What I learned from T.V. about Parenting Judgement and Guilt

Do you ever watch “Parenthood”? It is one of my favourite shows on T.V. Mostly because I wonder if they have hidden cameras in our house. The emotions and experiences of the parents, struggling to be the best parents they can be while still being human (ie. flawed), are so real. It is one of those shows on T.V. where the dialogue is so real and so moving. Even experiences I haven’t had as a parent (yet) I totally relate to their reactions and emotions.

But the last couple times I watched it, (along with some of the discussion on my “Pick em up, Put em down” post and some other posts I have read and that Erica Jong article and the reaction to it, ect. ect.), I have been thinking about the parenting archetypes the show (and other forms of media and social media) portrays.

I believe that how the media (including blogs and other forms of social media) portrays parents has a big impact on a) how we see ourselves and b) how we see (and perhaps sympathize, judge, or understand) other parents.

Probably the most common parenting (and one of the most bothersome, in my opinion) is the clueless, disengaged Dad. You know, Homer Simpson-esque? And like every Dad on a commercial where the Dad is the butt of the joke. This archtype really bothers me. Like a lot. Not that there aren’t kinda clueless Dads out there, just like there are clueless Mom’s. But it does such a disservice to all the amazing Dad’s out there to have everyone assume they are clueless, because the media tells us that all Dad’s are clueless.

On Parenthood, this archtype is played by the Grandfather of the show, and they do a really really good job of humanizing this character. It is not as offensive to me because he is so real, caring, loving and really trying to be a great father and grandfather. He knows he is flawed. He feels regret and guilt. Just like all of us do sometimes.

One of the other archetypes on the show is that of the controlling, high powered, working Mom. It is that character that often makes me shake my head and wonder- maybe I do that sometimes… hmmm…. is that what that looks like to everyone else? Again, because of how real the characters and the emotions of the show are I feel both sympathy for the characters, as well as being able to relate to them. So when they do something ‘wrong’, it causes me not to see them as the ‘other’, not to judge them or say ‘I would never do that’ (even if that is the case), but instead to use it as a lens to question my own parenting.

And along with the typically parenting archetypes; the perfect does-it-all Dad, the worried about everything slightly too involved Mom, the all fun and no seriousness Dad who needs to grow up, the Mom who is struggling to find herself, her career, her partner…; there is also a stay at home Dad– presenting a much needed perspective on something that far fewer men than women do. Showing it not only as real, but also as coming with it’s own set of challenges.

Again, I like these depiction of parenting archetypes; these characters. They are real. They are complex. They seems to cover the spectrum of how parents are portrayed in society, and makes them less like archetypes and more like real people.

I also value the archetypes they didn’t include. The ones I am not sure really exist all that much, except in the minds of those who portray them. The parenting scapegoats of society.

The lazy, disengaged, yelling, selfish Mom who never holds her child and leaves them to scream while sipping her glass of wine.

The coddling, never put their baby down till their 3, never let the kid out of a meter’s range, no boundaries or discipline, no use of the word ‘no’, martyr Mom.

If we are really honest, those two archetypes are often what is portrayed in the media and the world of social media. The two extremes on a huge spectrum with no consideration for what is in between. And I don’t even think it is intentional. It is all part of that ‘easier to make an argument when you build it against a strawmanwomen’ thing, along with our tendency to stereotype the ‘other’. It is not a coherent and coordinated attempt. But when we hear over and over again about all these mothers who let their babies scream for hours on end without batting an eye or mothers who provide no boundaries what-so-ever and spend the first 5 years always within 10 meters of their kid– well those images add up. And all the milder versions of those images make us think of the extreme– those add up too.

I get that many people feel that they have met women like that, while others feel that those parenting archtypes are a myth. There is no way to argue on that point, it is a she said/he said/she said/ he said argument. I have no idea who you know and what those people are like. I can only speak to who I know and what those people are like.

But I do believe most real people exist in the middle. And even if they don’t, they are real, complex individuals. With whom if we met and got to know for long enough; if we strove to really understand them; if we could take a peek into how they feel; the guilt and love and trying to do their best and not always doing their best and flawed human that they are; we would have sympathy, not judgment.

Yes. That is what I learned from T.V. about parenting judgment and guilt. When we catch a glimpse in the real emotions and real lives and real trials of any parenting, regardless of what category they most closely fall into, it is hard to judge. So let’s just not.

And let’s provide a space for nuance and humanity in our descriptions of parenting styles and choices we don’t agree with. Just for kicks.


11 responses to “What I learned from T.V. about Parenting Judgement and Guilt

  1. clara November 22, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    I love that show. My husband calls it the “let’s all scream at each other” show and it’s true, there is a lot of fighting, but because I spend the day listening to sibling squabble, I guess I just appreciate the developed language and emotional expression.

    What I like about the characters is what you say – the nuance. Even the high powered mom wants more baby, even the disengaged Grandad figures out how to listen to his son. As grown ups. They’re people.

    And this,
    “if we strove to really understand them; if we could take a peek into how they feel; the guilt and love and trying to do their best and not always doing their best and flawed human that they are; we would have sympathy, not judgment.”

    is so lovely and so true. Great post.

  2. SlackerInc November 22, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Parenthood is probably our favourite show right now–definitely if you restrict it to the drama category (we both love Modern Family and I love Community; then there’s Fringe, whatever category that belongs to).

    I’m still going to judge, though. Today at the supermarket there was a mom who had her very small (newborn, maybe even preemie) baby in what we call a “baby bucket” (a carseat type deal with a handle). The baby was very unhappy and it seemed clear to me it wanted to be held (based on my admittedly AP-oriented experience with three babies of my own). She just ignored it while she rang up all her items in the self-checkout deal. Then when she was done she pushed a pacifier in its mouth, which the baby didn’t want, but she just forced it in there and held it until the baby stopped struggling. Then the dad came over and took the carrier by the handle–at no time did the baby get any human touch–and the whole family walked out together (it turned out the dad and older brother had been just waiting by the door instead of coming to help comfort the baby). Ugh, ugh, ugh. Just reprehensible, IMO. I felt so bad for that poor little baby. 😦

    • amoment2think November 23, 2010 at 6:44 am


      I know you and I are never going to see eye to eye on this one. But I can’t not respond to that. I get that everyone judges sometimes. I can certainly admit to that mistake. I will probably make that mistake again, being human after all. (although I know you don’t see it as a mistake). But the thing is, that 1 minute glimpse into that family does not tell you the whole story. Maybe the Mom was in the midst of an anxiety attack and felt all those judging eyes on her and her flight response kicked in and she just wanted to get out. Maybe she picked up her baby as soon as they got into the car. Maybe she had been holding the baby all night light as the baby screamed and she just needed a break. One trip to the grocery store with baby safely in a car seat. Maybe a family member just died and she wasn’t her self. Or maybe she was just doing what she normally does as a parent and doing the best she could. Maybe she loves that baby more then anything else and is just trying to figure it all out, making mistakes along the way.

      I am agnostic, but I am still going to throw out a biblical reference for you: Let he (she) without sin cast the first stone.

      You know what I would do if I saw that? Go and offer her kindness and help. Or a sympathetic smile. Something to let her know that at least one of those pairs of eyes that she felt on her back was friendly and empathetic. My guess is she needs your kindness and support more then she needs your judgment.

      • SlackerInc November 23, 2010 at 8:05 am

        Your default assumption seems to be that people are good. If not everyone, then almost everyone. Is that about right?

        I just really disagree. The percentage of people who would in my book qualify as “pure evil” is admittedly quite low; but my sense is that you could build a solid majority (like 60-70%) out of the range from “malevolent” to “not actively malicious but mostly lacking empathy and conscientiousness”.

      • amoment2think November 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm

        Yes, my default assumption is that people are good at heart. Their actions (all of our actions) may not always be good. I can agree that there seem to be many many people who lack awareness for the impact their actions have on others. But I still believe they are good until proven otherwise.

        But more than that; I believe it does no good to judge individuals, particularly when we don’t know their story. We are only glimpsing at their life. Supporting people and lending a hand does more good then judging. What do we get for judging? Does it change anything? Does it have a positive impact on our world? Sure, I don’t always agree with people’s actions and I, like everyone else, judge sometimes, but I try my best to support and understand rather then judge. After all, what gives me the right to judge? I make mistakes. All. The. Time. Judgment of individuals, to me, is a form of putting oneself on a pedestal, above others. And I just don’t agree that this is a helpful or kind thing to do. Judging an particularly choice as wrong, so long as one remains empathetic to the struggles of others- sure. But judging an individual we encounter in our lives without knowing the story? I’m not a fan.

        Writing this blog and interacting with this community has helped me really learn that. I don’t think we can eradicate judgment from our world. But I think it is worth it at the very least to see it as a negative action and strive to avoid it.

  3. Lisa Sunbury November 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    “When we catch a glimpse in the real emotions and real lives and real trials of any parenting, regardless of what category they most closely fall into, it is hard to judge. So let’s just not.”

    “And let’s provide a space for nuance and humanity in our descriptions of parenting styles and choices we don’t agree with. Just for kicks.”

    Just beautiful. Thank you for a great post Kathleen.

  4. Perpetua November 23, 2010 at 6:41 am

    Really smart post. I love this show, too. I do think there is much yelling–and fast talking!–but what I really like is that it communicates a truth about humans, which is that most of them will step up and face responsibility and try to do the right thing. We see so much, especially in reality tv, that communicates the opposite.

  5. Megan November 23, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    I wish I could watch this show. It sounds great!

    I feel so torn on the issue of judgment. On the one hand, there is right and there is wrong. And, it is only natural and human for us to make those judgment calls. The fact that we are all going to make different judgment calls is where it gets tricky.

    I have to admit that I witnessed a scene similar to the one that Alan described a few months ago, and I judged. A very new baby was in her car seat, which was in the shopping cart. I have no problem with that scenario, by the way. But when the baby was screaming and the mom just nonchalantly continued to walk around the store for at least fifteen minutes without ever picking her up, talking to her, offering her a pacifier, bottle, or anything, I judged.

    Did I help the situation? Of course not. Could I have offered to go help her instead of silently judging? Sure, though I honestly can’t imagine that would have been very well received. It is, of course, entirely possible that I don’t know the whole story and that she was in some state of grief or mourning, that she was on the verge of a breakdown. But, it is also possible that she and her mother who were so casually chatting while this baby screamed, just did not share my concern. And, that is her right as a parent.

    I don’t feel guilty for having that opinion. I didn’t hurt anyone. I didn’t confront her. All I did was see the world through my eyes, and I do that every day. I think I am compassionate. I will always help someone when I can. And when my friends make parenting choices (or any choice) that I wouldn’t make, I don’t sit around and judge. I offer sympathy, assistance, and yes, advice (when appropriate.)

    I guess I don’t know where I come down on this because I am definitely more cynical than you. I think it’s wonderful that you are so much more apt to see the good in people. We could all stand to be a little more like you. And, I certainly am not advocating a sanctimonious standpoint where we decide our parenting choices are for the good of all humankind and then use fear and guilt-mongering to get everyone to adapt. Though, honestly, I suspect those people don’t actually want everyone to conform to their beliefs. Then how would they manage to feel superior to everyone?

    I come down somewhere in the middle. We judge because we have opinions. We determine what is right and wrong according to our beliefs, and we may disapprove when we see anything apart from our idea of good. But, we should always try to be compassionate first, offer help when we can, and keep an open mind.

    Sorry for the rant. Great post, K! Really got me thinking. 🙂

    • amoment2think November 24, 2010 at 4:53 pm


      I do agree that we all judge. I have said before that I am not a no-judge saint. That being said, I try to keep a couple things in mind.

      1) While I may judge an action not being right, I try not to extrapolate that to the whole person. For example, I may not agree with someone not responding to their newborns cry, but I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to assume that they are a bad parent. I don’t know if the one instance I saw was a one time thing and I don’t know about the other choices they might make.

      2) I try not to focus on individuals at all actually, and focus more on choices.

      3) I always try to remember that parenting is very hard and I regularly make mistakes at it.

      4) I always try to send reassuring (not reassuring like ‘you are doing the right thing’ but reassuring like ‘I know, this parenting gig is hard, isn’t it?) glances, even to those doing things I don’t agree with. I understand your point that if you are not confronting them your judgment doesn’t hurt anything, which is true in a way. But I know we have all felt those ‘judging eyes on our backs’ so to speak, so I would claim that it is worth trying to project empathy regardless.

      I agree, I think the key is to be compassionate. I think my biggest problem with judgment comes in when we want others to have empathy and be conscientious in their choices, but we aren’t empathetic towards them.

  6. Megan November 24, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I don’t think we are very different, actually. Not that you were necessarily implying that I did, but I never said that I judged individuals based on the behavior I witnessed. I am in complete agreement that it is one thing to make a judgment about ignoring a baby and it is another to assume you know what kind of parent that person is based on one incident.

    I also give reassuring glances and even words to people who are having difficulty with their kids, even when I don’t agree with how they are handling it. A woman recently apologized to me for yelling at her daughter in front of me. And, even though I was a little appalled at the things she was saying to her, I said, “Hey. I’m not judging. Mine is only 18 months old. I don’t know what it’s like to have one that age.”

    So, I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t think we disagree. I was just saying that there is nothing wrong with identifying behavior as right or wrong based on your own set of values.

    • amoment2think November 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

      Totally, I wasn’t implying you do any if that. And yes, I think we are on the same page. To me there is a difference between judging an action as right or wrong versus being judgmental and not having empathy.

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