Annie Muscato didn’t go to Target a few weeks ago to become the latest poster girl for Parent Judginess Gone Wild. She just needed to feed her 8-week-old daughter.
The Gainesville, Florida, mom already had sought plenty of advice on the topic. From her pediatrician. Her lactation consultant. Another lactation consultant. A four-hour breastfeeding class. When breastfeeding wasn’t working, she tried diet changes, pumping, everything. Her baby kept crying. So did she.
Formula finally helped. So that’s what she was putting in her shopping cart when a perfect stranger walked up to her and said three words that felt like a knife aimed right for her heart—“Breast is best!”—and then walked away.
Why would someone do that?
In shaken response, Muscato wrote a heartfelt open letter explaining her backstory to her critic and appealing for a little mutual support among all of us. Maybe you read it. It went viral.
But it’s what happened next that illustrates the real scope of parent shaming.
People started telling her, “Me, too.” By the hundreds.
The common thread: All that judging is making us second-guess ourselves. Even if we haven’t been given the stink-eye from another mom on the playground or been reported to the cops for letting our kids walk to the park unsupervised, there’s a lurking fear of being on the wrong side of some busybody’s “right.” And it’s preventing us from being our best, true selves at this incredible thing we’re all just trying our best to do—raise our kids the best way we know how.
We’re all on notice, 24/7.
Nothing and no one is off-limits. Just ask Ryan Reynolds.
“The stories coming out of this have been the most incredible part,” Muscato told me. “They all say, ‘I just have to tell you, this is my story, I felt guilty or judged, I’m so glad I’m not alone.’ It just struck me as heartbreaking—so many women who felt like they were bad moms when they did nothing wrong, who all seemed to feel so alone.”
As her story shows, it’s easy to blame the click-and-dagger anonymity of the Internet for parent shaming. But it’s everywhere.
The real question is why is it happening.
Let’s start with something called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
“It’s a superiority bias, a way of thinking that influences our judgment,” says biologist Emily Willingham, co-author with science writer Tara Haelle of the new book, The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years. (The authors know their stuff: Aside from their science backgrounds, they have five boys between them, ranging in age from 2 to 14.)
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains a lot about why it’s easy to pass judgments on our fellow mom (or dad)—while being secretly sure our way is better.
In a nutshell: “It’s our tendency to overrate ourselves while underrating others,” Willingham told me.
Scientists know this bias well. (It’s named for two of them, who identified it in 1999, Cornell’s David Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger.) Some have called it “the Lake Woebegone Effect”—after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where “all the children are above average.”
The funny thing about the effect is that it also makes us oblivious when our way isn’t the best. We can see failings in others (Look at that mom on her phone, ignoring her kids!) but excuse the very same behavior in ourselves (This will just take a second…it’s an important text!).
Pretty much everybody has this blind spot, Willingham says, “no matter how nice and unassuming you might be or how super-smart you are.”
Throw in the irresistible urge to compare.
Humans are hardwired to compare everything. We just can’t help casting furtive glances to the other parents in our circles, real and digital. Seeing how we stack up feeds our sense of happiness and security. The better we’re doing, in comparison, the better we feel.
Chrissy Teigen downed Cap’n Crunch and Fruity Pebbles in the same bowl?!—while pregnant? Carrie Underwood locked her baby in the car?! Well hey, that makes me feel better about not showing up for my daughter’s softball game!
And if we’re a little bit unsure or guilt-ridden about our choices—cloth or disposables? buy organics or save money? free-range or close-watch?—it’s an addictive little hit of positive reinforcement to find a like-minded somebody on our same side.
We can also get that hit of reinforcement when we put down somebody who’s not on our side—crossing the line into sanctimommy.
Comparing also feeds into…peer pressure.
We’re all susceptible to the power of our peers, from a 9-year-old who throws rocks at birds because his friends are doing it to a middle-schooler or high-schooler who NEEEEDS a specific brand of shoe to…us.
Sure, it’s less overt at our age. We don’t always realize we’re in its clutches. But we bow to parental peer pressure when we go along with some trend even if we think the idea is unnecessary or kind of dumb but it’s the norm where we live. You know that feeling of being on edge at playgroup in case your kid whacks someone else or someone will notice that you packed a non-organic snack? Yeah, that’s parental peer pressure, too.
The risk of challenging hive-mind or going our own way: social exclusion. Or, at least, knowing the other mommies are whispering behind our back.
Said another way: Junior high never ends.
Emotional intensity amps up everything.
Some parenting hot buttons, of course, are red-hotter than others: Think vaccines. Circumcision. Co-sleeping. Crying it out. In some circles, even the choice of the wrong toy (say, water pistols) can upend a friendship—or get you kicked out of playgroup.
“There’s an intensity of emotion around some decisions and how harmful or helpful the interventions are,” Willingham says of the most controversial topics in parenting. “Needles are terrifying to stick in anyone, much less your infant. It’s intensely worrying whether you’ll ruin your baby by letting him cry.”
It naturally follows that we get especially worked up about these kinds of topics. And what do we do when we care passionately about anything? Yeah, whether it’s politics or phthalates, we sometimes believe so fiercely that we think it gives us a pass to be mean.
We all base our beliefs on cherry-picked facts.
What about science? Isn’t it supposed to leach out the emotion and present cold, hard facts about things like whether it’s okay to have a beer while you’re breastfeeding or whether eating your placenta actually does any good?
Another landmine for judginess comes from which data we consider and how we interpret it.
We all get tripped up by what David Dunning (of that Dunning-Kruger effect) calls “the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.” In other words, we can’t help cherry-picking which facts we choose to base our opinions on.
- Mistaking correlation for causation. The human mind loves patterns. But just because organic food purchases have increased at a rate similar to autism diagnoses over the past decade doesn’t mean they’re related, Willingham and Haelle point out.
- Falling for confirmation bias. We all reflexively gravitate to the facts that go along with our worldview, and reject ones that don’t. “When I’m reading stories about how bad global climate change is, I’m always finding myself looking for that one sentence that says it might not be that bad, because I don’t want the world to come to an end,” Willingham told me.
- Not giving more weight to the “gold standard” studies. If you see the words “randomized controlled trial,” it means neither the researchers nor the subjects know who’s getting which intervention. That’s good, as it eliminates a lot of bias. “As the common saying goes, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not data,” she says. “It helps to understand what kind of evidence you’re considering.”
The finishing touch, two words that tip the snark cart: Bad day.
All it takes is one glass of wine, one off moment to light the match: To hit send on a mean comment. To blurt out something thoughtless to a stranger.
It could be anything: Sleep deprivation. A long day cooped up with a sick toddler. Unmet need for eight octopus arms. Humblebrag tipping point reached. Hormonally clouded sensibilities. Regrettable base desire for revenge. Waking up and feeling fat. Waking up and feeling poor. A headache coming on.
Full confession: Pinot + Facebook = not my best self.
Stop! Rewind! Enough!
Annie Muscato told me that her experience has taught her something important: “We just need to get a little bit better at remembering that the way we do things isn’t the only way or the best way, even if it’s the best way for our kid. We need to be more gentle with each other.”
The end of snark—or giving into snark—comes when we take a collective deep breath and remind ourselves:
We’re all different. That’s why so many competing parenting philosophies have sprung up in the first place. No two families’ structure, situation, budget, interests, problems, history, and so on are alike.
But we’re all the same in this way: We’re all trying to do our best. Hey, even if it doesn’t look like it from where you sit, I really am. Or at least, I’m trying the best I can manage on this much sleep and caffeine at this particular point in the day and week.
Raising kids is tedious and messy. Life is not a Pinterest board, okay?
We all make mistakes. (Um, I ONCE LOST A DAUGHTER AT DISNEY WORLD! Thank goodness no one was there to upload a video of me running frantically down Main Street U.S.A. for the 10 minutes it took us to find her.)
We don’t all have to agree. Not even science agrees on the One True Way to Raise a Child. But we can agree to disagree—respectfully.
We all need one another. No mom is an island. No dad, either. Snark and judginess only divide us.
“This experience has shown me that we all just need to talk about it more,” Muscato added. “We need to know that if we say, ‘I got an epidural, and I don’t feel guilty about it because that’s what was best for me and my baby,’ that someone else will say, ‘Hey, me too.'”
Maybe the end of snark is as elementary as this:
Doing a selfie on all those tried-and-true lines we give our kids. You know the ones:
Treat people how you want to be treated.
Life is not a popularity contest or a race.
Think twice before you post.
Never mind what others think.
Don’t be a bully.
You can do it!
Just be yourself.
I’m here for you.