Neuroatypical Kids, Single Parenting

Why We Judge

I’ve been thinking lately about judgment.  What it is, how often we do it, WHY we do it to others, and how it makes us feel when others judge us.  The sad fact is, as a parent to a child with special needs, and in particular a neuro-diverse child where the disability is on the inside and not apparent from the outside, I have experienced more than my fair share of judgment.

According to the great God Google, judgment is defined as “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions”.  I find this rather ironic, since more often than not, the conclusions made about single parents, and particularly single parents of children with ANY type of exceptionality contain neither consideration or common sense. 

Judgment is not necessarily a bad thing.  Let’s face it, we make 1000 judgments a day just to stay alive and maintain a peaceful existence. We judge if we have enough time to make the light safely before it turns red, we judge what food is safe to eat in our refrigerator and what could have spoiled and therefore give us food poisoning, we judge if it is safe to go outside during a thunderstorm, and we judge if it is the right time  to ask our boss for that raise based on her mood that day.

Thousands of judgments. Every day.

These types of judgments are necessary for survival and the propagation of the human race, after all, 50,000 years ago, our prehistoric ancestors made the judgment:

SABRE-TOOTH TIGERS=BAD

RUNNING AWAY=GOOD

……..thus ensuring our existence today. Judgment is necessary for us to navigate the world we’re in and reduce stress.  Hopefully judgments allow us to relate to each other and foster healthy relationships with like minded people.

Yet, the judgment on my mind is that other kind of judgment.  The malicious kind.  The kind where someone decides that they know better than you, despite knowing nothing about your circumstances, your history, or your challenges.  The type that makes you question yourself and your actions.

You all know what I mean, because every one of you reading this has been the victim of this kind of judgment.

I remember when my daughter was three.  She was very musically inclined, so I enrolled her in a musical exploration class in town.  The class was wonderful, mothers and fathers, sitting in a group with their toddlers, singing songs, pantomiming, marching, playing with numerous toys and instruments that had been strewn about.

The instructor was also lovely, and made a point of asking parents not to interfere or “tell” our children what to do, but to simply model the songs and dances required and allow them to explore and determine what they wanted to do.

During one exercise the toddlers were expected to sit on our laps as we sat in a circle singing a song.  For one particular part of the song, we were required to help the children jump up and down in front of us.

The instructor asked for my daughter to demonstrate.  Now, I have always known my daughter had excessive energy, even from birth, she now has an official diagnosis of ADHD, anxiety, plus the possibility of giftedness with, I suspect, some sensory processing issues.  Needless to say, she was a handful, and I was doing the best I could to navigate and guide her behavior to the very best of my ability.

So, when the instructor in this small musical gathering asked for my child to demonstrate the song and sit on her lap, I was nervous, but I did my best to follow her instructions about not getting too controlling.

Well, my daughter jumped alright, even when she wasn’t supposed to.  I watched as this poor woman did her best to control my kamikaze munchkin as she pistoned up and down on her legs, alternating between crazy bursts of height and then collapsing and giggling like a rag doll in her arms.  I didn’t know whether to take my daughter from her arms or not; I was of course embarrassed (and slightly bemused) by her behavior. I was a spectator, frozen, wincing at my daughter’s antics, and not knowing what the teacher wanted me to do.  So, I watched, mortified, until the song was done.

Hurriedly, I rushed in to grab my daughter from the red-faced and obviously frustrated teacher. I quietly mumbled, sorry, she has a LOT of energy. She took a breath, and very loudly, in front of everyone in the group declared. “You have GOT to learn to control her.”

I sucked in my breath, stunned, holding my daughter and feeling assaulted. Everyone in the room was watching.  I could feel my cheeks getting red. 

Keeping my cool the best I could, I said, “I control her quite well, thank you very much.”

I’m sure the look on my face was something to see, because she immediately looked away and continued with the lesson.

I left that class feeling worthless as a mother.  I had been judged and found wanting, and worse; I had been called out in front of my peers.  Even though intellectually I knew I had done the best I could to monitor and control my daughter’s behavior her entire life, all it took was one comment from someone who knew nothing about my daughter, or our struggles, to make me doubt myself.

Where does this come from?  Why do we do this to each other?  I know I’ve done it, despite my best efforts. It’s easy to decide something about someone based on YOUR experiences and YOUR knowledge, and hard to actually take a SECOND to put yourself in THEIR shoes. Let’s face it, who has time to ask someone about their life experiences before making a split-second decision about their behavior? We are all guilty of passing judgment.

According to Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Ph.D., from Psychology Today, these judgments are termed “attributions” and are basically thoughts we have that help us explain the reason behind others behaviors.

As we go through our day, we tend to form two different types of attributions:

Situational Attributions, where we make allowances for a person’s situation as the cause of their behavior. This allows for some fluidity, as a person’s situation can change, and gives us permission to look more favorably on a person or judge them less harshly.

Personality Attributions, where we see the person’s personality as being the cause of the particular behavior. This tends to be a more fixed attribute, after all personality doesn’t change much does it? (I won’t get into all of the different theories of personality here, it’s been a loooong time since my personality psych class)

So far so good. 

This makes sense, right?

But the article goes on to explain some pitfalls we encounter because of our tendencies to create these attributions.

It seems that with strangers, we tend to give more weight to their personality being a factor in their behavior rather than the situation they are in. Since a person’s personality is more fixed and less fluid than their situation, this makes for some pretty damning attributions being made about that person.

Conversely, we tend to give more weight to the situational explanations or attributions for things than personality attributions when we are dealing with the behavior of friends and family.

So, in plain speak, we tend to give our friends the benefit of the doubt….. strangers…. NOT SO MUCH.

And from here it gets even worse. When we have already established negative personality attributions or causes for behavior from someone we do not know well, we tend to subconsciously look for further proof to validate our beliefs when we see them again. This is called “confirmation bias“, where we unconsciously look for things that “confirm our existing beliefs.

Accordingly, we filter out good behavior that would allow us to make positive attributions, and only attend to negative personality attributes for poor behavior, which we see as fixed and unchanging. This then only solidifies our judgement of them and sets us up to only focus on negative or personality attributes in the future.

And so, the vicious cycle begins.

In short, we see what we want to see, to hell with the truth.

This brings me back to two questions, why do we make judgments about others, and why has it been on my mind so much recently?

  • Well, for one, I lost a good friend of mine just recently over her judgment of me and my parenting.
  • That same week an acquaintance of mine on Facebook was brought to tears at a baseball game.  As a single mother, she finally felt her 12 year old was old enough to leave at her ballgame while she went for a run.  Upon return, she was openly and loudly lectured and berated by an official from the team.  Needless to say, she was devastated.

Both of these cases involved people who made judgments before even attempting to put themselves in our shoes.

In the case of my close friend, who has a loving husband, a great job, a steady and large income, and gets to be a step-parent with the help of her husband and the other parents they share custody with, she felt she could judge me and my parenting by spending two days with my daughter and I and only slightly understanding the challenges I was facing.

It all came about after we had too many cocktails our final night together. She made the very generous offer of flying myself and her to Mexico on her dime the following month. I was very thankful and told her so, but I needed to look at our commitments, and figure out when I could find adequate child care for my daughter. In addition, since I’m a contract worker, I have to figure out where I can find other work to balance the time I take off so I don’t lose too much income.

She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just leave my daughter with my parents for 5 days, even though they are 75 and my daughter is a handful on the best of days. I calmly asked her if we could talk about it when we were sober, but she then hinted that I should fly my daughter across the country to her fathers house to stay with him. My daughter talks to her father often on the phone, but has not spent more than a weekend with him at any one time, and only once yearly at that, so I thought she would understand why I was hesitant to fly my special needs daughter across the country to stay with him.

She was having none of my “excuses” as she called them. And it escalated from there. She started spewing venom at me that became more and more hurtful the longer her diatribe against me went on.

In her eyes, I was a failure, trust me, she made it clear……she actually, flat-out called me a failure.  (I believe she also called me fat, and a waste.)  She asked what had happened to me.  She screamed that everything was about my daughter and my life had gone nowhere.  And she ended it with a drunken “fuck you and fuck your daughter.”

I kid you not.

I’m still in shock about the ferocity and aggressiveness of the encounter.  I have another friend as a witness to the whole exchange, and she was also stunned. 

In the end, my decision was easy.  I have no room in my life for someone who can’t understand what it is like to be the single parent of a special needs’ child.  She can’t understand the decisions I have to make every day, the self-doubt I harbor, or the struggle it is to provide the kind of monitoring, mentoring and advocating you have to provide EVERY.DAMN.DAY to a child that is hypersensitive, anxious, and struggles with focus, self-regulation and executive functioning. 

I was more concerned about my acquaintance on Facebook, and the unfair treatment she had received at the hands of someone who was supposed to be promoting all the values of youth sport like team-work, understanding, guidance, balance, and patience.  You see, I know this woman, and she is fully invested in her child.  I see how hard she works to provide for her child, and how much she cares.

Most importantly, as a single mother myself,  I KNOW how hard it is to find the time for self-care. 

For her to try to look after herself, to FOR ONCE put herself first, and then to have to face the very public tirade of shame she was subjected to is simply unacceptable.

Moms and dads everywhere.  Let’s make a pact.  Let’s only allow people in our lives that refuse to pass judgement on others. And when we see someone having their darkest day, let’s shine some hope, and attribute their behaviour to difficult circumstances.

Let’s offer a hand, a shoulder, and some hope, instead of being THAT person who simply puts others down.

“He that is without sin can cast the first stone.” John 8

Have you ever been the victim of unfair judgments?  Let me know in the comments section.

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