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The problem with boasting that strangers compliment your children

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Once you become a parent, you get deluged with a lot of advice. Whether it's what car seat to buy, whether to breastfeed or what kind of birth you should have, everybody has an opinion.

Perhaps the most advice you get, though, is about how you should discipline.

This is where one of my biggest personal pet peeves comes in. Not only do people tell you how you should parent your children, but they back up their unsolicited advice with this classic gloating promise -- if you parent their way, strangers will compliment your children.

See if this is familiar...

"I'm very strict and people are always coming up to me in public and complimenting my children."

"We use Attachment Parenting and strangers are always complimenting our children on their behavior."

Apparently, this is the gold standard by which we should judge all of our parenting decisions -- will random people praise my children if I do this?

It is astounding how often parents will throw this line at other parents, as if it is irrefutable proof that they have discovered the golden secret to good parenting.

There are enormous problems with backing up your parenting style with the fact that other people compliment your children. To name a few....

  • I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but strangers will compliment just about any children at some point. I don't really know very many families whose children have never been complimented in public. It's not nearly as exclusive of a group as we'd like to believe.
  • When we look at our long-term goals for our children, should our number one goal be to be to please others? And not just others, but strangers? What does it say about us as parents if our first priority is to have children who'll earn us praise from random people?
  • If we use this as a standard for raising children "right" then it sends a message that we're doing it "wrong" if our kids stop pleasing people. If we tout the admiration of the public as proof that Attachment Parenting is the right way to parent, for instance, then what happens if our kids have bad days and annoy those same people? Then are we parenting badly? Does Attachment Parenting not "work" after all? Should we switch methods? Has the method failed, or have we failed, or do we blame our children? Setting up this false goal of impressing others as a benchmark of parenting right means that we set ourselves and our children up to fail when they have perfectly human moments.
  • Likewise, what message does this send to our kids? The most important thing is how you look and act. It doesn't matter how you're feeling or what you're going through, you need to just "be good" so other people like you?
  • This preoccupation with what others think completely distracts us from the paramount goal of good parenting -- teaching. Discipline allows us to teach our children how to handle the problems, stresses and obstacles they'll face in life. It is also our one shot to teach them how to be really happy, really good people. Door mats are well liked, especially as children. Obviously, we want our children to be considerate but we should also regularly think about what else we want for them and what messages we're sending with our discipline.

Yes, my children have been complimented by strangers many times over the years. They tend to act pretty good in public and my husband and I work really hard to keep them happy and occupied in restaurants and other public places. And yes, it's nice when an elderly lady comes over and says how polite our children are or passengers thank us when we get off a plane for having such well behaved little ones.

Kids who are well loved tend to be well behaved, especially when we set good examples ourselves.

But there have also been times when my kids were less than perfect, and that was okay. Sometimes the most important parenting moments are those times when we help our children through difficult times and big emotions. And sometimes the way we help our children through these moments won't impress the businessman at the next table or the disapproving woman who sneers, "I'd smack my kids if they acted that way."

During those times, I'm much more concerned with finding the best way to parent my child than whether either one of us will impress onlookers.

It's great to have great kids, and even nicer when outsiders notice just how well we've done with them. Let's let go of that as a yardstick, though.

When deciding the right way to bring up our children, there's a whole lot to think about. We want them to be Kind... Moral... Curious... Brave... Creative... Passionate... Dependable... Honest... Strong... Loving... Resilient... Self confident... Happy...

We want the world to be a better place because they're in it.

Impressive to strangers?

If that must be on the list, let's not put it quite at the top.

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(An earlier version of this article originally appeared on my web site, A Magical Childhood.)

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