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Are We Hard-Wired to Judge?

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

When it comes to being judged as a parent, it feels like we’ve all been there. At Babble we like to say there’s only one way to parent: yours. We’re starting the #ThisIsParenting campaign to celebrate all the ways you get things done — and end the cycle of parenting judgment.

I could write a compelling call to “end the mommy wars,” which would undoubtedly be shared and liked and agreed upon. Because who among us actually supports the big bad Mommy War? Who thinks it’s a good idea to pit mother against mother, to point and blame and scold another woman for her lifestyle choices?

But I won’t write that article. We all know we shouldn’t judge — not just because it’s “wrong,” but because it feels downright miserable to be on the other end of the pointed finger. And we’ve all been there. I’ve been at this parenting gig long enough to know every single one of us has felt judged for somethinghow our kids sleep or eat or learn or dress or behave.

As for me? I got pregnant at 21 years old — unmarried, unemployed, and unplanned. Trust me, I know judgment. It’s almost a decade later, and I still remember the prickly wave of embarrassment that flooded my face whenever someone asked how old I was (I looked even younger), or huffed about “babies having babies.” The societal doubts and stereotypes affected me so deeply that I’d lay next to my brand-new son and cry, weeping out apologies for not being enough of a mother for him.

This judgment is real, and it affects us. According to a recent Babble survey of over 1,000 parents, 2 in 3 agreed parents are way too comfortable judging other parents. And yet in the same breath, 75 percent of those parents admitted to recently judging other parents. The other 25 percent were probably lying.

I got pregnant at 21 years old — unmarried, unemployed, and unplanned. Trust me, I know judgment.
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And that’s the real kicker to this issue: We all judge. We do it unconsciously and privately. Our knee-jerk snap judgments are often so automatic that they catch us by surprise. It’s not because we’re monsters — although it’s certainly more comfortable to label judgmental people as “bad” and “ignorant” and “not us.” It’s because we’re humans, stuck with these conditioned brains that love dualistic, either/or thinking.

We categorize, label, and judge. It’s how we operate.

We’ve been trained to judge from the very beginning. Heck, you’re teaching your kid to judge right now. We learn “tall” by comparing it to “short”; we learn “red” by comparing it to “blue,” and then we very naturally assign our opinions and preferences. But unless we adopt a more subtle way of looking at the world, we continue that infantile labeling and choosing sides right through adulthood (Democrat vs. Republican, black vs. white, gay vs. straight).

In fact, you could argue that the basis of all bias and societal judgment comes from this very basic function of human nature. A function — by the way — that’s kept us alive for millenniums. Essentially, research has found that there’s a part of brain — the amygdala — that is hard-wired to judge as a means to detect threats in the environment. It “responds in milliseconds — before you have a chance to fully process what you’re looking at or to think about how you should act toward a person or situation, says David Amodio, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University told Women’s Health. And while we might not need that tribal “us vs. them” mentality like we used to, it certainly served its purpose.

As well intentioned as we try to be, let’s be honest. I’m a judgmental mom, and so are you. And that’s okay. That’s our biology.

But that’s not all we are.

We’re also people who love fiercely and grieve deeply, both of which can rip that simplistic worldview right open until our common beating heart is pulsating before our eyes.

We empathize.

We hit “share” on the anti-judgment calls to action.

We’re so much more than our pre-programmed animal instincts or our culturally conditioned habits. We know better.

Judgment has always been an inside job. If you really want to make a difference, start there.
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And yet on a day-to-day basis, most of us are still slaves to the compulsive, habitual brain processes that cause automatic reactions and subconscious stereotypes. As the Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach likes to say, we get “hijacked by our limbic system.” So we’ll whisper a sarcastic comment about the mom buried in her iPhone at the playground. We’ll stare at the young-looking pregnant woman and assume she’s ruined her life. We’ll feel sorry for the baby drinking a bottle of formula before our higher-minded brain can step in and say, “Easy does it, don’t be a jerk.”

Look at the issue even closer, and you’ll see the obvious truth behind all of this mom-on-mom bashing: How we judge others is a reflection of how we judge ourselves. Period. (In retrospect, I now see that much of my embarrassment about being a young mom was rooted in my hard-wired judgment toward young moms.) And when it comes to parenting, it’s easy to take these raw, burning emotions (fear, self-criticism, fear, self-doubt, FEAR) and project onto the nearest standing body. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Again, it’s how we operate.

This doesn’t make us wrong or bad; those are just more judgments. It’s simply who we are. You, me, her, him. And until we can bravely look at that judgmental creature inside us, we’ll just keep denying and projecting and being terrible to each other. Rage against the culture all you want, but judgment has always been an inside job. If you really want to make a difference, start there.

So what can we do? See the inner judge and meet her with kindness. Acknowledge her evolutionary purpose. Follow its roots back to your beginning, to all of our beginnings, when we were just trying to make sense of this world by slapping on labels and preferences.

And then reflect that attitude outward. Don’t take things so personally. Forgive yourself for simply being human, and then forgive others for existing in this judgment-filled culture that has always and will always exist.

How you participate in it, however, is entirely up to you.

Join our campaign! Share your real parenting moments — the good, the bad, and the sticky — on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using #ThisIsParenting. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

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