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When Others Criticize

Norma Ritter
From: New Beginnings, Vol. 29 No. 5-6, 2009, pp. 35-37

It is inherently unfair that one of the first things that new parents need to learn is how to deal with criticism. It is even more unfair that this criticism often comes from family members and friends. On some days it may seem as if everybody has an opinion about how children should be raised, and everyone's opinion is different.

And as if mothers did not have enough with which to contend, even complete strangers seem to delight in sharing their views, sometimes from out of the blue.

This behavior is so prevalent, that it is almost the norm. Here are some ideas that other mothers have found to be helpful.

Keep your cool

Take a deep breath.
Count to ten.
Listen to what was actually said. Was the person really criticizing you, or just passing an opinion? Making a mountain out of a molehill may lead to bad feelings. New mothers in particular tend to be especially vulnerable. Hormones take a while to settle down and even a glance, let alone a word, can be taken the wrong way.

Consider the source

If somebody really was criticizing you, did it come from a total (or relative) stranger, or from a person whom you know, from previous experience, to be jealous?

It is not always possible to see all criticism as well meaning and if this is the case, consider ignoring it completely. Just brush it off. Remember, it is equally ineffective to be defensive or to attack. Thank the person for her advice, and add a suitably innocuous comment:

"You have certainly given me something to think about."
"I will have to discuss that with my partner."
"We have tried a number of different solutions, and this is what seems to be working best for us."
"We are following our doctor's recommendations."

Does this person's opinion matter to you?

Close family members and friends may genuinely try to help by sharing their own, albeit sometimes outdated, experiences. In such situations tact and tongue-biting may be the most effective strategies. And remember, their questions -- disguised as comments or advice -- might actually indicate a genuine desire to know more!

For example, how many of us have heard this comment? "If you pick up your baby every time he cries he will soon have you wrapped round his little finger. You have to teach him who is boss right from the start!"

Yes, there are many people who still believe that! It is what they were taught and they have never heard anything to make them change their minds. Indeed, if that was the way they brought up their children, then they are likely to see differing opinions as criticism of their own parenting.

However, the idea is not to try to change other people's opinions, just to get them to respect yours. To do that, we first have to acknowledge their right to hold their own opinions and to let them know we actually heard what they had to say. For example:

"I can see you are worried that the baby will run me ragged." Then, whenever possible, agree with at least part of what was said.

This will help to diffuse the situation.

"Having a new baby is certainly very tiring."
(Now, nobody could disagree with that!)

Here are some other examples:

"My goodness, the baby is almost a year old! Surely you are going to wean him soon!"
"Oh he is already eating a lot of the same foods as we do."
(Notice you are not mentioning that he also nurses a lot as well.)

"How is he sleeping?"
"Just like a baby!"
(Of course he is! Babies typically wake several times during the night.)

After that, share information.

For example, you could reply,
"You know, I used to think that, too, but then I read/heard/ was speaking to ..."
"Did you happen to catch that TV program where there was a psychiatrist talking about ...?"

Thank them for their advice, without necessarily agreeing with their opinion. Being non-committal is quite an art form!

"It is nice to know you are thinking about us."
"I really appreciate your concern."
"How thoughtful of you to share your own experiences."

And then, change the subject.
Introduce a new topic of conversation. You have listened and answered politely. Enough is enough!

But what if the criticism continues?

Even the most even-tempered of us can eventually be worn down by constant negative criticism. This may a good time to stand firm and let the person know exactly how you feel about what is amounting to nagging.

Here is a tried and true way, without being in any way either aggressive or defensive.

"I feel ... when ... because ..."
So, for example: "I feel frustrated when you keep insisting that my baby needs to sleep in his own room. I am glad that worked for you, but all babies are different. After trying it your way we decided that we all get more sleep if he stays in our room close to me."

When doctors criticize

It can be especially difficult when it is a medical professional who is doing the criticizing. Of course, we should respect everybody's opinion, especially those with special expertise. Unfortunately, however, most doctors do not receive much training in the field of human lactation or breastfeeding. Medical schools tend to teach even pediatricians more about artificial formulas than about helping mothers to breastfeed. Knowing this may help in understanding why some doctors seem to recommend weaning as the solution to so many medical conditions especially when medications are prescribed.

Luckily, the most confident physicians feel comfortable in referring mothers with breastfeeding concerns to breastfeeding specialists, board certified lactation consultants (IBCLCs) and La Leche League Leaders.

One of the most common reasons for recommending weaning is because the mother needs to take medication. There are actually very few drugs that necessitate weaning, and for those there are often alternatives.

If a situation arises where weaning is recommended, be sure to talk to your local LLL Leader. Most Leaders have access to reference materials and other resources. They can provide information for you to share with your doctor, so that together you can make an informed decision.

The role of humor in deflecting criticism

Now we come to the fun bits. Some forms of criticism can border on the absurd. If you have already tried all the ideas mentioned so far, you may want to use some gentle humor to diffuse the situation. Here are some ideas to get you started. Be sure to smile when you reply!

"So how long are you planning to nurse?"
"Hmm ... I think he will be probably be finished on this side in a few minutes."

"What will you do if he is still nursing when he is going to school?"
"Oh, isn't that why they have recess, for milk and cookies?"

"Children just don't wean themselves, you know! If you don't cut him off he will keep nursing forever!"
"In that case, I guess he will just have to go to a college near home."
"I don't believe I have ever heard of a high school kid who was still nursing. Have you?"

"So when do you plan to make him sleep in his own bed?"
"Oh, I am definitely not going with him on his honeymoon!"

In conclusion

Let me remind you of Oscar Wilde's words: "The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."


LLLI Web site:

Immunize Yourself Against Toxic People

Handling Criticism about Breastfeeding

Handling Criticism with Honesty and Grace


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