Recently I was in the gym locker room cleaning up after my Wednesday workout. A mother and her son were there also. The mom was speaking at her son in a critical way as if he himself was a problem for her. Her tone was harsh — think “barking” drill sergeant — and I interpreted a patronizing, controlling, and unloving manner in her interaction. “Yuk,” I thought, “Why can’t she be more gentle and loving with her son. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything wrong.” I secretly patted myself on the back and tried to think of anything I could do to intervene on the boy’s behalf. Before I could think of anything, however, I realized that part of my judgmental reaction to her was because she reminded me of myself and how I sometimes talk at my daughter. Yes, this mama was my mirror, my wake-up call, not my personal charity case.

Judgmentalism gets in our way

Justice may be blind, but judgment isn't.

Justice may be blind, but judgment isn’t.

Having a judging mind is part of why we all have “bad” parenting moments.* “Bad” is in quotations because it, like all other words of assessment, is subjective. While there are definitions of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” “appropriate,” et cetera, at their core they merely communicate the beliefs of the one using them, rather than a universal truth. So, when I say “bad” parenting moment, I mean those experiences that in hindsight (and sometimes even in the moment) we regret. For me, such moments include times when I’m harsh in voice or energy toward my daughter, times when I’m small-minded or close-hearted, times when I repeat a learned behavior from my past that’s not in keeping with my true intentions as a mama.

Listening to our mind’s judgments and then acting as if they were either true or important or both can get us into trouble. Let’s look at a couple examples:

  • We are tired at the end of a busy and frustrating day. We want our son to go to bed so we can have some time to ourselves and get a couple more things done before we also hit the hay. Our son, rather than quickly brushing teeth, donning PJs, and hopping into bed wants 16 stories, 2 glasses of water, and his favorite — and currently AWOL — plush dinosaur to sleep with. At some point, most parents’ inner dialogue sounds a lot like the one in the book Go the F**k to Sleep. If we start believing that our son is too “high needs” or “demanding,” or that if he was “good” or at least cared about us he would go to sleep and leave us alone, we’re likely to end up reacting to him in some unloving manner. Sure, part of our reaction is fueled by our fatigue, but labeling our son as “bad” makes it almost inevitable that we’ll end up behaving in a way that serves neither our son nor us.
  • We’re attending a holiday concert with our extended family. Our daughter is young and the concert, though entertaining to us, means being relatively still and quiet for a long time to her. The man in front of her turns his head our way as she kicks his seat for the second time. Our father-in-law gives a gruff “ahem” as she fidgets repeatedly in her seat. We blush as she whispers loudly into our ear about her growing hunger. If we fear having a “misbehaving” child or being labeled as a “permissive” or “inconsiderate” parent, we’re likely to forget or ignore our compassion for our daughter and treat her as the enemy rather than the young girl she is.

“Real magic in relationships means an absence of judgment of others.”

~Wayne Dyer

Tips for releasing yourself from your judging mind

If you agree that being judgmental gets in your way of what you’re really wanting as a parent, I have a few suggestions for loosening the grip judgmentalism has on most of us.

  1. Identify your strongest or most automatic (e.g., unconscious) judgments about parents by creating a “Good parents are/do…” and “Bad parents are/do…” list. Write these down as quickly as possible. If nothing comes to you, think about the things you hated for your parents to do to you or the things you inwardly critique when you see other parents doing them. For example your list might read: “Good parents don’t act like jerks, yell at their kids, do things that feel scary to their children, ever really lose it. Bad parents use media as a babysitter, take lots of date nights, only half listen to what their kids say, bark orders at their children.”
  2. Discover what judgments underlie the most frustrating moments you have with your child. For instance, let’s say that you get really irritated when you have to repeat yourself several times before your child does what you’re asking/telling him to do. The beliefs underneath that emotion might be children should do what their parents tell them to do, inconsiderate people don’t listen, weak people have to repeat themselves, I can’t do what I want because I have to keep reminding my son to do such-and-such. These beliefs then fuel judgments such as my child is disrespectful/inconsiderate, I’m a pushover, I’m trapped and may then have us reacting out of judgments like I must teach my child to respect others, I have to put my foot down, I have to take control to change this situation.
  3. Once you have your list of common judgments, start bringing your conscious awareness to how they affect you and your child. Continuing with the same example from number two above, let’s say you feel irritated when you have to repeat yourself. In this space you tend to get very harsh in your tone of voice and impatient with your son, ordering him around and perceiving any hesitance on his part as a way of communicating his disrespect toward you. You also notice that your irritation tends to bleed over to your other relationships and you start believing lots of people are taking advantage of you.
  4. As you better understand how your judgments trip you up, start making new choices. Here are a few ideas you could experiment with. You might choose your most frequent judgmental thought and begin to change it. You might ask your partner or child to tell you any time they think you’re acting out of your judgment that “you must get everything right.” You might do a meditation where you envision your child doing “that thing” they sometimes do and practice seeing it from different perspectives than your automatic interpretation.
Though I strongly encourage you to focus your change initiatives on yourself (that’s where you have power), you can also help your child learn the difference between reality and judgment as early on as possible. You might talk about how one of their favorite stories could be interpreted differently than it’s written. You can replace judgment or evaluative words with factual descriptions (e.g., instead of “You’re such a sweet boy,” you might tell your son, “I’m grateful you held the door open for me when I was carrying the grocery bags.”) Since the predominate model your child will learn from our culture is that beliefs and judgments = facts, you can provide a valuable alternative viewpoint that will serve your child well throughout his life.

Points of clarification

Discernment and judgment are not the same. It is useful for each of us to determine what fits for us and what does not — this is to be discerning, clear, and capable of living in an intentional manner. As we’ve seen from the earlier examples, judgment — acting as if our beliefs are the undeniable, universal truth and lauding or condemning behavior from this place of omniscience — separates us from each other and puts a barrier between us and our higher self. A difference between being discerning and judgmental can be illustrated thus: “Smoking isn’t something I want to do because I care about my health and vitality,” is being discerning. “Smokers are disgusting, inconsiderate, slobs who want to kill themselves,” is being judgmental.

Our lived experience of the “good” and “bad” parenting moments originate in different places. *Though our judging mind can contribute to our “good” parenting moments, my experience is that our heart — and not our ego or head — is the birthplace of that sense of “good” times. For instance, my daughter is really upset about a disappointment she’s experienced. She’s crying loudly, expressing her frustration, sadness, anguish. I offer what comfort I can, holding her, acknowledging her feelings, and allowing her to express herself. I don’t try to fix it for her even though part of me wants to do something to make it all right. After her cathartic release she’s calm and present again, her sadness assuaged, her anger gone. My sense of having done “right” doesn’t come from my mind, but from my heart which whispers “She’s okay. You were there for her. All is well.” My ego doesn’t have to search for some award because my spirit is content in having been my daughter’s partner, simply holding her as she did her own dance through a difficult moment in her life.

“Positive judgment hurts less acutely than criticism, but it is judgment all the same and we are harmed by it in far more subtle ways. To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving.”

~Rachel Naomi Remen
If connection is the desire, unconditional love is the way.

If connection is the desire, unconditional love is the way.