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Posted on Tue, May 25, 2010 : 1:10 p.m.

How to talk about raising kids without igniting the mommy wars

By Jen Eyer


Photo by Flickr user Jen SFO-BCN

A story in today's USA Today asks: Why do mothers judge one another and their parenting?

Partway through the article is this nugget, which I think gets to the heart of the matter:

Many modern parents feel inundated with information and overwhelmed by choices, (psychotherapist and author Jenn) Berman says.

Parents who have researched and agonized over their choices — such as whether to use a pacifier, co-sleeper or baby sling — may feel a need to defend them, she says. Parents may wonder: If I've made the wrong choice, does that mean I'm endangering our children?

"Oftentimes, it can seem like a threat to see someone else deciding differently," Berman says.

A good friend who has older children provided an excellent example to me on how to talk about parenting issues without offending. She offered advice only when asked, and even then she always qualified it with the attitude that "this is what works for my family, but every family is different." As in:

- I co-slept with my children, but that's not going to work for every family.

- We didn't use pacifiers for our kids, but some kids might really need them.

- We allowed our children to roam free rather than use a playpen, but that may not work for you. It just depends on your house.

The recognition that there is no one way to parent can make the difference between a mother feeling supported or criticized.

I'll never forget the time I was basically called a bad parent by another mother on the 1,800-member Arborparents Yahoo group, because I dared to admit that we used a form of "controlled crying" to get our son to sleep on his own.

Ironically, I was responding to someone who had posted an article alleging that "crying it out" causes irreparable harm, and my point was that for some families, the known benefits to the child of the mother getting a good night's sleep can outweigh the potential risks of crying it out.

Still, this mother thought she knew what was best for my family. Even though I was not asking for advice, she dispensed it — what I should be doing, what my husband should be doing — and stated that although it wasn't easy, she and her husband made the choice to parent their kids no matter what time of the day or night (as opposed to my husband and me, I suppose, who were shirking our duties).

But even acknowledging one size doesn't fit all may not be enough to avoid hurt feelings in our closest relationships — those with sisters and mothers.

There have been several occasions of serious tension between my mother and me over our different parenting styles. On the last occasion, we had a good heart-to-heart, in which it became clear that she sometimes perceives my doing things differently as a rejection of how she parented me.

I was struck by the fact that it still matters to her after all these years. And I made sure she understood that I felt it was natural for our parenting styles to be different — we're living in a different world, with new information and new societal norms. But in no way was I judging her performance as my mom.

What about you? How do you navigate these tricky discussions, or what was the worst example of someone giving you unwanted parenting advice?

Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at She oversees the Parenting and Pets sections, and writes feature stories, blog posts and opinion pieces. She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or jeneyer@annarbor.



Wed, May 26, 2010 : 9:27 a.m.

A dad here, who also happens to be on ArborParents. The discussions on that list mirror what I see on lots of lists/message boards - people will fire off notes from the safety of the keyboard, since they are not talking to the recipient(s) face to face and often, as Jen noted, the tone is one of "this is my way and it's the right way so therefore you're doing it wrong." IMO, parenting has become too expert/book/external resource-driven. Parents seek out solutions to issues and rely on those solutions and less on their own gut/instinct/intuition. Someone criticizing another parent probably lacks a lot of trust in her/his own decision/solution, wondering if they indeed made the right choice. "Why would someone choose to do something different that what I read was the best way?" It invalidates their own research and gives rise to insecurity. It's easier said then done, but I will remind people (friends/relatives/strangers if they dare) to please point out where I can find their names on the birth certificates of my children. Raising kids isn't a closed loop - the input/feedback from friends and family are invaluable, but the decisions rest with the parents and we need to remind ourselves of that rather than pointing fingers/looking for the next book or study to help guide us along.


Tue, May 25, 2010 : 7:26 p.m.

The book, "Bad Mother," by Ayelet Waldman offers a helpful exploration of this and I really like Jen's suggestions here as well.... I wonder if this age of early childhood research breeds a certain cockiness among some parents? Or, have parents always been judgmental -- we just have more access to their opinions now?

John Hritz

Tue, May 25, 2010 : 7:02 p.m.

At the risk of triggering the daddy wars (or in my case the uncle wars), it amazes me that efforts to foster independence and competency in children generate claims of neglect from some. Kids feel sad, make mistakes and get their share of bumps and bruises. Overcoming them by sleeping through the night, helping cook a meal or healing up after falling out of a favorite tree are part of the growing process. I think not letting them try these and other things are worse then protecting them from every disappointment and injury however minor.


Tue, May 25, 2010 : 2:49 p.m.

Judge not lest ye be judged! The easiest thing in the world to do, and one of the most innate human traits, is to find fault in others. It is an easy way of ranking yourself. People have a much harder time identifying good things. Think about that next time you are parenting to your kid, or thinking about offering advice. My wife and I shrug off these types of comments all the time. I also agree that most kids turn out ok, just look at the General Assembly of the United Nations, all those people were not only raised with different parenting styles, but different cultures were in the mix as well.


Tue, May 25, 2010 : 2:30 p.m.

As a long-time moderator of ArborParents, that's interesting (and sad) to hear. It's amazing what people will say in email posts not realizing the effect it can have on 1,800 other people especially in a parenting forum, it can have a negative effect without them realizing it. I do believe that while some parents are judgmental, they often don't realize how judgmental they are until someone calls them on it.

Jordan Miller

Tue, May 25, 2010 : 2:07 p.m.

I quit Arborparents after a woman wrote about walking through a snow drift with her baby in a sling and concluded her story with "Take that, stroller moms!" Really? "Stroller moms?" Please. Somehow I think that teaching your children that it's okay to loudly criticize the lifestyles of others that don't fit your standards is going to do more harm than putting your child in a crib or a stroller. Once we can accept that we're all just women trying our darned hardest to do a good job and balance hectic lives, maybe we can actually support each other instead of cutting each other down.

Sue Talbert

Tue, May 25, 2010 : 1:50 p.m.

I was just talking to my dad about this very topic last week. Of all people, my DAD, who had less of a hands-on parenting experience than my mom. But it was interesting to hear his (almost 70y/o) take on it. He said, "Parenting now is a much more cerebral experience; most people enter in to it having read experts and formed opinions about what type of parenting they wish to engage in. When we were parenting, there was none of that - except Dr. Spock. It was all guesswork back then." Thanks, Pop, for making me sound old.;) But seriously - I am so glad that my parents don't take it personally, b/c we do M A N Y things differently than they did. If they were doing it in today's day & age, we might find that we make similar choices. Then again, maybe not. I love the idea of extending grace by saying, "This works for me, but might not work for everyone." I find that sort of gentle comment is much more helpful than outright scorn and/or condemnation, which I've experienced in my 8.5 yrs of parenting.

Bridget Bly

Tue, May 25, 2010 : 1:24 p.m.

I try to remember that kids' behavior is not all parent-driven or parent controllable. Some kids are more difficult than others, no way to get around that. I also know how long I remember slights (intended and unintended) that I have felt to my parenting, and try not to be the one whose comment rankles for 10 years. Who needs that kind of bad karma? So while I'm at it, I'd like to say to anyone whom I have offended with bad/nosy/unasked for advice: I'm really sorry and I was probably wrong. (Except that thing I said about not letting toddlers have bubble-gum-machine jewelry. That stuff has lead in it and you really should keep it away from them.)


Tue, May 25, 2010 : 1:12 p.m.

It's a lot easier to pretend you've got control over how your kids turn out than to accept the fact that, to a very large degree, it's a matter of luck. The control-freak worldview is challenged if other people aren't hurting their kids by doing something different.

Heidi Hess Saxton

Tue, May 25, 2010 : 1:11 p.m.

Working outside the home can also raise a lot of hackles... Some SAHMs (and dads) are quick to brand as "selfish" any mother who chooses (except perhaps in the most pressing financial straits) to work for a paycheck, even part time. In reality, there are all kinds of legitimate reasons for working outside the home. In an ideal world, families would spend all their time together -- but the real world is full of hard choices, and pressing needs. It's the parents' job to figure out how to meet and balance the needs of the entire family. When we first became foster parents, I used daycare several days a week (and continued to work on a freelance basis), simply because I NEEDED that time for my own sanity. In retrospect, it might have been a better option to bring additional help into the home... but we made the best choice we knew at the time. That's all a parent can do in the end: Make a choice, and adjust as needed.


Tue, May 25, 2010 : 12:47 p.m.

Ah, ArborParents. I wonder how many people have gone through that? It's a great group! Just don't bring up circumcision, or vaccination, or crying it out, or co-sleeping, etc... :)

Woman in Ypsilanti

Tue, May 25, 2010 : 12:45 p.m.

I try to remember that most children turn out ok. That is true even of children who grow up in seriously horrible environments that include physical and sexual abuse. Most of those kids turn out ok. I mean, if most abused kids can turn out ok, surely something like allowing a child to cry out (or not) or allowing a kid to have a pacifier (or not) is just not going to make that much of a difference. As silly as this sounds, I have to do the same thing at the dog park where there are all kinds of dog owners who deal with their dogs in ways that bother me. I just have to remind myself that just because they aren't whispering to their dogs Cesar Milan style, it doesnt mean the dog is unhappy or not cared for.