Recently a dear friend for whom I have a lot of respect posted this article, emphatically agreeing with it. I had an immediate negative reaction to it, but it took days of mulling it over to figure out why. On the surface, I agree with many of the author’s philosophies. “The real tragedy here is society’s general unwillingness to extend humanity to the smallest and weakest among us while insisting that the strong be free from judgement.” Absolutely! “Being disconnected from the needs of those in your care is called negligence. We deeply understand this as a society when it comes to physical negligence. What we must desperately work to understand as well is the impact of emotional negligence.” Right on! I’m with the guy!
The author makes such great points, it takes a critical eye to see that what he’s really promoting is the practice of shaming other parents with a complete lack of empathy. He’s writing to those parents who defensively respond to criticism by saying, “don’t judge my parenting” and is asking them to stop that “nonsense.” And considering he compared the parent in the photo to a doctor who willingly looks on while a patient dies, he clearly doesn’t shy away from hyperbole to make his point. He goes on to say, “For you to make the case that you have a right to do these things to children but others don’t have a right to simply judge you for it is so absurd it borders on psychosis.” No, it doesn’t. It’s ill informed, and it’s likely a defense mechanism. But as a mental health professional, I assure you that it comes nowhere near psychosis, and that implication is incredibly condescending.
I suggest that what comes before “don’t judge” matters. If we judgmentally criticize other parents, they are pretty likely to respond defensively. Given his methods of illustration it’s clear that the author isn’t advocating for responding with kindness to parents who likely lack the skills necessary to parent with respect. Rather than telling parents who need education not to respond with “don’t judge” we may be better off modeling empathy, kindness, and compassion.
I’m a therapist working with women experiencing postpartum depression, and this article reminded me of a home visit I had with a mama last week following the death of her newborn. Her five year old daughter was sitting nearby watching TV (there was nowhere else in this small home for her to be), and I observed as the daughter repeatedly tried to gain attention from her mom. Then I witnessed the mom becoming increasingly agitated in response. Finally the mom yelled at the daughter to leave her alone, called her a name, and sent her to stand in the corner. The girl began to cry and complied. Did I judge the mom’s treatment of her daughter? Of course! Would sharing that judgment have been a constructive strategy? Absolutely not. Instead I took in the entire scene. The history of trauma, the squalor this family lives in, and the grief the mother was feeling. The fact is, this woman was really suffering. I shared my observations with compassion and empathy, “I can see how much pain you’re in, and it must be difficult to meet the demands of parenting when you’re so deep in grief.” The woman agreed emphatically. I was then able to bridge the gap between her grief and her daughter’s. “I wonder if your girl is also learning how to manage her own grief.” And with that, we were able to have an authentic conversation in which the mom felt safe enough to be coached. Had I chosen a more critical route, her response likely would have been “don’t judge me” and the conversation certainly would have been over.
The author recognizes that defensiveness is reflective of a lack of skill: “ ‘Don’t judge’ is also used by parents who simply feel at a loss…Being willing to acknowledge that truth is absolutely respectable. Parents should never be criticized for lacking tools...” How does he determine which parents are at a loss and which ones aren’t? The unwillingness to acknowledge a lack of skill doesn’t mean that it isn’t the primary issue. The author has the insight to interpret the woman’s sign as embarrassment and a lack of skill, but he can’t read the subtext of “don’t judge?” Maybe we should all hear “don’t judge” as a call for increased kindness and empathy in our response. Rather than piling judgment on families who need help, let’s stop all this judgmental nonsense and treat others with the gentleness we take such pride in showing our own children.