I remember that Sunday almost 8 years ago. My family was settled in on a bench for a church service, a fantastic feat in and of itself, considering our 2 very young, very lively boys around ages 2 and 3 1/2 (details during those years are a bit hazy for obvious reasons). In that phase Sunday church service was often a futile exercise in just keeping our boys in the ballpark of socially appropriate. (OK, honestly we usually aim for the same goal these days.) Just a few notches below a toddler-sized mosh pit. We were never the perfect row of quiet angels, and that was OK, but this Sunday was different, and I was stressed out about it.
Soon after sitting down and handing each boy a car or a book or something to keep them from swinging from the chandeliers, I suddenly became aware of who was sitting in front of us. An older couple, probably in their late 60s, sitting perfectly and attentively (as adults without children pawing at them are prone to do). At first I didn’t recognize them. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that they were long-time members of our congregation whom I had not yet met, due to our new-ish status and their recent service all over the world as global leaders in our church.
“Seriously,” I thought to myself. “Why did we have to sit behind the perfect people?”
I became painfully aware of every cry, every complaint, and every this-IS-my-quiet-voice rambling coming from our row, just inches away from the ears of these perfect people. I broke into a sweat over every bump to the bench every tussle over a toy from the diaper bag, and every not-so-stealthy slip out into the aisles. The service only took an hour, but it felt like a week as I kept a mental tally of every reason I was giving these perfect people to silently judge me. “How could they not?” I asked myself. I was mortified, and feeling like a complete failure as a mom.
“Good moms teach their tiny children to be more reverent,” went the inner monologue.
“Good moms have this figured out,” I thought. “What is my problem?”
As soon as the meeting ended I leaned over the bench to apologize to this couple, whom I had not yet met, but was certain I knew at least two things about them. One, they were supremely offended by our Sabbath day tomfoolery, and two, they had taken a straw poll and I had “Worst Mother Ever” totally locked up.
But I clearly didn’t know them at all.
Instead, two genuinely happy, warm, and smiling faces turned toward mine (which was surely sweaty and blushing). Their eyes lit up as they talked about our boys.
“Oh, goodness, don’t worry about it,” they said. “We’ve raised 6 kids. We remember what this was like!” And they meant every word. For years following that first Sunday meeting, they greeted our family, and particularly my boys (a brood that grew from 2 to 4 while we were living there) with the most absolute joy and genuine warmth.
“There are those handsome boys!”
“What a great crew!”
“We just love your family!”
(And we obviously loved them right back from day one!)
I think of this experience often when I feel like I’m being judged as a mother and found wanting. When I’m out in the public eye and feeling like it must be trained on my wide range of parenting flaws.
We’ve all felt that at some point, right?
The very public meltdown in the grocery store. The playdate faux-pas. The argument that rolls out of the car in the school’s drop off lane. The overly stern response to your child who got out of the car AGAIN when you’re trying to leave the house, and who happens to be holding your cell phone….which he’s already answered for you (sweet thing that he is)….and is transmitting every harsh tone to someone who otherwise might have thought you had your act together this morning. (May or may not be based on a true story.)
Whether it’s in our own imagination or a very clear observation, we feel like we’re being judged. And we’re sure it can’t be good.
And then starts a cycle that is self-defeating. We feel frustrated and insecure and and the tension begins to build. Our kids sense this and seem to push harder. We snap or we crumble or we simply beat ourselves up.
We can’t parent well when we feel like we’re being judged and attacked. Even if the real attack is coming from within ourselves.
The term “imaginary audience” comes from developmental psychology, and is usually relegated to the tween and teen years. It refers to the feeling of having a constant audience watching, judging, and commenting on what you do. This is part of why adolescents can be so self-conscious, concerned with their appearance, and easily embarrassed.
Theoretically, we outgrow it before entering adulthood, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t resurface when we become parents. We find ourselves, once again, feeling like we’re on constant display and that everyone must have an opinion about what we’re doing.
The proliferation of social media in general and the appearance of parent-shaming rants in particular can make it feel like that imaginary audience is actually very, very real.
Some days it seems like parenthood comes in a value meal with a side order of guilt and a tall glass of insecurity. Whether your critics are real or imagined, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Limit the Seating
I’ve never met a parent who feels like he or she has too much time or too much energy. It’s a shame to waste either trying please people whose opinions really don’t matter.
Rather than a stadium full of spectators in your imaginary audience, make room for a select few at a conference table. A place for constructive discussion, not detached voyeurism.
This doesn’t mean we only listen to people who will say what we want to hear, but we also have to recognize we simply don’t have the bandwidth to entertain every parenting opinion in the universe. There just aren’t enough seats at this table. Valuable advice comes from people with whom we have a relationship of trust and who share from a place of empathy and support, rather than judgement and shame. Those are the only people we can afford to save seats for.
When we’re consumed by too many opinions and too much pressure to measure up, it takes away from our ability to do the work that really matters. We have to be able to quiet the crowd — both real and imaginary, the critics within and without — and tune in to our kids.
If you need help quieting your audience, check out this collection of quotes my friend Erica put together at her site, Let Why Lead. Print up your favorites and post them on your refrigerator or mirror. Memorize one and use it as your calming mantra when your real or imagined audience starts making too much noise. (My personal favorites are numbers 2 and 6. *LOVE*.)
There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Parent (Or Perfect Kids)
Whenever I call my parents for parenting advice (because they do get a seat at my table), I joke that they must know what they’re talking about because they’ve raised such amazing children….*wink*wink*nudge*nudge*. And while my parents did do a pretty stellar job raising six kids (if I do say so myself), our family is not without our own stories of heartache, poor decisions, and missteps. No one’s is.
But that doesn’t mean that we’ve failed. It simply means that we’ve lived.
As Roma Khertarpal writes in her book, The ”Perfect” Parent: 5 Tools for Using Your Inner Perfection to Connect with Your Kids (*affiliate link), maybe we simply need to rethink what a perfect parent really looks like. “According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of the word (perfect) is: having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics. Now, like me, you might not think you’re anywhere near perfect. But when it comes to your children, you already have all that they require and desire…..The irony is that we spend huge amounts of time and energy giving in to the pressure of highest expectations, pursuing some idealized version of perfection, when in fact, it’s already within us.”
So stop holding yourself (and your kids) to an unattainable standard of “perfect” and free yourself to bloom where you stand.
The Audience Doesn’t Matter, Your Relationship Does
Often, when we feel we’re being watched we alter our parenting, and not always in a good way. Particularly when we come up against behavior challenges, we may become more harsh, trying to prove to our audience that we are in control. Or we may find it more comfortable to step out of our connection with our child and join instead with our audience, making demeaning commentary on our child’s behavior.
The parent-child relationship is one based on the back and forth dance of attunement. We read one another and begin to anticipate each other’s feelings, needs, and boundaries. Sometimes it’s a smooth glide across the ballroom floor, but more often than not, it’s a constant check of our missteps and finding each other back in the rhythm. It’s that constant check and realignment that builds a healthy attachment.
But sometimes the mental cacophony from our audience makes it hard to hear the music.
When we step away from our usual routine or perform for our audience rather than respond to our children, they sense it. It’s like we’ve suddenly stepped on their toes in our dance. Unsure of what the next dance steps are in this new routine, they either experiment by pushing the boundaries even further or simply melt down in their overwhelming confusion.
Connection, attunement, and healthy relationships have been repeatedly shown to have strong effects on behavior and development for children. The statistical impact of our audience’s opinion on these outcomes? Null. So give yourself permission to tune out the commentary and tune in with your child. Focus on your relationship, not your favorability ratings.
Reimagine Your Audience
If all else fails, simply stop assuming the worst and start projecting the best. If you don’t have your own constructive conference table, imagine the kindest older couple like the one I met. Let them be your imaginary audience, your cheering section, and listen when they tell you, with a sparkle in their eyes, “We’ve been there. It’s hard, but you really are doing alright.” Because what your audience is actually thinking has almost zero impact on your parenting, but the energy that you give it does.
I’ve been putting together some fantastic resources to help you recognize these core principles and the tools that bring them to life. I want to invite you to take advantage of those by signing up below. Quiet the crowd. Clarify your core principles. Learn to parent confidently, authentically, powerfully, and positively.
Looking for more tools for parenting with positive guidance? Check out the resources I offer.