Frank Heckers

Q. How should I handle people who criticize my lifestyle choices?

A. The PTA meeting had just broken up. Following a heated discussion about the school’s lice-check policy, our group of moms was gathered around tea and cookies when I mentioned that my young daughters had memorized the dialogue to several entire episodes of Rugrats. I groaned about this in a lighthearted way, but not everyone was amused. “I would never let my kids watch that much TV,” retorted one woman. I was mortified—and speechless. And for years that unsolicited criticism riled me.

Even those who aren’t parents have been there at one time or another. Perhaps your vegetarian diet has been mocked by your red-meat–loving brother. Or you’re simply not interested in cutting back on your expensive bag habit, no matter what your penny-pinching best friend says. Chances are, you wish people would just mind their own business. Me too.

Alas, not everyone will keep her opinions about your parenting, your spending, or any of your other choices to herself. Hard as it can be, the way to cope with the incoming slings and arrows is, first, to take a deep, cleansing breath and sympathize with the person doing the criticizing, because remember: Many busybodies are trying to help. They genuinely believe you’re headed for trouble. By making a pointed observation about your behavior, they’re hoping to save you from harm. Next, as you breathe out, remind yourself that it is nice (on some level) that people care about what you do with your life.

By now you should be feeling calm enough to reply to the criticism in a polite, even-tempered way. Don’t get sarcastic or defensive. Instead, respond with an honest explanation for why and how you’ve made your choices.

For example, if you’re a vegetarian, you probably eschew meat for health or environmental reasons, or both. Explain that briefly—three sentences, tops—to your carnivorous sibling. If you are earnest and sincere in your explanation and avoid self-righteousness (“Anyone who cares about the planet would stop eating beef!”), he will probably listen. If you want to spend your money on a pricey bag and have chosen to accept the financial consequences of that action, say so. Add that your decision is not up for a vote. Finally, to anyone who expresses concern about the welfare of your kid, show her the best evidence of your stellar parenting choices: your brilliant, capable child herself.

—Michelle Slatalla