All the Rage

Commentary on the scientific study of anger

“I Can’t Believe Someone Would Do That!” Why Parents Get Mad at Other Parents.

Why do people get angry over decisions other parents make?

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine wrote a really interesting blog piece for Inside Higher Ed on whether the focus on keeping children from swearing is misguided. The comments that followed her piece were the usual mix of insightful, complimentary, and argumentative. Some readers really seemed to connect with her perspective, some politely disagreed, and some were flat out rude and disrespectful. Of this last sort, at least one person suggested my friend had harmed her child by listening to rap music when she was pregnant and another seemed to question whether she was fit to be an educator. 

The funny thing is that these comments were relatively tame compared to those comments you might find elsewhere on the internet. In fact, you can hardly avoid witnessing a rage filled debate when you visit the Parents Magazine page on Facebook. Posts about flash card applications for your smartphone prompt arguments over the role of technology in parenting and posts asking people how they spend their Sundays lead to arguments about the role of church. Even their "Messy Eater Photo Contest" prompted some comments about how it is wrong to let kids play with their food. 

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Meanwhile, just a few months ago, I found myself embroiled in my own little Facebook debate on the appropriateness of the "cry it out" approach to sleep training. While things stayed civil, there were certainly points in the discussion when I felt angry. All of these examples, coupled with many others, have made me start to wonder: Why do people get angry over the decisions that other parents make? 

On the surface, it does not really make sense. Typically, we get angry when we are provoked. We get angry when we think we have been treated unfairly and when we feel we have been harmed. So why would anyone care if another parent lets his or her child play with food at the dinner table? How is it that they feel provoked or harmed by that decision? Likewise, why would someone feel unfairly treated or harmed by my friend's decision to listen to rap music while pregnant? 

Of course, there are times when it makes perfect sense to be angry over another's parenting. Instances of abuse, neglect, etc. are an outrage and everyone should be angry about them. But, I don't think that spending Sunday morning at the park or zoo instead of church falls into that category.

Not surprisingly, there is no research on this. It is a rather specific topic that no one seems to be exploring.  Consequently, my thoughts on this are not driven as much by research as they are by theory and observations.  With that in mind, here are some possible explanations as to where the anger might be coming from. 

Insecurity.  Parenting decisions are both difficult and deeply personal.  Whether it is how long to use a car or booster seat, what to do about tantrums, or the best way to potty train, parents have to make tough decisions.  When you add that there are countless and conflicting sources of information, it is easy to feel insecure about the decisions you make.  When someone makes a different decision than you, it might make you feel like you are doing something wrong.  If you are from the "cry it out" school of sleep training, someone saying they never let their child cry might feel like a provocation.  If you never let your child play with his or her food, a Parents Magazine tribute to messy eaters might make you feel like they are saying you are too strict.  Consequently, you feel angry, a common response to feeling as though your decisions and abilities are being questions or insulted. 

Confidence Building. Related to this issue of insecurity, a second possibility is that the anger one feels in these instances helps build his or her confidence.   In other words, if you do not always feel like the perfect parent (and most do not), maybe judging someone else makes you feel better about yourself and your abilities.  When you are at dinner and see parents letting their kids eat something you would not let your kids eat, becoming angry at them might actually boost your confidence and make you feel better about something you are actually feeling insecure about.  In a sense, what you might be thinking is, "I don't have all the answers but at least I don't do that."    

Indirect Provocation. Finally, some people may see decisions other parents make as a symptom of something bigger.  For example, the regular church goer might see someone who does not take his or her kids to church as a symptom of societal decay.  Someone who does not make their kids say "please" and "thank you" might be considered a symptom of a bigger problem, the lack of manners and civility in society today.  These decisions then do feel like they are provocations, at least indirectly, to the person who witnesses them.   

Something interesting happened as I was writing this post.  I had to take a break to go pick my kids up from daycare and when I was there the teacher asked me if my four-month old was sleeping through the night.  I said no, that he needs to be fed once in the middle of the night.  I also mentioned, as sort of a side comment, that we put him to bed pretty early compared to most kids.  She was somewhat shocked by the time we put him to bed and asked if we had considered a later bed time for him. 

I admit, it made me a little angry and defensive to have her question me like that.  It probably should not have.  It is reasonable for a daycare worker to ask about certain habits and I imagine, from her perspective, she is wondering if a later bedtime would mean that he would take better naps when he is at daycare.  I certainly would not get angry if someone challenged me in a similar way over a decision I made at work (i.e., I do not get angry when I am challenged about my attendance policy or my position on extra credit).  But, like most people, I am sometimes insecure about the decisions I make as a parent and, even though I believe that an earlier bedtime is best for him, it is still easy to feel defensive when challenged. 

It was a timely example given that I was writing this post when it happened.  The good news, though, is that a little bit of introspection helped me work through it and better understand why I felt as I did. 

Ryan Martin, Ph.D. is an anger researcher and the Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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