Judge Not the Anxious Mommy at the Playground

Once again, I find myself disagreeing with my colleague Theodore. He asks us not to judge the "anxious mommy in the playground" or any of the other parents who refuse to let their children fall or fail. But parenting without judging seems to me nearly impossible.

Sure, we'd all like to be high-minded. The world probably would be a better place if I, like Jason Avant over at DadCentric, announced that I Don't Have Any More Parenting Opinions. But I do. I can't help it. Look past Jessica Lahey's post and go straight to the study she cites (.pdf). Yes, it seems only slightly more scientific than a collection of school counselor gossip—I heard a parent once sent a note to her child's classmate to solve a dispute the kids were having—but they have culled some very judgement-worthy highlights.

One example: Respondents highlighted the following as a common practice among parents they see (part of the "demandingness" that goes hand-in-hand with not letting children just be children):

[Parents give] constant instructions to children in public places—often from afar, rather than up close and ensuring child cooperation e.g. Don't touch that, sit down, move away from that lady, don't touch that (again and again).

Who doesn't want to judge that? It's so prevalent on playgrounds in uptight neighborhoods like mine as to be almost invisible: a nonstop barrage of instructions to children designed to cajole and badger them into more adult behavior. Take five minutes next time you're at a playground and just watch. You'll see it, too. It's maddening. It's the slightly older analog of being the parent who chases his toddler around the rubberized playground to make sure they don't fall once. Both behaviors seem intimately linked to all the cheating and lying and covering for a failing child that Lahey cites in parents of older children. If you don't let them fall on the playground, you won't let them fail in school. Both are a grave disservice to parent and child.

Here's the thing, though: I don't actually care about other parents or other children. I don't worry for their souls. I worry for my own. Because when I see parents of younger children and their reflexive badgering and cajoling, I remember that I used to be just like that when my kids were younger. I had these babies who seemed in turns too fragile and too unruly. As infants, they would cry in public and I would try to shush them (mostly by saying "shush", which is useless). As toddlers, they would toddle down crowded sidewalks and I would swoop in to pick them up and carry them. Now that my kids are school-age, I try to be a good parent, with just enough give and just enough pull. But just as I was guilty of excesses through all the other ages—without even knowing it at the time—I'm pretty sure that I am repeating whatever bad parenting behaviors are in vogue among us all right now.

And so: I have seen the bad parent, and judged him, only because I know that the bad parent is me.

–Nathan Thornburgh

Presented by

Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, & Nathan Thornburgh

Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, and Nathan Thornburgh write for the website DadWagon. Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in The Sexes

Just In