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Criticism, Advice, and Comments: Cultural Perspectives on Parenting

My nearly 1-year-old in a moby when he was probably a little bit too big for a moby. But doesn’t he look cozy?

“You’re a good mom.”

Someone actually said that to me the other day. I almost fell out of my chair. Me? A good mom? And this comment wasn’t in reference to my child sleeping through the night or drinking cow’s milk. I told my doctor (a traditional Chinese medicine doctor) that I hold my baby a lot. I told him that we put him in a carrier instead of a stroller and I sleep next to him at night. I always pick him up when he wants to be held.

“Ohhh. You are a good mom,” he said. And he meant it.

Why yes, I am, thankyouverymuch.

“I bet he knows when you are near before he can even hear you or see you. He senses you, even in his sleep.”

Why yes, he does.

While I can occasionally get some praise for a few random things I do for my son, I don’t know if anyone has ever told me directly that I am doing a good job because I try be physically close to my baby whenever possible.

I’ve been astounded at the amount of criticism, judgment, and advice that has been thrown my way since having a baby (actually, it started while I was pregnant). It usually takes the form of small comments here and there, but these little comments have a huge impact. Although I’ve always been able to brush off unwanted advice, there is just something about the topic of parenting that evokes strong emotions in me.

I guess I’ve always been able to dismiss random comments and pieces of advice because the topic matter was comparatively insignificant. Parenting is huge. If we can do one job right in our whole lives, I think most of us would want to get the parenting thing right. No one wants his or her kids in therapy 20 years from now discussing how their parents screwed up every step of the way. Or, even worse, suffer some type of negative health effect due to our poor parenting choices.

When given advice about those insignificant topics, I usually have a standard comeback that looks something like this:

Them: “You should paint your kitchen yellow.”

Me: “You should paint YOUR kitchen yellow.”

Them: “Why would I paint my kitchen yellow?”

Me: “Why would I?”

And they then they get the point and we move on with our lives.

On the other hand, when it comes to parenting, that strategy doesn’t really work:

Them: “You just need to make your kid cry himself to sleep.”

Me: “You just need to make YOUR kid cry himself to sleep.”

Them: “I did. And now he’s a perfect sleeper. He never wakes up. Sleep is important and if they aren’t getting enough sleep, they might become obese or be delayed in certain areas. I noticed your kid doesn’t talk a lot. It’s probably because he’s not getting enough sleep. Or maybe it is because you taught him sign language. You should just put him in his crib at nap time and then he’ll figure it out. Oh, and you should stop breastfeeding because that is causing your kid to wake up. Not only that, but it is probably causing problems in your marriage that you don’t even know about. I know a couple who got divorced because the mom wouldn’t force her kids to sleep in their own room. And she kept breastfeeding, which ruined their sex life. How often are you having sex? You need to have sex at least twice a week to keep your husband happy. He’s probably going to cheat on you. You never know. My friend’s husband cheated on her and she had no idea he was unhappy. It turns out that she paid more attention to her kids than to her husband. Aside from that, if you hold your baby too much, you’ll spoil him. Your baby is old enough now to not be held all the time. He’s never going to go to Kindergarten if you continue to baby him. He’ll be the kid in the corner crying because his mom always did everything for him. He’ll never be able to cope with life. And you’ll be so much happier once you don’t have kids hanging on you all the time.”

Me: But he’s not even two years old yet.

Them: Well, my baby was sleeping through the night at 6 weeks.

Me: *blank stare*

Yes, those are all lovely pieces of advice (with some ad libbing for dramatic effect ;)) that I’ve been given over the past 21+ months. Although this type of advice and criticism may only come every once in a while, it sticks in my mind and plays over and over. While I am like 98% confident in the vast majority of our choices, parenting is such a big deal that the leftover 2% sometimes takes over. While I rarely doubt that I am doing anything wrong, I usually just get mad at the person for being so rude and obnoxious. Someone recently asked me what time Gavin goes to bed (why would that person care? I don’t know). And I said, “ugh. He didn’t get to bed until 10 last night!” I thought it was just a mom venting to another mom – surely she had been in a situation like that before. Surely, she would assume the best of me that there was a reason he went to bed late. But her response: “Oh, that is way too late for a kid his age. You need to get him to bed earlier.” She didn’t ask why he was up so late, if that was typical, etc. She just assumed that she knew better than me and that of course I was doing something wrong. In defense of myself (and it annoys me that my first response is to defend myself instead of telling her to mind her own business), I said, “Well, he usually goes to bed around 8:30.” She responded by saying, “Oh – that’s much better. That’s acceptable for someone his age.”

REALLY lady? REALLY? Please, tell me what else is acceptable for my child!

I could probably write a book filled with my rants about the unwanted and unnecessary parenting advice I’ve received (I’ll spare you because I’m sure you’ve heard it all too). Not to mention the side-eyes, the rolling eyes, the scoffs, and the silence.

It is actually a relief when someone gives me positive reinforcement when it comes to parenting, and I’ve noticed more often than not, it comes from someone whose culture is rooted somewhere other than the U.S. Even when I do get positive reinforcement from an American, their own insecurities typically shine through, which tells me that this type of criticism is nothing new (and I probably shouldn’t take it personally!).

In addition to my “good mom” comment, another refreshing moment came when Gavin was about a year old. We had recently started attending Gymboree, and Gavin was more shy than most kids in his class. At home and around people he knows well, he is outgoing, but around a large group, he tends to stay quiet and close to me. I started getting comments about how he’s shy. I am cool with him being any which way he wants to be, but the comments come from a negative point of view, and that is what bothers me. Then I brought him to work with me and we went from office to office visiting my co-workers. Gavin would hug me a little bit tighter when a new face would start talking to him. “Oh, he’s shy,” they would say. Until we visited one lady, and when Gavin kept quiet and listened to her talk to him, she said, “Oh, he’s so polite! How wonderful!”

Yes, he is polite. Thank you for noticing.

It was nice for someone to see the positive in him. In our culture, shyness is often frowned upon. Kids in school are supposed to speak up – it’s almost a sign that they are smarter than the rest. At the very least, it is a sign of confidence. However, as my co-worker later explained to me, in her culture, it is polite to stop and listen to adults… to keep quiet .

It is easy to get lost in our own western cultural perspective. After all, it is our culture. It is hard to discern what is cultural and what is absolute. Much more is cultural than you probably realize. Even medicine is cultural. We tend to consider medicine and medical issues as absolute, but many medical “truths” are really just opinions and theories. (If you are interested in reading about a case where cultures clashed over medical decisions, one of my favorite books ever is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down).

 The book, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, (a book we’ve recommended a lot) is another great resource for reading cross-cultural perspectives on parenting. As you probably know, even giving birth in the U.S. is a uniquely cultural experience.

Fortunately in the United States, we are surrounded by people of many different cultures. This gives us the unique opportunity to examine ourselves from a different, and often refreshing, perspective. If you are like me and tend to think rules, even cultural rules, are made to be broken, I encourage you to spend some time with people who come at parenting from a perspective other than what we are used to in the U.S. Sure you might get some criticism (but it’s easier to brush off because “that’s not the way we do things in America” – right? ;)), but you’ll probably also hear some new (and maybe helpful) advice. You might even get some positive reinforcement for doing things differently than what our culture dictates.

And in case no one has told you lately, you are a good mom. YOU! We should probably say that to our fellow mamas as often as possible. Nope, no one needs to tell me I’m a good mom in order for me to keep doing what I’m doing, but it certainly feels better than being told I’m doing something (everything!) wrong.

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Published in Parenting