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28.12.07

Other Parents Can Give Bad Parenting Advice Too

It's rude at best to pass judgment on the parenting skills of, or offer unsolicited advice on parenting to, strangers*. Except for the most egregious cases of misparenting, there is no way for an outsider to know enough about the situation and the people involved to make an informed judgment. Thus, such an outsider will tend to give their own concerns undue weight.

It's unsurprising that sentiments such as the above are most often voiced by parents, who are unhappy at being on the receiving end of such unsolicited judgment/advice. What's interesting, though, is the assumptions made about the identities of the judgment-passing strangers. Specifically, these judgers/advisors are usually assumed to be non-parents. (The instance that inspired this post came from this post by Plucky Punk, but I'm criticizing a larger phenomenon rather than just PP specifically.)

The underlying assumption here seems to be that anyone who has had a child would, by virtue of personal experience, understand why their judgment is wrong. I think this is a dubious assumption, as well as being unfair to people without children**.

The "must not be a parent" assumption is dubious because other parents can have bad parenting ideas too (and they can be rude enough to express them). It's simply not the case that the experience of parenting is so uniform (cutting across differences of race, class, personal history, etc. etc.), and the data it produces so compelling, that all parents understand each other's situations. Misjudgments about other parents can arise from sources as innocent as differences in personal experience, or as culpable as deeply incorrect ideologies about parenting. The latter abound even among parents. For example, commenter belle gunness on the post linked above is accused of being a non-parent in part because she tells Plucky Punk to use corporal punishment -- but it should be obvious that an enormous number of parents are advocates of corporal punishment. Further, parents can suffer from what I'll inartfully call "normative model bias." That is, they can see all the complexities and extenuating circumstances that affect their own lives, but fail to extend that recognition to others, preferring instead to read other people's behavior and situations through a simplified grid of stereotypes***. And someone who has experience with parenting may easily acquire an exaggerated sense of the correctness and universality of their own conclusions and hence set out to set others straight.

None of this is to deny that people's experiences are important shapers of their judgments (indeed, it presupposes it), nor that not having children is a possible source of ignorance. The point is rather to question the tendency for no-children to be the explanation for bad parenting advice, the first one to come to mind and to be hurled back at the judger/advisor (who is, I repeat, in the wrong).

The no-children assumption is unfair to non-parents (in a fashion similar to other exercises in crude standpoint epistemology) because of the way it generates an us-versus-them dynamic. The person making the assumption implicitly enlists all other parents (including many who probably think the speaker is raising their kids all wrong) as backing, and puts all non-parents on notice that they're suspect and poor allies at best. And it fails to point to the right solution -- suggesting "outsiders should shut up and leave us alone," rather than "understand that you can't know enough about a stranger's situation to really have a useful judgment about it, especially when they're trying to do as complex and difficult a job as parenting, so give them the benefit of the doubt." (Obviously little of this is consciously intended by people who make the no-children assumption -- but it's the cumulative effect of the use of this rhetorical strategy.)

*It is, however, legitimate to privately and/or non-directedly vent about the burdens that children impose on bystanders (crying and tantrums seem to arouse the most ire, but I am personally most annoyed by the way young children wander obliviously into other people's paths). These are real costs and may be acknowledged as such even if they are outweighed by other considerations. The line is crossed when you infer from those burdens to judgments about the parents' abilities and practices.

**I should clarify here that, while this post will doubtless show echoes of the vocabulary I've become accustomed to in writing about oppression issues, I would not claim that people without children constitue an oppressed class. Parents and non-parents certainly face quite different hurdles (which can and should be pointed out and combatted), but I'm not prepared to argue that there's a significant hierarchy at work the way there is in the case of race, gender, etc.

***A great example of normative model bias came up in a study described a while back on Pandagon (can't find the link right now) about pro-life women who had abortions. These women could see in their own personal cases that they were basically good people who had perhaps made a mistake and ended up in an unfortunate situation (thus excusing the abortion), but believed any other woman who sought an abortion was just a slut who didn't deserve it and should be forced to live with the consequences.

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