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Friday, July 1, 2011

Coping with criticism of our parenting or care philosophy

We spend so much time observing and thinking about our children, listening to them, analysing what they do... we try so hard; we exhaust ourselves trying to do the best we can.

And then there's that moment when someone questions one of our strategies, or enthusiastically suggests a better way, or straight-out criticises our practice. Maybe something that one of those toxic mothers at the school gate or playgroup said got right under our skin.  Maybe we got flamed in some forum discussion.  Or maybe we just read an article in the news or online that challenged or disproved our views, and we beat up on ourselves. Maybe we're a carer, not a parent, and a colleague or our boss just gave us a drubbing.

How do we protect our confidence in the face of that?  We need our confidence.  Our children need to feel that we're in control, and without confidence in our practices we'll radiate uncertainty.

To me, the best defence is preparation, and preparation for criticism of our child-caring ability means two things:

 1. Honest self-evaluation.

Never mind the critics- without looking at ourselves with honest eyes, how can we see what our children see?  Do you listen to yourself when you talk to your kids? (Do you sound just like your own mother? Hold that thought.) Do you reflect back on your day with the kids? (And carers, I'm not talking about writing a few cliches on a self-reflection form each week just because the regulations say you have to! I'm talking about thinking over what you did today as you drive home, because you care.)

2. Active self-education.

How can we formulate a child care philosophy that we're comfortable with, if we haven't taken a step back from the daily chaos and spent time reflecting, reading, researching, discussing?  Do you watch how others do things, and learn from the parents or carers you admire?  Or are you too busy criticising others just because they do things differently from you?  Have you become a 'closed system'? Is it easier to vent than it is to try to solve a problem?

Reflection and education take time, and time is what we're short of- but face it, if we're in control of a child's early years we only get one shot. Who wants to look back and think they could have done better if only they'd taken the time to think?

Stop telling me you haven't got time. Here- read this.  What makes a parent resilient?

Once we've put in the time to think about what we're doing and why, we're so much better prepared to meet critics head-on and either support our position or take their views on board for further reflection (or preferably both).  If we haven't thought about why we do things, if we haven't built a passion for the way we bring up a child, we're a sitting duck for people with a personal agenda and a loaded opinion pointed in our direction.

Take me, for example.  I've set myself up here as some sort of guru giving advice, but on the way here I made plenty of mistakes, was criticised, cried, got defensive, got angry, talked, reflected, educated myself.  Anyone who thinks they have never been wrong had better not set up an advice blog, because they're an idiot by definition.  I'm prepared to stand up for what I think, because I have put in the time and effort to think and learn.  And because I start from that strong position, I'm also prepared to listen to other opinions and sometimes revise what I've thought, said or written.

Here's one of the mistakes I made on the way here. When I first started looking after under-fives, I was convinced I knew how to communicate with children really well. I'd been a parent, I'd been a teacher, I'd been mothered brilliantly- what else could I possibly need? Age, experience and education were on my side.

So I talked to all the children as though they were my own son- who had language ability way beyond his chronological age.  It was the way my brother and I were talked to by our own parents, so of course it must have been the right way! (I may have overlooked the fact that my brother and I both have IQs in the 'highly to precociously gifted' range.)

I don't just mean that I didn't use baby talk; I was using concepts that were way too complex and words that were too long and unfamiliar to the majority of the children. (Note that the way I talked was completely appropriate for the gifted children in the room- and I continue to talk in a more complex way to these kids.)

Over time, with self-education and reflection, I came to see that although the children responded to my communications with warmth and enthusiasm, not all of them actually understood what I said to them.  Many of the children with age-appropriate vocabularies, who couldn't understand the words which I'd pitched way over their heads, were responding more to my respectful and natural tone of voice and my body language (which tends to include a lot of natural signing). Probably they also had an instinctive understanding that I was a good guy who cared about them; certainly they appreciated that I was interested in them and spent time with them.

But children need to understand their teacher's words.  Until I got that sorted out in my own head, I got arrogant and defensive and upset when anyone criticised me for pitching my intentional teaching too high. The kids were responding to me- of COURSE I was doing it right! They were smiling and having fun, weren't they?

You know what? They respond even better to me now, because they all have a chance of understanding what I'm saying as well as feeling the good vibes. And I monitor myself.  I listen to myself.  Every time I hear myself using language suited to a 12-year-old with a kid who's not on that extremely gifted end of the scale, I say 'shut up Annie, you're talking Swahili again' and say it again more simply.

Looking back now, I can see a lot of things I could have done a lot better if I'd been less defensive. I can see that a lot of what I thought of as gospel was actually based on my own narrow experience of parenting, which in turn was based on my experience of being parented- I turned towards what had felt good to me and away from what had felt wrong to me.  That happened to be a perfect fit for my own child.  But it wasn't a perfect fit for all children of that age- and that's where a lot of criticism and bad practice comes from: over-generalisation of our personal experience.

I thought of this the other day when a conversation erupted in a staffroom about preschool rest time.  As you well know, I hate preschool rest time, and the preschool teacher obviously agreed with that sentiment- but other carers in the room were vocal in their support for children 'regenerating their bodies' during the day (whatever the heck that means- sounds like pseudo-science to me).

One carer in particular was so firm in her views that I realised that I wasn't just questioning her practices by expressing my views- I was unconsciously criticising years of her personal (but narrow) experience, and undermining a strong belief system which had probably been handed down through her family for generations.  She simply could not see that some children don't need a daytime rest by four or five years of age.  She wasn't trying to be snarky.  She just hadn't ever stepped outside her own experience to think about it and learn about it.

So if it worries you when people criticise your parenting or caring practices- get in first with honest self-reflection and ongoing self-education.  Be kind to yourself; we all base our practice on personal experience at first, and that can stand up for a long time even if book learning says the diametric opposite.

But think about the views that challenge yours, don't just immediately adopt them or throw them out.  Work out a rationale for why you do things your way.  Read about the subject on the net (preferably before you get ensnared in a forum argument!) and talk about it with other parents and carers who you respect.  (Me? I respect Janet Lansbury.)

You'll either end up changing your mind or developing a personal passion for your view.  Either outcome will help you to defend yourself and build your confidence in your childcare practices, even in the face of passionate opposition.


  1. This post is very helpful and encouraging! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I taught for four years in the average lowest income per family elementary school in my town. I learned to leave my emotions at the door. I had to do all I could at school and save my energy for my own family. There wasn't any other way for me to survive. I still have memories of how I wish I could've helped more though.

  3. Pacrapacma, I can hear the pain. It's hard.

  4. I came to this with an expectation that I would read about criticisms for breastfeeding, or child led activities, and compassionate communication. Not so much criticisms of spanking or absolute power control (uncommon in the parenting practices I experience in my work). There is a whole gamut of parenting practices out there, and each one (wherever located on the spectrum) deserves looking at. I think what you point to in this post is that any "all or none" attitude is worth personal reflection. And admitting that we are in the driver's seat, but may not always know where we are going, or why, is worth taking the time you speak of to reflect on. Any litany of parenting practices can be misinterpreted, and there is not shortage of forums to support them (thanks for that reference!). Feeling like the Lone Ranger in your community can often feel like reason to load up with self defense even more, and yet when I reflect on one parent's feedback referring to her toddler- She adopted the position that eating (at the table) and with others was a social exchange and she expected that her little one would learn to accept this.

    As always much food for thought. And thank you for your's.*

  5. Thanks, Danielle.

    I often feel like 'the Lone Ranger' actually... all around me I see people who just haven't taken the time to think things through, and it's hard not to leap in and criticise or judge. When we reach a place of feeling we DO know what we're doing and why about an issue, sadly the problems don't end! Enabling change in the face of suspect or frankly bad practices is a whole new ball game, and not to be undertaken lightly.

  6. Interesting insight! "When we reach a place of feeling we DO know what we're doing and why about an issue, sadly the problems don't end!" That is true- Amen. And I've often found that in being clear on what one is doing and why, the success and results that follow in the work with the children, leaves me knowing and feeling satisfied- sometimes even so much so, that at the end of a long day I am energized! We have to be resourceful in the ways that we come to and carry out our work. And I think being clear on what you are doing is one of those resources Annie. It is the relationship with the children that becomes the reward.*

  7. YES, Danielle- again, I agree completely! It's the children who keep me coming back for more. Wonderful interactions with the children are completely rewarding in themselves, and the more we've thought about what we're doing with them and how we react to the challenges they present to us, the better those interactions will become for all parties.

    And then (sigh) we're just left with explaining our approach to those adults who don't share our views on how things are done best, and who don't reflect and learn the way we try to...


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