Have you ever felt those burning eyes of judgment on you?

Mother Knows Best

Once when my son was 2 years old I had to take him with me to get a fitting for a bridesmaid dress. The babysitter had cancelled on me that morning and I didn’t have the luxury of time to reschedule the fitting. My Plan B was to get in and out as quickly as possible and bring lots of fun toys to keep him entertained. When we got there the boutique was quite empty with several sales associates standing around. One of them retrieved my dress and steered us toward the fitting room.
I surrounded my son with all the fun colorful toys, but the new environment was just too enticing. He wanted to explore and quickly crawled under the dressing room door and out into the store. I followed half-dressed and stumbling over my long hemline. The staff at the store didn’t seem pleased to have him there. I apologized and explained about the babysitter cancelling but no one gave me a kind smile nor offered to help as I tried to corral him back into the dressing room area. Somehow I managed to keep him nearby while the alterations lady pinned and marked my dress, but it wasn’t easy because he was a curious active boy.

After the fitting, as I waited at the counter to go over more details, my son wandered off to inspect the shoe section. As he approached a tall display of shoe boxes in the middle of the floor I saw in slow motion what was about to happen. Before I could get to him, he pulled on one of the boxes and the entire mountain of shoes fell down. The sales associates gasped in unison and then they all turned their burning eyes of judgment on me.

If you have ever been in a situation like this, then perhaps you are familiar with the feeling of embarrassment–and even shame–when you sense that you are being judged as a parent. That hot flushed feeling that washes over you when you perceive that you have been measured as a mom and found wanting.
I can laugh about it today, but back then I wasn’t as conscious with my parenting as I am now. I grabbed him up and quickly left the store, mumbling apologies and wanting desperately to become invisible. I roughly buckled him in his car seat and then I proceeded to have my own temper tantrum on the way home, yelling questions at him that he certainly couldn’t answer, “Why can’t you listen and stay put for just 10 minutes? Why do you have to touch everything you see?” Of course, his behavior was developmentally spot on for a curious 2 year old, but I had been sucked down the vortex of parental unworthiness and failure and I became a mean and hurtful 2 year old myself.

Dr. Brené Brown, a shame researcher, calls this a shame spiral. She has spent the last two decades studying shame. She has interviewed thousands of people, listening to their stories of shame and honing in on the qualities that seem to help some people be more shame resilient than others. One of the things that has become clear in her research is that shame brings out the worst in us. As Dr. Brown says, “When we are in a shame spiral, we are not fit for human consumption.”

One of the moms she interviewed told a story about getting gas at a gas station and when she went in to pay, her credit card was declined. The store clerk began to berate her and demanded she leave her credit card and her driver’s license while she went to an ATM for cash. This exchange was witnessed by several people in line. She walked out of the store feeling very small and chastised. As she got in the car she slammed the door and it woke up her baby in the back seat who started crying. Before she knew what she was doing, she was yelling, “Shut up! Shut up! Just shut up!” This is what shame does to us—it hijacks the reasoning part of our brain and causes us to lash out in destructive ways.

Think about it, have you ever lashed out at or been harsh with your child when you sensed that you were being judged as a parent? I expect most of us know what I’m talking about here. How about when your child doesn’t want to share with others in the playgroup and all the other parents’ eyes are on you and how you will handle the situation? Or how about when your child acts out in a store or restaurant and everyone is watching? Or perhaps it’s in your own home….your husband explodes when the kids misbehave so you find yourself walking on eggshells trying to keep the children on their best behavior and losing it yourself when they aren’t? Or perhaps it’s that subtle little raising of the eyebrow from your mother-in-law when the kids get chaotic at the dinner table?

Here’s what is important to remember: The shame we feel when we perceive we are being judged can be detrimental to our children, because we will often react in stronger and harsher ways than we would if no one is watching or judging.

Sometimes just having this awareness will help us to respond more effectively and compassionately to our child. I have found it’s helpful to repeat a mantra to myself, such as “I can handle this in a loving way,” when I am faced with my child’s misbehavior in public…with an audience. Sometimes just calmly talking through the situation out loud will not only help you stay grounded, but will let the audience know that you have this under control, that you are a worthy mom: “I can see you’re very upset. Here, I’ll stay with you until you calm down.” Or, “I know you want to explore that mountain of shoes, it looks like fun. Let’s go home and make our own shoe mountain with all our shoes. I bet it will be taller than this one!” How about we start giving the audience an eyeful (or an earful) by modeling kind compassionate ways to deal with “misbehavior.”


Here are some questions to consider about how you handle judgment and shame around parenting:
1. Do you hold your child more accountable than you hold the judging adult? Really, what business does another adult (especially a stranger) have with you and your child?
2. Are you harsh with your child to get them to conform to what another adult thinks is appropriate?
3. Where do your loyalties lie? With your child? Or with the disapproving adult?
4. Do you hold it as a reflection on you as a mom when your child doesn’t behave as others think s/he should?

According to Dr. Brené Brown, if you’re caught in a shame spiral, there are three things you can do to start to break the cycle. This will help you to return to a loving space with your child as you work on the “misbehavior.”
1. Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love.
2. Reach out to someone you trust.
3. Tell your shame story. (Shame cannot survive being spoken)
     Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.  🙂