In a new nationwide survey, the most hurtful types of criticism came from unexpected sources. 

June 26, 2017
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If a loved one’s comments about your parenting style have ever made you feel like a less-than-perfect parent, you’re not alone. Six in 10 mothers of children 5 and under say they’ve been criticized for how they care for their kids, according to a new national poll from the U.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan.

Even when these comments are meant as supportive advice, many moms feel stressed because of them, the survey reveals. But there’s an upside, too: Sometimes, this type of mom-shaming pushes women to be proactive, seeking guidance from a healthcare provider and making sure they’re doing what’s best for their children.

The new survey is based on responses from 475 women with at least one child age 5 or younger. Discipline was the most frequent topic of criticism reported in the study, mentioned by 70 percent of mothers who felt shamed. Other common topics were diet and nutrition (52 percent), sleep (46 percent), breast- versus bottle-feeding (39 percent), safety (20 percent), and childcare (16 percent).

And while mom-shaming from total strangers is commonplace—high-profile celebs like Chrissy Teigen and Halle Berry have certainly shown us that much—the women in the study reported that most criticism came from closer to home. Women’s own parents were the most frequent offenders, reported by 37 percent of respondents, followed closely by their co-parents and their in-laws.

In fact, mothers actually reported far less criticism from friends, social-media commenters, their child’s doctor, babysitters and other caregivers, and other mothers they encountered in public. 

“We went into this expecting that snarky comments on Facebook or from other moms at the grocery store would be more prominent,” poll co-director Sarah Clark, associate research scientist in the department of pediatrics, told Real Simple. “But we found that women seem to be able to set these comments aside and not internalize them as criticism, much more than they can with comments from their own family.” At the same time, she adds, women expect to get advice and feedback from professionals like doctors and caregivers, so they're less likely to take offense when it's offered.

With so many conflicting views on the “best” way to raise a child, Clark says, parents can quickly become overwhelmed with even the most well intentioned suggestions. And often, she adds, those suggestions can be perceived as hints that a woman is not doing a good job as a mother.

That can be especially true when a woman is already tired or stressed—like when interacting with her spouse after spending a long day at home alone with the kids, or when traveling to visit family. “When grandma and grandpa don’t live close to home and you’re trying to pack a year’s worth of memories into one visit, the emotional stakes are higher,” Clark says. “It can be much easier to view an offhanded comment as a criticism.”

The good news? Mom-shaming also encouraged women in the survey to research topics in question or bring up issues with a health-care provider. In some cases, those women learned something new and did decide to make changes in their parenting—but in other cases they felt validated and reassured that they’d been doing nothing wrong.

Clark says that friends and family members need to remember that subjects like rule enforcement and punishment for kids can be affected by personal and cultural beliefs, and that even doctors and childcare experts rarely recommend a one-size-fits-all approach. Meanwhile, best practices on child health and safety can change based on new research—so advice that older adults offer on “the way it’s always been” may no longer be recommended.

Mom-shaming can have unintended consequences, as well. In most cases—67 percent of the time—criticism actually made women feel more strongly about their own parenting choices. And half of moms said they’d begun avoiding certain people who are overly critical.

Clark says that everyone, especially close friends and family, should be cautious abut offering advice to moms with young children, and should offer any suggestions with empathy and encouragement.

As for the moms out there? Try not to let the critics get you down, she says.

“Use those resources—your child’s doctor, your child’s teacher—who know your kid and who can give you some honest feedback about your parenting or about a comment someone made that’s bothering you,” she says. “But don’t take anything so personally that it gets in the way of being a happy mom to a healthy kid.”

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