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Don’t Judge: A Potato Chip Epiphany

This article is more than 8 years old.

“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the judgey brigades from St. Paul to Revere…”

Or so ol' Henry Wadsworth might have inscribed, had he spent less time on lyric mythology and more time at the playground.

Parents are a judgmental bunch. This might be an understatement.

Can you believe what they let that child get away with? Can you believe how rigid they are? They're scary overprotective! They’re totally out to lunch! No wonder their kids are such a mess! No wonder! No wonder! No wonder!

Parents judge other parents like it's going out of style. Which I wish it would, but I'll get to that.

Now, being judgmental is not unique to moms and dads. From the moment we're born, we are forming opinions about the folks around us. Are you good news or bad news? Paragon or pariah? And hey, it keeps us alive; evolutionarily, this ability to judge has a definite upside. But the parental addiction to judging our counterparts is vestigial. It’s the appendix of adulthood. Ostrich feathers.

Parenting can be hard enough without the kangaroo court rubbish we inflict on each other.

We don't need to be this way. It no longer serves any useful purpose, if it ever really did, this shaking of heads and rolling of eyes, the reflexive chant of "they're doing it wrong!"

Negative bonus points: it also sets a rotten example for our kids.

Most of us know we should stop. We are offended when we become the random target of the roving parental tsk-tsk squad.

How can they be so judgmental? They don't have any idea! They don't even know us! It isn't what they think!

But we persist in judging other parents even when we reject being judged — and even when the kid-wrangling choices of other parents don't affect us.

We don’t let evidence sway us, either: we stick to our judgmental guns even when we see that kids raised all different ways tend to emerge unscathed as long as they experience unconditional love.

And we stay judgey even though every parent I know lives by the mantra: "Pick your battles." Shouldn't it be obvious to us that the parental sin we think we witness is often simply the battle not chosen?

By we, of course, I mean me.

Or, that is, the old me. Years ago I had an epiphany, and like most epiphanized know-it-alls, I'm here to proselytize.

I’d barely begun to mosey down the parenting path when it hit me: most of the time I don't have the foggiest notion about what's going on with other people. The "oblivious" parents of the screecher, the "overindulgent" parents of the delicate flower, the "asking-for-trouble" parents of the homework-averse teen. I am an outsider. I am getting a snapshot of a moment. I don't see beyond the frame. I don't know the back story. I have no context.

Why the flash of light? A lesson a la the immortal wish of Longfellow’s good buddy Robert Burns: “to see ourselves as others see us.”

At the age of one, my firstborn “fell off his growth chart." The pediatrician read me the riot act. The kid was not getting big enough fast enough, so I needed to devote every waking hour to feeding him fat, fat, and more fat. Thus it came to pass that one afternoon as we walked through town, my boy sat in his stroller gobbling up a colossal bag of potato chips. How excellent, I thought. That's some serious fat intake. Brain food. Except suddenly I realized...had I been one of the other parents ambling along, taking in this scene of my grease-stained scrawny cherub with a tight grip on the mega-bag of Lay’s, I would have been appalled.

Look at that clueless slacker mom letting her baby--her BABY--gorge on potato chips. POTATO CHIPS!

I can't claim I never judged again. I'm trainable, but I'm not a saint. Still, the experience changed me.

Just because we are parents, we don’t know everything, and that includes all the threads in the tapestry that is another family's life.

Could there be valid reasons why that toddler's supper consists of soft serve with sprinkles? And why that six-year-old is coat-free in Bangor in January? And why those parents let that petulant middle-schooler pierce her eyebrows?

You bet.

Perhaps the situation involves doctor's orders, or a hidden disability, or plot complexities galore. It doesn't really matter. Looking down our noses at people we don’t understand helps exactly nobody. Parenting can be hard enough without the kangaroo court rubbish we inflict on each other.

Now, don't get me wrong. Parents develop opinions--legitimate opinions--about some of the better and worse ideas in the raising-kids realm. We establish values and priorities that guide our own choices. That is life; that is not judgey. You know judgey. You know it by how it makes you feel, on both sides of the equation.

And whenever I find myself at risk of drifting back into the judgmental morass, I will fight the impulse by remembering neither Longfellow nor Burns but my Mama and Daddy.

A note from them this week brought it all home. They’re sweet octogenarians proud of a passel of happy kids and grandkids. But my mother writes that when the conversation turns to how certain children thrive and others crash no matter what the parents have tried, they turn to each other and say: “It sometimes is sheer sh** luck.”

This program aired on September 28, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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