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When Friends and Family Criticize Your Parenting

5 steps for how to respond when other people question your parenting practices.

"Dr. Laura...How do I explain this kind of parenting to other parents who think I’m spoiling my child? They all use timeouts and other punishments.” —Rebecca

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

Being with other families is good for both parents and children. But what happens when your parenting approaches differ?

The stakes are high in parenting. When we're choosing to do things differently, it's easy to feel defensive—especially when other people question our parenting practices. After all, if you explain that your way raises emotionally healthy kids, and the other parent is raising their child differently, what does that say about them? Conflict is inevitable.

And there's no winning this argument. The proof of any child-raising approach will be in the pudding, and the pudding takes a long time to cook. So when someone else's three-year-old hops to it at the count of three while yours is arguing and whining, it's hard to justify your approach. Sure, you can claim your kid will be a more self-directed teenager, but where's your proof?

Worse, when other people question our parenting, it feeds our own fears. Most of us weren't raised this way. Are we really teaching him to behave if we don't punish? Might we even be, heaven forbid, spoiling our child?

It doesn't help that young children who are taught to be obedient do comply faster with parental directives. When humans are threatened with punishment, they usually comply, right? And then they get in the habit of compliance, unless they're strong-willed. (In which case, they get in the habit of defiance.)

But here's what four decades of research* show clearly: Kids do need guidance and limits, but they're more likely to "own" those limits when they feel safe and understood, which is what happens when we accept emotions and guide behavior with empathy. By contrast—and the research is clear on this—authoritarian parenting raises kids who are more prone to anger, rebellion, depression, anxiety, and peer pressure. Permissive parenting raises kids who are more likely to be unhappy, self-centered, undisciplined and anxious—what people usually mean by the term "spoiled."

So what can you tell those well-meaning folks who think you’re spoiling your child? The easy answer is, Never complain, never explain. Just smile at the other person and say, "Parenting sure is hard, isn't it?" In the privacy of your mind, reassure yourself that you've done your research, you're following your inner guidance, and your child will be fine.

But what if your child has a run-in with another child, and the other family is waiting for you to make things right by punishing your child? Demonstrate that it's possible set limits and guide your child, all with empathy and compassion:

1. Help your child make things right with the other child. If your child isn't ready to apologize, do it for your child, while you are in physical contact with your own child. "We're so sorry you were hurt.... Are you okay?... Maya was very mad and forgot to use her words. I know that later once everyone calms down, she will be able to make things better with you. We are so very sorry."

2. Resist the urge to punish, but do take your child out the hearing of others to talk. Empathize with what a tough situation it was, and how your child was feeling. Let him vent. Hug him. Once he feels better, ask what he can do to make things better with the other child. Repair is more effective than punishment in helping your child redeem himself.

3. Talk with your kids before gatherings about expected behavior. Ask your child what kinds of rules make sense for the upcoming gathering. For instance:

  • Always look after the littler children.
  • Stay in sight of parents. When parents call, go to them.
  • No long turns because everyone needs a turn.
  • It's okay to disagree, but we can always work things out with respect.

4. Don't be afraid to set limits, but do it with humor and warmth. Your children will be more likely to comply. And people who think you're permissive will see that you do hold to your limits, patiently and kindly.

5. If your child has a meltdown, remove them from the public gaze. When kids get over-stimulated, they do sometimes melt down. What they need at those moments is to feel safe and loved, not judged. And to provide that safety, you need privacy. So don't be apologetic. Just smile ruefully and tell any well-meaning relatives that your child will be fine and just needs a little time alone with you. Then, get past your own embarrassment. Everyone has hard days.

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And what if you feel a need to explain your parenting, for instance to your mother-in-law or your BFF?

  • Connect first. Point out that you both love your kids and are doing the best you can. (Or, in the case of your mother-in-law, that she did such a good job you fell in love with the result.)
  • Explain that recent brain research has taught us new lessons about child development. Just as we wouldn't build airplanes like we used to 30 years ago, we can "build better brains" and better humans using what we've learned. Research is clear that being punitive never helps. What all humans need is to feel understood, and then they can more gracefully accept whatever they're resisting about the current situation. So, of course, you set limits on behavior, but not on emotions. Sure, it would be easier just to raise your voice, but you're modeling respect. You're trying to be the person you want your child to become.

That's all you really need to say. Smile and say that you know both their kids and yours are well-loved and will come out fine.

If they push you, tell them that you'll be glad to compare notes on this experiment when your children, and theirs, are teenagers. Because you're looking forward to the teen years. After all, kids raised with empathic limits are self-disciplined, considerate, happy teens. (Yes, really.)

Looking for more research on punishment? Many scholarly studies are cited in Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting.

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