“Hi, I’m Nicki and I’m judgmental.”
Yes, friends... it has come to that. In the new millennium it sometimes feels as though having convictions and opinions about anything or anyone makes one a candidate for intervention. In my judgmental way, I just have to say that it makes me cringe every time I see one of those posts on Facebook where a friend chastises themselves for their own weakness in allowing a disapproving thought about another’s behavior to bubble up into their consciousness or a blog post that rages at those who deign to judge others.
Not only am I judgmental, but I don’t plan to change. I have opinions, about others and about myself. Those opinions were largely formed by observing others and using those observations to create my own personal moral and behavioral compass – my values. By judging the actions of others, I decide how I want to orient myself in relation to society. Without determining what I think is “bad,” how can I strive to make myself “good?” And now that I am a mother, it is my job more than ever to be judgmental – to develop, model and teach those values to my children.
I remember in college I participated in a cultural sensitivity training as part of the preparation to work on the residential staff in the dorm. In one exercise, we explored prejudice in its literal sense, some preconceived opinion that we associate with an observable trait or behavior. The trainers contended that everyone used preconceived notions, and that it is absolutely essential, because it is how we process and manage the inconceivable amount of information we encounter. They challenged us instead of denying that we prejudge to take the opportunity to notice when we do, to assess the truth or lack of truth in our prejudices, and to work to change those that shortchange others.
I’ve always remembered that exercise as I approach my judgments of others as an adult and a mother. In a “perfect world” we would have the time and ability truly to get to know someone deeply before deciding if we were compatible as friends or partners. Of course, this is unrealistic. If I see a mom at the park feeding her kids cheese curls and a mom at the park feeding her kid organic trail mix, I’m going to gravitate towards the trail mix mom, because in that one visible respect she is more similar to me. Is that superficial? Perhaps. Could I be passing up a deep, worthwhile, lifetime friendship with a woman from whom I only differ on our choice of our child’s afternoon snack? Maybe. Will a guaranteed friendship spring from a conversation with trail mix mom? Of course not. But it’s a place to start, and in that moment, it was what I noticed.
If I see a mother yelling at and spanking her child, and I think, “That’s horrible, I would never do that,” am I truly understanding the context of her day and her rationale in making that choice? No. Is it possible that I would act the same way given her set of circumstances? Feels unlikely, but sure. But my judgment helps me think about how I might handle that situation differently. And if placed in a similar situation, I might then be able to stick to my intention not to spank because making that judgment strengthened my resolve and helped me imagine alternatives.
Honestly, I'm constantly dismayed at the pressure people put on themselves and others not to "judge." I think it is normal human behavior and in some of the ways I have mentioned, desirable or even essential. It's how we process the day. It’s how we decide what kind of person or mother we want to be. I think a goal to never judge others is just one more way people, especially women and mothers, create unrealistic expectations for themselves at which they can only fail.
I think how people *treat* others is the more significant factor than whether they judge them. I don't need to like everyone or approve of/agree with everything they do or think, or want to be their friend (and vice versa). But I do need to treat them with consideration and respect. This is what I teach my children. I don’t believe that everyone has to be everyone’s friend. There is chemistry and shared interests and hundreds of other little factors that determine whether kids (and adults) connect.
But it’s not ok to be deliberately hurtful. It’s not ok to bully. It’s not ok to call names. It is ok to respectfully disagree and even advocate. That gets tricky because children are still learning this skill, as are many adults. When they fall short, the answer is not to tell them they are terrible people for judging, having an opinion, or even expressing it, but to help them understand how to do it appropriately.
I also think that as we do have the opportunity to know others better and longer, it is important to allow ourselves to shift and adjust our impressions. Not only may we have gotten it wrong, misinterpreting or misunderstanding someone, but also, people change. We all learn and grow -- sometimes apart, sometimes together. We may discover that differences may ultimately preclude a friendship, but we find things to appreciate in one another and common ground that we do share. We don’t treat everyone the same, but we treat them all with a baseline level of respect, regardless of differences.
But I have a worse confession that just being judgmental. My truly unforgivable transgression is that sometimes my equally judgmental friends and I share our judgmental thoughts with one another. My best friend and I are the worst. We test out our opinions and reactions to the things we have experienced on one another, and we find comfort when we agree and explore areas where we don’t. Sometimes we play devil’s advocate to try and understand a situation that on first glance makes no sense to us.
Mostly we do this in private, but sometimes we are at the park or with a newer friend we don’t know well yet. This is where the “non-judgmental” mother nearby or our new friend might exclaim that she doesn’t judge the choices of others (often quite judgmentally, I must say). They may challenge me to “Not judge lest ye be judged.” That’s fine… I’m OK with that. They might say that I can’t understand another until I walk in her shoes. I don’t disagree. But I am still allowed to have an opinion and process what that means to me with a like-minded friend. Sometimes the new friend comes back to talk again, sometimes they don’t want to play with us anymore. That’s how it is supposed to work. Maybe we’ll cross paths again.
Sometimes I even have the nerve to write online about the things I experience, and talk about the choices that I advocate and those that I discourage. And when I come to feel strongly about an issue, like breastfeeding or not crying-it-out or spanking, I express it. As can those who disagree with me. I will not cower before those who would recast having an opinion or educating as casting stones, particularly those who don’t apply the same standard to themselves.
I also do not concede that every place where people disagree constitutes a “personal choice.” The ultimate insult to those who use judgmental as a dirty word is that people such as myself dare judge a “personal choice.” Some personal choices have social and political implications. Beating children and wives in America was a personal, private matter in recent times and in some cultures remains so today. There is a blurry line between the personal and the political and the judgmental squeaky wheels make change, for better or for worse (depending on which side you are on, I suppose). And the line shifts.
One often sees around the internet, on Facebook profiles and email signatures, the lovely Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Sometimes it’s included on the profiles and emails of those who claim to be or strive to be “non-judgmental.” But the start of every one of these movements is likely someone being judgmental about something they saw and just couldn’t tolerate, who finds other someones who share their belief, and change begins.
Not all judgmentalists (let’s see if my new word catches on) are so lofty. Most often I just want to regulate my own choices and communicate my values to my children. I find confidence and comfort in my friends in the places we differ from the mainstream. But who knows, maybe someday my judgmental friends and I will make Margaret Mead proud.
Books I love from mothers like me...