When I was growing up, I lived directly across the street from a very judgmental woman. My dad referred to her and her group of close friends in the neighborhood as The Nose Brigade, due to their nosy nature. I imagine there was a similar group of ladies in the majority of suburban neighborhoods across America for decades — women with lots of time and lots of opinions and lots of time spent sharing their opinions. When I was young, this particular woman, head of The Nose Brigade, was just about done raising her four children, so she was the authority on child-rearing. She was the authority on a number of other topics, as well, including (but not limited to): gardening, housekeeping, finances, health, and lifestyle choices. If you were doing something — anything — in a way that differed from the way she would have chosen to do it, you were wrong and she would not hesitate to talk about how wrong you were to everyone but you. For a very long time, I believed her to be the most judgmental person in the world. Then I grew up and came to realize that the world is packed with a wide range of judgmental people, some of whom make the leader of The Nose Brigade look downright open-minded.
I haven’t worked in another industry, so perhaps a statement like this is not fair (perhaps, in fact, postal workers, investment bankers, or baristas encounter an unfathomable amount of judgment in their daily work), but it seems that when you work with children, you encounter more judgments and more shockingly outspoken judgmental people than you encounter anywhere else. Judgments are directed at you, your work, your young charges, families, administrators, fellow teachers and caregivers, and even the custodial crew. Teachers judge other teachers, moms judge other moms, and so on, to infinity and beyond. Sometimes, it seems, children give people an excuse to be judgmental, as we couch judgments in questions about whether one is doing what’s best for the child.
I make an effort every day to fight the good fight against being judgmental of others myself and of enabling toxic judgments in my environment — that is, I make a conscious effort to nip gossip in the bud. I try to be honest with myself about a tendency to be judgmental about certain ways of doing things (because, of course, if my way is the right way, your way must be wrong) and make a genuine effort to be open to everyone’s story. Everyone has a story. They have a context that they make their choices and decisions within. Everyone has a unique way of balancing, juggling, and managing life and stress. Everyone has a history.
I am currently working with a parent who rivals the leader of The Nose Brigade in her ability to issue harsh and sweeping judgments. She directs her judgments at the other parents in my program. Over time, I have begun to notice that in addition to issuing judgments of others, she spends a great deal of time talking about herself. When she seems to be talking about her child, in fact, she is more often than not talking about herself (for example, rather than relating what was going on with him when he woke in the night, she relates what was going on with her in response). I began to observe a note of insecurity beneath her stories and her judgments, and so I started to understand, I think, where it was coming from. One day she told me about growing up in her family, with four brothers, and how competitive everything was. She said that when they get together these days, all adults with their own families, they’re now competitive about their children. I thought about her career and her success within that career and how much of that was due to a competitive drive. I thought how difficult it must be to turn that down, if not off, and how that must bleed into so many aspects of her life. I see it all reflected in her children, for better or for worse, and even in the interactions that her sixteen-month-old son has with peers. And as I try to observe this through a lens of empathy, I’m able to tone down my own judgment of her judgmental streak and respond in what I hope is a more consciously positive and proactive way.
Here are a few ways I have found to respond to judgments and gossip directed at mutual friends, colleagues, or acquaintances:
- “Oh? I hadn’t noticed that. [pause] Did you see that so-and-so did [insert positive observation].” This tends to work well for shifting a conversation from negative gossip, designed to run down others, to a conversation about something good that is happening.
- “You know, I just read an article that said [insert relevant factual information on topic].” You want to avoid engaging in an argument, but standing strong in something you’re serious about is not a bad thing. Pick your battles, but don’t be unwilling to calmly and reasonably share good information.
- Shift the conversation back to them. For example, a mom I know was making me uncomfortable talking about a mutual acquaintance who had just announced her pregnancy. I shifted the conversation by saying, “Do you ever think about having another one?” Whether she understood that I was uncomfortable discussing the third party or wanted to talk more about herself, it worked.
- “I often think about that quote: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ We can’t know what it’s like to be in those shoes.” Is it okay to let a judgmental person know that you’re judging them for being judgmental? I’m not sure, but it does work quite well to put a stop to viscous gossip.
- Smile and shrug, “Agree to disagree!”
They say that judgments most often spring from insecurities. It makes sense then that moms and dads and caregivers are so often judgmental of one another, when they see someone doing something differently. Deep down, almost too quietly to be heard clearly, a little voice rings out: “Are you doing things right?” Insecurity! Guilt! Two powerful forces that can rule all decision-making and interactions if we’re not conscious of them. We could all benefit, perhaps, from taking a moment to consciously recognize, “Huh. That’s different.” Not right. Not wrong. Not better. Not worse. Just plain different. And isn’t that wonderful? (And if it’s not wonderful, is it really your problem? Don’t you have other things to do and see and worry about yourself? Move along.)
Working with families, it is part of my job to identify when they may need extra help or support in an area. It is also part of my job to provide that extra help and support with kindness and empathy and without judgment. Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental,” and I think this is an approach to working with families that can be of benefit to teachers and caregivers who find themselves being more judgmental than they wish to be. When you observe a family doing something (or not doing something) that you think is “wrong” or needs changing, perhaps take a break and ask yourself some questions before speaking your mind to another (be it the family in question or a co-worker).
- Is the child safe? If the child is not safe, say something.
- Is the child thriving? Maybe the child isn’t eating what you think they should. Maybe they’re not sleeping as you think they should. Maybe they’re watching more TV than you would allow. But are they healthy and growing? If the answer is yes, maybe their family just makes different choices. You can expose them to alternatives, but you can also choose to smile, shrug, and agree to disagree.
- Is the child happy? Perhaps your gut tells you something isn’t right. You need to follow-up with more questions.
- Do you know why? In general, it can be helpful to say, “I noticed _______. I wonder why you do it that way.” Sometimes there is a good reason. Sometimes they haven’t considered another way. In either case, it’s an inoffensive way to open the door for discussion. It’s an avenue you can wander down in curiosity and with caring.
- What is the goal? You should make a point of finding out the family’s goals, but you should also examine your own. What do you hope to accomplish in approaching this issue with the family? Are you putting the child first?
Approaching this world of differences with curiosity (like a child, one might say) opens the door to a wonderful learning opportunity. In working with families from a place of curiosity, I have learned so much and been able to change myself and my perspective for the better. Today, I’m less likely to consider something different to be wrong. Perhaps you put your baby in a swing, while I choose to put them on the floor. I do so to provide opportunity for movement. You do what you do to keep them off the floor and safe from your dog or your toddler or because you really need five minutes to regroup. I get it. It’s all okay. We all have our reasons for what we do, but how often do we stop to truly consider them? Doing so can help you to be less judgmental yourself and to stand firm in what you believe in when you find others judging you and yours.
Tell me: what have been your experiences with judgments? (I promise not to judge.)