When Toni Morrison told Essence in 1981 that “You really need the whole village [to raise a child],” she did not mean “you need the whole village telling you how to raise your child.” Parenting is a full-time job plus overtime. When family and friends share in the parenting responsibilities, primary caregivers are able to take care of themselves and their homes, a virtuous cycle that provides the best possible environment for the children. But too often others participate by offering judgmental declarations about the choices primary caregivers make, rather than simply pitching in to help. Unless there is evidence of neglect or abuse, we must respect the choices primary caregivers make for their children. All parents need advice, but nobody likes to be judged.
Sometimes judgmental comments come from good intentions. People believe their suggestions are helpful based on their own parenting experiences. But ultimately this is presumptuous. Every child’s situation is different, and primary caregivers understand the complexities of their children’s needs better than anyone else.
Sometimes people make judgmental comments to compensate for their own shortcomings. If I point out your imperfections as a parent, I don’t feel as bad about my own. But criticizing others only provides short-term relief. People who try to extend that relief by perpetually putting others down are less healthy – mentally and physically. Vigilant criticism is stressful on the mind and the body.
Parents of a child with special needs may carry an additional burden – outside parties sometimes deny the existence of certain disorders (e.g., some believe ADHD is a myth) or discourage parents from seeking treatment when they have concerns. Parents of children with special needs may already feel lonely and overwhelmed, and lack of support from friends and family makes it worse. Robin H. Morris, freelance writer and mother of an autistic child, described frustrations shared by parents like her and offered advice for overcoming it. For example, speaking plainly about the child’s strengths and weaknesses helps family and friends understand the concrete issue affecting the child. It is important to disprove stereotypes with hard facts, in a non-threatening way. Multimedia aids like the videos on www.autismspeaks.org are also useful.
Critics can become villagers. Parents can reduce the number of judgmental comments they receive by learning how to manage them better. Be open to others’ advice, but find a comfortable way to assert your authority over your child’s upbringing. Make a plan – seeking professional help if needed – and try it out. Then revise strategies as needed. It is important to have a clan who understands your mission and will support you along the way. Family and friends can focus on helping out in tangible ways (e.g., babysitting) and only giving advice when it has been thoughtfully considered. Ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone said this to me?” Also, “If I were defending the primary caregivers, how might I explain their choices?”
Jaime earned her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Yeshiva University. She works in a private practice doing psychotherapy and evaluations. Jaime’s specialty is in working with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. www.spectrumservicesnyc.com. JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com. (914)712-8208.
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