “Family members should be willing to acknowledge that mothers of young children may have more up-to-date information about child health and safety, and ‘what we used to do’ may not be the best advice for today.”
While a family member may be coming from a place of caring, if they come off as criticizing or are actually shaming you that can damage a parent’s confidence. “We found that 42 percent of parents — 4 out of 10 — who have been criticized have felt unsure of themselves as parents,” says Clark. “Occasional uncertainly is fine, but too much of it can feed into a negative reinforcing loop. We want to have a nice consistent approach with our kids. If you feel you’re constantly being bombarded with critical messages, you might be less consistent in your parenting choices. Now your kids are getting less consistent messages from you, which can trigger some behavioral issues.”
Unless a child is actually in danger, Clark says that the best approach is one of sympathy and support. “People who come in with a ‘We’ve been there and it really turns out OK’ attitude — that is such a powerful message to send to a mom who is sitting there with a kid having a meltdown,” says Clark. “Or saying something with humor, such as ‘That’s not even the worse one I’ve seen’ with a smile. It’s saying you’re in a community of moms — don’t worry about it.”
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