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SALT LAKE CITY — Before I became a parent, I did not realize the depth of judgment that parents give to one another.
In my job as a mental health counselor, I spend all day talking to parents about their parenting styles and brainstorm ways to capitalize on their strengths and reduce their weaknesses. I believe there are numerous ways to raise a child, and each child (even those in the same home) will have different needs. However, it is easy to slip from a "helpful-suggestions parent" to a "know-it-all parent."
Here are some key themes to figure out which side you are on:
1. There is only one way to raise a child 'right'
Actually, there are many ways to raise your children to be productive members of society; that is the amazing thing about parenting. Every child is different, in a different stage, with different parents in different circumstances. For an outside observer to understand the complexity of this is completely ridiculous, especially if they are only observing your parenting skills in a single situation. If you find yourself thinking that there is only one way to raise a child correctly, and the person you are observing is clearly parenting incorrectly, you may be a know-it-all parent.
2. You only talk about the negatives
Seeing the world through negative goggles is a huge red flag. If you are willing to pinpoint a person's negatives, you should be able to also see their positives. This is a "mean girl" staple. If you find that you spend a lot of time only thinking about how terrible, sad, fat, ugly or stupid other parents are, you may be a know-it-all parent (and kind of a jerk).
3. You are a black-and-white thinker
The idea of a black-and-white thinker is that something or someone is completely bad or completely good. There is no concept of "gray," in that a person can be both negative and positive. For instance, a person may see her friends as "completely fabulous" and therefore unable to do anything wrong. However, they see the same behaviors in a person they do not like as "completely terrible" and they can never redeem themselves. This is common in teenagers, but some adults never mature out of this thinking pattern. The fact is, people are some shade of gray in every situation. This is a well-used tool in the know-it-all toolbox.
How to change
1. Your momma was right
If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. If someone is being mean to you, they are more likely in a bad place in their own life and may be self-conscience. This could be their only way of feeling powerful or in control. It is a common tactic, but they lose in the end because no one wants a friend that harasses constantly.
If you are the know-it-all, take a moment and look at yourself. Have you ever done the exact same behavior you are chastising someone else for? Either way, it's easier to improve yourself than it is improving others. Get your sense of control by making yourself an incredible and knowledgeable person.
2. But we are best friends
So you think you can be that mean gossip queen with your best friends, and because you all are so close they would never talk bad about you. News flash: They will turn on you too. Maybe not in the next few weeks or even months, but at some point if you perpetuate this negative behavior it will come back to bite you — and it hurts worse when it is your best friend.
This does not mean that you can no longer be friends, but try to keep the conversation positive; and if it turns, be honest that you are uncomfortable. People should not be judging others on the playground. Be good examples for your children.
3. Stick to your reasoning
Sometimes we do things that may be sub-par parenting without having a clear reason why. But other times we know exactly what we are doing and feel completely justified. So if someone calls you out for doing something they feel is bad parenting (feeding your kids fish sticks instead of a well-balanced, veggie-rich meal because you are preparing for a big presentation the next morning), hold to your reasoning and don't feel guilty. Ideally our children would have perfect parenting, but life tends to throw us curve balls. You won't damage your children by straying from the perfect picture once in a while.
4. Step in or call the authorities if …
Keeping all of the above in mind, I want to provide information so you can determine when it is appropriate and necessary to call 911 or authorities to assess safety. If there is a life-threatening emergency — such as someone is not breathing, major blood loss, a child locked in a hot car — or you feel someone is in danger, call 911.
If you are concerned and would like a professional opinion about child abuse or neglect, call 1-855-323-3237 or go to the DCFS Utah website, dcfs.utah.gov, where you'll find wonderful information and resources. When in doubt, call the authorities and they can help you sort the situation out.
You can also check out "Common Sense Parenting" by Ray Burke, Ron Herron and Bridget Barnes as well as "Common Sense Parenting of Toddlers and Preschoolers" by Bridget Barnes and Steven York.
Just remember to do your best as a parent and gain resources as you need them. I always tell my clients that the very fact you are thinking about how you parent is a step in the right direction. Good luck on the playground and happy parenting.
Jessie Shepherd, MA, ACMHC, specializes in assisting children, adolescents and parents to overcome life's challenges. She is the director of youth services at Life Stone Counseling Center. Learn more at lifestonecenter.com.