“You really shouldn’t hold her so much you know”
“He should be sleeping in his own room by now”
“She’s too old to be having milk at night now”
“He should be sleeping through the night by now, it’s not good for him to wake so much”
“She’ll never learn to be independent if you don’t leave her”
“You need to be firmer with him, he has to learn he can’t always get his own way”
“If you don’t punish her she’ll never learn the consequences for her behaviour”
“She really should be in nursery now, socialising with children of her own age”
“You pander to him too much, if he doesn’t eat it then just take it away and send him to bed hungry”
I hear these sorts of comments so much from parents. When you practice a more gentle style of parenting, criticism from others can be all too common. So, what should you do then next time somebody offers you one of these pearls of wisdom?
1. Try to see the motivation
A lot of what we view as criticism can really be classified as well-meant concern. This is particularly true if it comes from those close to us, ie relatives. Perhaps they are worried about how tired you look, or they are genuinely concerned about your child and rather than meaning to attack what you are doing, their comments are actually aimed at (what they believe will be) something far healthier for your child, and you. The comments may come out wrong and it can be easy to perceive them as just being an attack on you, but I think most criticism is just poorly phrased concern. Of course this isn’t always the case, sometimes people are just negative interfering busy-bodies, but I find trying to look for the motivation really helpful.
2. Understand they are speaking from their own knowledge and experience base
When my firstborn was a baby, early weaning (by 16 weeks), cry based sleep training and punishments were the in-thing. This advice was given in all the baby books, by health visitors/child nurses, official healthcare publications and television experts. Things have changed a lot in the last 17 years, imagine how much they have changed over the last 30 or 40! I have kept up to date with current research and recommendations, because that’s my job, if it wasn’t, I’d have no reason to know how much things have changed and I would likely believe that the same recommendations still applied. People give advice/criticise based upon what they know and believe to be true. Similarly, they criticise and advise based upon their own experiences; of being a child and (sometimes) raising one. This involves a lot of cognitive dissonance, because accommodating new, updated, advice, means admitting that how they were raised, or how they raised their children may have been damaging. Instead of admitting this – and working through the big feelings it brings – many people will attack the new information, sometimes consciously, other times totally subconsciously. In a sense the fact you are doing things differently may be seen as an attack on what they did, or are doing. Hence, their criticism of you is a self-protective mechanism. Basically, their negative words are not saying anything about you, but everything about them.
3. Ask questions and Talk about Emotions
If you want to respond to the advice/criticisms; my strongest suggestion is to hold back on piling the evidence on them. I see so many posts on social media saying things like “can anyone provide me with some research showing sleep training is bad?”. Providing evidence here is totally ineffective. Why? Because it just won’t get through the cognitive dissonance barrier. They probably won’t even read it. If they do read it they will dismiss it. As much as you may think listing evidence is the way forward to convince them that you are in the right, it really isn’t. What works better? Two things – asking “why?” and appealing to their emotions. The next time somebody says “he needs to sleep in his own room” ask them “why?”. Keep drilling down and drilling down. When they say “because he needs to be independent”, ask “why?”. When they say “because he won’t ever learn to be alone otherwise”, ask “why?”. At some point they will reach a dead end and simply not be able to answer, or – there is a slim chance they may realise that their criticism has no substance and what they read/saw is incorrect (though don’t hold your breath!). Another tactic is to appeal to their emotions. Here, I like to ask them to put themselves into the child’s place, or imagine how they felt/what they needed as a child. “how do you think she feels when she’s left crying in her cot?”, or “do you remember a time when you really needed your parents, but they didn’t come for you?”. Asking ‘why’? and appealing to emotions is inifinitely more successful than providing evidence in my experience.
4. Smile and thank them
Aka ignore them. Ignoring in a way that makes them feel like they’ve been listened to is key though. Instead of saying “please keep your opinions to yourself”, or “no, I’m not doing that”. Responding with “Thanks for your advice, I’ll take it on board”, or “OK, that’s definitely something to think about” quietens people a lot quicker than disagreeing with them! Sure, you have not done anything to attempt to change their mind, but I think sometimes for our sanity it’s best to smile nod, ignore and move on. We’re not here to change the world for everybody, just our children. It’s OK if somebody holds a conflicting view to you.
5. Remind yourself of why you’re doing things this way
These last two points are about keeping your confidence up. Criticism and unwanted advice can really erode it. If you’ve been on the receiving end from several people, or over a sustained length of time (I’m thinking family holiday and so on) it can be all too easy to start second guessing yourself. Take a breather to remind yourself of why you’re doing this your way, re-read the books and the articles, watch a video, listen to a podcast. Revisit whatever source convinced you in the first place. If that source was your intuition/heart, then try to switch off from all things parenting and go for a long walk, watch a movie, read a (non parenting) book, meditate and do whatever it is that you enjoy doing to take away some of the toxicity.
6. Get support from likeminded parents
It can be hard parenting in a way that is not the norm. A day or two surrounded by people doing things differently to you is hard going, especially if they criticise you. The best solution I’ve found for this is to surround yourself with like minded people. People who agree with you. Post on the internet about your experience, the replies agreeing with you and telling you to ignore the critcisms can be incredibly validating! If you’re on Facebook, come and join my gentle parenting chat groups HERE for those of you in the UK and HERE for those of you elsewhere in the world.
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