When someone you admire criticizes your parenting, what should you do?
One of the first things we learn as a parents is that everyone has an opinion on how we do or have done our job as parents, and almost everyone, from our friends to strangers in a grocery store, feels free to express that opinion.
Common wisdom holds that the first step in dealing with criticism should be considering the source. This advice was useful when I was parenting in the rural south where the gold standard for parenting is authoritarianism enforced with a stout paddle. It was common for people to tell me that my parenting was going to send my children to jail, to hell, or both. Sometimes, when I considered the source, the criticism became a compliment.
But how are you supposed to deal with criticism when the source is a person that you admire? There seems to be only two options: take their criticism to heart or withdraw your admiration. But withdrawing admiration is harder than it may seem. Even after love has been extinguished, admiration can remain. And as long as there is admiration, the criticism seems valid.
I learned how difficult it is to deal with criticism from an admired source when I was engaged to a man named Rob. He was one of the great loves of my life, and the only man other than my two husbands with whom I have shared a home and parenting responsibilities. More importantly, I deeply admired him, not just as a person but also as a parent. I was not alone. Other parents in our community thought of him as a handsome, modern Mr. Rogers.
When it came to admiration, the feeling was not mutual. Rob tended to think of me as a “fixer-upper” in general, but when it came to my parenting, he was appalled. In fairness, my marriage had just ended and I was an emotional wreck. Further, I had all the traits of an adult with ADHD. I was disorganized to the point of messiness and easily overwhelmed. But what truly distressed Rob was that I prioritized my relationship with my children over keeping order. He believed that children only feel loved when their parents provide them with a stable environment. The type of emotional connection I fostered with my children could not possibly make them feel loved, so I must be doing it to meet my own emotional needs.
My admiration for Rob led me to believe that his criticism was valid. I tried very hard to reform, especially when I was dealing with his children. But I failed so miserably that Rob banned me from exercising any parental authority or responsibility with his children and asked me to give him full authority over mine. This was a problem since he had never formed a bond with my children, but I had made a deep and affectionate connection with his kids.
One night after the children were in bed, Rob announced that he was leaving me. I was truly shocked since the thought had not occurred to me. But once he told me why, I agreed with him. Rob had been thinking about my ongoing custody issues with my ex-husband. After having lived with me for six months, he had come to the conclusion that one of the worst things that could happen to my children was for me to raise them. He felt morally obligated to testify in court in support of my ex-husband instead. He told me that he knew this would end our relationship, and asked me to be out by the end of the month.
The breakup with Rob nearly crushed my soul. I believed his indictment of me as a bad mother because I considered the source. What surprised me was how heartbroken our children were. They begged to see each other. Rob agreed to allow my children to see his provided it happened at his house and under his supervision.
That turned out to not be a problem. Rob married his college sweetheart four months after we separated and they bought a house in the same neighborhood where my ex-husband lived with his girlfriend. My children’s visits with their father almost always involved extended play-dates with Rob’s children, and the four children became even closer after Rob and I split. Rob did testify against me, but it did not make a difference in either the custody case or our children’s relationship. Even after Pete and I married and moved out of state with Kass and Matt, they remained close with Rob’s children. When the kids flew back for visitations with their father, they spent most of their time at Rob’s house hanging out with him and his children.
Long after I had stopped loving Rob, his poor opinion of me as a parent still bothered me. Each time our children got together, I hoped that he would see that the children were thriving and at least offer grudging admiration for my work as a mother. It never happened, and over the years he has let his poor opinion of my parenting be known in countless ways.
I stopped taking Rob’s criticism to heart when I was given an opportunity to reconsider the source. A few years ago, Rob’s grown son, Jake, asked if I would meet him for lunch when I was in town. I was more than a little surprised. With all that their father had said about me, I was fairly sure they hated me. I was wrong. He sought me out to tell me that he never agreed with his father’s assessment of me as a parent. In fact, he remembered my short time with them as some of the best days of his childhood. My love for him felt unreserved and unconditional. His father had always been distant and slightly disapproving. Despite his father’s mistakes, Jake was all his father wanted him to be: a successful and contributing member of society.
After my conversation with Jake, I ignored any criticism Rob offered. Honestly, I don’t remember if he said anything negative because my reconsideration of the source had caused me not to give even the tiniest shit.
Still, you would think that after so many years of seeking it, I would have been happy last week when Rob finally expressed admiration and respect for my parenting. Instead, I was furious when he wrote on my Facebook wall where all of our children and mutual acquaintances could see: “I got to see Matt and Kass today while I was in town. They turned out great. You did a good job raising them.”
When I tried to figure out why Rob’s compliment made me so angry, I realized that there is something incredibly arrogant about offering unsolicited parenting critiques, even positive ones. It is one thing to compliment a child’s behavior or to even alert a parent to something problematic; it is a very different thing when you compliment or criticize the entire body of another person’s parenting work. Unsolicited parenting critiques imply that the person offering the critique is an expert or speaks on behalf of society and is in a position to pass judgments. I also realized that parenting critiques can be harmful or even dangerous if the parent considers the source admirable.
So here is my unsolicited parenting advice: When it comes to criticism of your parenting, don’t consider the source. Consider your children and yourself. Improve where you can, and forgive yourself when you can’t.
Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.