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Responding to Criticism

Marianne Vakiener
VA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 4, July-August 1999, pp. 116-19

Several years ago, when my first child was around two, my husband’s younger sister joined us on vacation. While we were walking near the beach one afternoon, my son, David, asked to nurse. My sister-in-law asked with surprise, “He's still nursing?” Time almost stood still for me as possible responses ran through my head. I decided that my sister-in-law, who was not even thinking of having children yet, actually knew very little about breastfeeding and was simply expressing surprise that a baby could nurse as long as two years. I took a deep breath and said, as calmly as I could, "Yes, isn't that wonderful? I'm really proud that we've been able to keep it up so long especially because I went back to work part-time." She seemed satisfied by my answer and the moment passed, leaving both of us with our dignities intact.

Many of us know just what to say in such tough situations- the only problem is timing. The perfect reply comes to us later, perhaps while we're driving or taking a shower. Unfortunately, no one is there in the car or the bathroom to hear that clever, insightful reply!

At La Leche League meetings, mothers are often encouraged to trust their instincts and pay attention to their mothering intuition. In a perfect world, a mother's inner voice would be clear, consistent, and always right. And, in a perfect world, the other people in our lives would respect the wisdom of our intuition and our autonomy in making parenting decisions. Yet in reality, there are times when every mother doubts herself and there are times when other people question parents choices and even express disapproval.

What a strange undertaking it is to be a parent! In a way it is simple- you give birth or you adopt a baby. Yet the process of becoming a parent really extends over some time. From the moment you hold your baby in your arms through birthdays and illnesses and developmental milestones, you are always learning more about the job of motherhood. But all the training is on-the-job. As part of our on-the-job training we face the task of learning to respond to questions and comments about how we ate raising our children. How we respond depends upon the source of the comments (who), the underlying reason for the criticism (why), the topic (what), and the place it happens (where).

Questions and comments can come from several sources. Grandparents may be the most common commentators. Sometimes these comments are more pointed if you have the first grandchild in the family or are the first to breastfeed a baby. "Are you still starving my grandson?" said one father-in-law to the mother of a seven-day-old baby. As upsetting as it can be to hear criticism from grandparents, criticism from our parenting partner can feel most like a stab in the heart. We may also hear such comments from our friends (whether they are parents or not), our neighbors, our siblings and other family members. Many parents have had the experience of a random stranger's unsolicited comment. “Oh, it's so cold out today. Where is your baby's hat?"

It always helps to look for what has been called "the question behind the question," that is, the motivating factor. The reasons vary, but generally people question your parenting style when you have made a choice that is different from the perceived norm. They may be confused about what you're doing or worried about your baby. Usually, the people who comment on a mother's choices care about her and her babies. Surely a grandparent's underlying concern is based on love for a grandchild. Identifying the motivation behind a particular comment can help put it in perspective and help you decide how to handle it. When someone asks about a toddler who is still nursing, the underlying reason may be confusion. Nursing beyond one year (or even beyond six months) is not common in many parts of the world. Those who have no experience with toddler nursing may not even know that it is possible.

Different choices were at the heart of a conflict for Christine C., of Oakton, Virginia. She had a close friend with older children whom she thought of as a mothering mentor. She had followed her friend's example in some areas, but decided to do other things differently. One evening when Christine was not home, her friend called and lectured Christine's husband about the bad parenting choices they were making. Christine told the members of her LLL Group that she realized then that her friend saw only two possible explanations for the difference in their choices: either Christine had been brainwashed by LLL or Christine considered her friend's choices wrong. How sad that this important friendship suffered because Christine's friend hadn't considered a third possibility- that they had each done what was best for their own families.

Sometimes health care professionals express concerns in a critical way, as Joyce E. of Fredricksburg, Virginia discovered. When Joyce mentioned to a doctor prescribing medication for her that she was nursing a two-year-old, the doctor exclaimed, "Joyce, Joyce, why are you still breastfeeding? This is not good. Not good. You'll be sorry. Stop it now!" Joyce replied by mentioning that she knew people who nursed until three or even four. When the doctor repeated his advice, she brushed it off with a laugh. She realized that her doctor may have been an expert about many kinds of health problems, but knew little about extended nursing or her family's values.

Relatives from the previous generation may feel an implied criticism when we do things differently than they did. Imagine a grandmother's feelings when her own child does things she is unfamiliar with, for example, breastfeeding or avoiding spanking as a parenting tool. She may feel that if her daughter or son rejects her parenting choices that it means they are rejecting her, too. Or she may be afraid that her child thinks she did a bad job of parenting. Such feelings usually remain unspoken, but they can cause a great deal of anxiety. A mother's own feelings can affect her responses. When someone expresses concern about an issue that is of little import, it's often easy to shrug it off. But when you're questioned about issues that are close to your heart, or ones that you are struggling with, you're more likely to hear the concern as criticism. One mother comments that if someone criticized her choice of car seat or her meatloaf recipe, she'd be amused because she doesn't have an emotional attachment to her car seat or her meatloaf. But if someone criticized her toddler's behavior, she'd be more likely to feel defensive because she feels that his behavior reflects on her mothering ability even though she knows that much of his behavior is developmental and will pass with time. Criticism can occur in many places. We may hear comments at family gatherings, even when relatives visit in our homes. Sometimes comments come from friends and acquaintances in a play-group or at a neighborhood or school event. Even in the sanctuary of our religious community we may encounter unsolicited questions or criticism. Public places such as the library, grocery stores, or restaurants sometimes seem stocked with strangers lying in wait to critique our parenting. Each of these situations inspires different reactions and calls for different responses.

How to Respond

A mother's response to criticism will vary depending upon the source of the criticism, the issue being criticized, when the comments occur, and her assessment of the underlying motivation. Thinking ahead about ways to handle criticism can make you feel less vulnerable to comments from others. Five possible methods of responding are to ignore, inform, use humor, acknowledge, or empathize.

When you don't know what to say, you can ignore the comment by saying nothing, avoiding eye contact, walking away, or changing the subject. A non sequitur can be a subtle way to ignore by refusing to be drawn into the discussion. For instance, the classic reply to "How long are you going to continue nursing him?" is "Oh, about 10 more minutes." Changing the subject might work at a family gathering. "Oh, Adam, I wanted to be sure to ask about your new job. Tell us how it's going." By giving a response that avoids the underlying question, you can sometimes steer the conversation away from a subject that you're not interested in debating.

When a question comes from a stranger, ignoring it and simply walking away may be the best response. Just because someone asks a question doesn't mean you have to answer it. After all, when a stranger criticizes your parenting, they are being downright rude and intrusive.

A second method of responding is to inform. This is the method Joyce E. used first when confronted with the doctor who believed that breastfeeding a two-year-old was wrong. She offered the information that some mothers nurse a child longer than two years.

Informing can be very effective with someone who likes authority and references. If you can respond by saying that your baby's doctor recommends the choice you've made or by referring to a book that documents the benefits of your approach, the questioning may stop. People may be more likely to believe an idea is valid if they see it in print. Even someone who appears on television may be given more credibility than you. Offering information also makes it clear that you have made your choices thoughtfully and it can pave the way to better understanding.

Humor can be a great tension reliever. Making fun of yourself or the situation may diffuse the criticism, and if you all get a good laugh, all the better. Joyce S., an LLL Leader in Vienna, Virginia, recalls a story she heard at one of her earliest LLL meetings. "The Leader's father-in-law questioned her about when she would wean her baby. Her response was 'If his prom date has a problem with his nursing, he'll have to find another date.' The father-in-law never asked the question again."

Humor works best when delivered gently, with a genuine smile. Sarcasm, while sometimes seeming funny, can cause hurt feelings. Poke fun at the situation, not at the people involved. A fourth method of responding is to acknowledge the other person’s perspective without agreeing, or to turn the question around to shift the focus. To acknowledge the other person's viewpoint, you can simply restate it as Pat G., of Herndon, Virginia did when her mother-in-law suggested Pat put her baby in a playpen at a family gathering "I know you think that its a mistake for us not to use a playpen. We just don't intend to get one, so let's agree to disagree, and not talk about it any more." Pat adds that this incident was the first of several that led her mother-in-law to adopt the phrase, "Well, you know how Pat is."

Shifting the focus is a way to let the other person talk about his or her experiences. Inviting a grandmother to recall when her children were babies is a respectful way to let her offer her expertise without agreeing to take her advice. "What was it like when you started solids? Did you find that your babies took to it easily?"

When you empathize, you let the other person know that you understand how he or she feels and why. You are opening the door to further conversation. This type of response is also called reflective listening or empathetic listening. You can learn more about this method in the LLLI Human Relations Enrichment courses, which are often offered at LLL conferences, workshops, and seminars. To respond in this manner, it is necessary to drop your own agenda, that is, to set aside your defensiveness, and listen with the intent of understanding the other person. When you believe you understand how the other person is feeling and why, you can open the door to discussion by responding along these lines, “You're worried about Fiona not starting solids yet because you believe she's not getting enough to eat.” Responding empathetically will not cause the other person to drop the subject, but it will allow for constructive and respectful discussion.

Choosing a Response

There is no one right response to a given criticism. A comfortable response for you will be based not only on your natural style, but also on who is criticizing you and the issue at hand. For example, you may feel comfortable ignoring a comment from a stranger but find it impossible to ignore a comment from your partner. Or, you may feel comfortable using humor with a friend but find you need to offer information to your parents.

Recognizing the parenting choices that matter most to you can help you prepare to respond. One way to sort them out is to draw a pyramid on paper and divide it into three horizontal sections. In the bottom section, write the issues or decisions that you hold most dear. In the top section, list those issues on which you feel you could compromise. In the middle, list the issues that don't belong in either of the other two sections.

You can use the same technique to sort out your reactions to people in your life. The foundation is for people whose approval or disapproval affects you the most. The top section is for people whose opinions don't affect you much one way or the other. The middle section is for everyone else.

Another way to visualize your options is to transfer the names and issues you've listed onto a grid, listing people across the top and issues down the left side. In each box, you can write which of the five response methods you'd like to offer. You may find that some boxes represent unlikely situations. For example, your husband is unlikely to criticize your baby's sleeping arrangement if he was the one who suggested it, so you know you won’t need a strategy for that situation. In the boxes that represent likely situations, you can write ideas for ways to respond.

Writing down your ideas can give you an eye-opening look at which combinations of topics and sources are the most difficult to handle. It may help to work first on the situation that bothers you the most. If the most troublesome situation improves, you may find that other things don't bother you as much. Or you may prefer to practice new skills on a more neutral issue. Trying out a new skill on an issue that is less upsetting may give you valuable practice and help build your confidence. The best defense is a good offense. What makes a parent vulnerable to criticism or questioning? Sometimes, there really is no criticism; we are actually misinterpreting the speaker's words or motives. Anne Cassidy, in her book Parents Who Think Too Much, writes that the uncertainty so many parents feel can lead to defensiveness. "We are, all of us, casting about for a new way to raise kids, and we're looking to other parents for guidance. But what may be observation can feel a lot like judgment if we don't know what's behind that long stare.”

It is possible that a mother invites criticism when she is uncertain about a parenting decision, perhaps because what she has been trying hasn't worked as well as she would have liked. Barbara C. of Fairfax, Virginia says "I avoided a lot of criticism by presenting myself as a confident parent. I've found that when I am not feeling tenuous or conflicted- or at least not appearing that way- others are less likely to question or criticize me.”

Confidence is contagious. When we believe in our parenting choices, we express ourselves with confidence. Expressing confidence can be the best way to prevent unwanted criticism and questioning.

And what about my sister-in-law? It has been eight years since our conversation on the beach. She has started a family and she began attending LLL meetings during her pregnancy. When her baby turned one, she wrote to tell me she was excited that they had graduated to toddler meetings. Imagine that, my sister-in-law is happily nursing a toddler! I can't help feeling that my confident answer to her question and my own happy breastfeeding relationship had a big impact on her. I feel a special pleasure that my sister-in-law and I have the joys of breastfeeding in common.

For more information

Robinson, Lesley. How Families Find Support. NEW BEGINNINGS. May/June 1993.

Frequently Asked Question on the LLLI Web site. "How Do I Respond to and Avoid Criticism about Breastfeeding?"

Human Relations Enrichment Workbook


Five Methods of Responding

Example A grandmother is concerned about a baby sleeping in the parents' bed. She might say, "Carmen, I just can't believe that you and Kelly don't put Chloe in that beautiful crib."
Ignore Avoid eye contact, turn away, walk away, change the subject That reminds me that I still have a load of laundry to get in. Would you watch Chloe for a moment?
Inform Refer to an authority, such as a medical professional, a book or article Although sleeping with a baby seems like a bad idea to you, I have several books that recommend it. Or, Would you like to read what Dr. Sears says about how sharing sleep may help prevent SIDS in NIGHTTIME PARENTING?
Humor Make fun of yourself or the situation, not the other person You know, you might be right. If I have to go away to college with her and sleep in a dorm, that'll get old fast!
Acknowledge Acknowledge the other's viewpoint without agreeing or ask a question to shift the focus to the other person I know you think having Chloe in our bed is a mistake. It's working for us so let's just agree to disagree, and not talk about it anymore. Or, What was it like for you when your children were babies? How did they sleep?
Empathize Open the door to further conversation, demonstrate your understanding of the other's feeling and meaning You're worried about Chloe sleeping in our bed because you think it's dangerous. You don’t want her to be hurt. Or, You're concerned about our relationship because it seems to you that with Chloe in our bed we'll never have any private time.
Last updated 11/12/06 by jlm.
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