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November 28, 2013
The Real Issue
Responding to Public Criticism of My Parenting
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


As I was walking into a store the other day, my preschooler dashed ahead of me through the door. I called after him by name, but he did not respond. I had a baby carrier and two other children with me, so I was grateful when another lady held the door for me. I said, “Thank you.”

But then the lady proceeded to call after my child by name, commanding him to come back. She said brightly, “It is our job to teach Timmy to be obedient!” I was taken aback and said, “No, it’s my job to teach him to be obedient.” She looked offended and we parted ways.

Did I handle that correctly?


It is never easy to handle public criticism of your child or your parenting. By definition, this kind of criticism comes almost exclusively when you are experiencing some kind of difficulty with your child, in a moment when you most need to be left alone to handle your child.

Not only is the criticism embarrassing and irritating, it distracts you from what you really need to be doing: attending to your child.

This is true no matter the intent of the person criticizing you. Some public critics are openly snide and unkind when children misbehave. They sniff about ill-mannered children and ineffective parents as if they have never been either of those things in their entire lives. They are breaking, rather than enforcing, the rules of society, which dictate that one should tolerate children as they learn the rules of behavior.

Also, that one should not openly criticize strangers.

The other kind of critic is the kind who is just trying to be helpful. It appears that this is the kind you encountered. She seemed to appreciate the fact that children are in the process of becoming civilized, and quite correctly held the door for you when she saw that you needed to enter the store to retrieve your preschooler.

But instead of then supporting you in your disciplinary efforts (by smiling and minding her own business), she took it upon herself to instruct you in your parental duty and then attempted to model for you the correct way to parent.

Even if she meant well, the actual effect of her actions was (1) to criticize a stranger and (2) to delay instead of hasten the instruction and correction of your child.

Regardless of her motive, I think you did a fine job handling the situation. You were right to simply and clearly decline her unwanted help and unsolicited advice.

Of course, I am assuming that you didn’t shout at her, use an ugly tone of voice, or do anything else that would have escalated the encounter into an argument. Arguing with strangers in stores is not a good use of your time or emotional energy. Also, an argument would have been a bad example to your children.

Having charity towards all includes charity for ladies who overstep their bounds in stores. You were correct not to berate her, insult her, or hit her with a zippy comeback. (The only point of a zippy comeback is to make another person feel ashamed or stupid, which is unkind and rude.)

Also, children need to learn how to recover gracefully when faced with public rudeness. Treating the rude person firmly but kindly, as you appear to have done, is the right response.

Another way to handle the situation would have been to manage a tight little smile at her, and then turn away to deal with your preschooler. Or you could have said, “Oh, no, thank you,” and then turned away.

Turning away — not whirling or stomping — is important because it ends the conversation. You would then turn your attention to your child and try to forget about the lady.

You are fortunate that the lady backed off after you declined her offer of help. It sometimes happens that people like this lady decide you need a lecture when you don’t respond to their helpfulness. The only correct thing you can do in those situations is to say, “Excuse, me, please,” and walk away.

Again, life is too short to argue with strangers, especially strangers who are brash enough to start arguments with you in public.

Finally, the funny thing about your story is that this lady was not all wrong when she said that it is “our job” to teach Timmy to be obedient. In a sense, we are all responsible for teaching the children in our society the correct way to behave.

We do not, however, achieve this goal by offering unsolicited advice to parents who are trying to manage their children in public. Instead, we set a good example for children, acting the way we would like to see them act.

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