"Gotcha!" When Parents Shame Other Parents

Why are people so judgmental of others' parenting styles, to the point of reporting them?
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Several weeks ago, I allowed my two older kids, 13 and 10, to walk to our nearby downtown together to see a movie. The theater's a mile from home, they had to cross a minimum of five high-traffic intersections, and only one child has a phone—the one who's not big on checking his messages. After the movie, no one would be picking them up, and they'd be deciding where to eat lunch with the spending money I gave them. Only they never got around to lunch: They blew that budget on the largest-size popcorn bucket you could buy—exactly the type of choice children will make when their parents aren't around, which these days, is, well, never. When I saw them at home later that day, their faces pink from the wind, they were beaming with pride and independence.

Here's what didn't happen: Nobody got lost. No one was abducted. And nobody died from one sitting of way too much theater popcorn.

And fortunately, nobody called the police.

These days, that last fact is not a given, as I learned from editing a riveting report by writer Sarah Mahoney in our April issue of Parents, aptly titled "Gotcha," about the new moral vigilantism, the second of a two-part series about fear and parenting in America. As the story notes: "It takes just one phone call from a stranger to the authorities to have people questioning your fitness as a mother."

I've edited many articles in my three and half years at Parents, and I know I have one that strikes a nerve when coworkers visit my desk to talk about it. One said reading the article made her angry for the mothers featured in our story (like one mom who let her son play alone outside), whose choices put them under the scrutiny of police and Child Protective Services. Others said they identified with some of the nameless bystanders in our story, who had called or been tempted to call to report something they saw. Several of my colleagues felt like I did while reading the story: Even if we didn't agree with each mother's decision—and our opinions varied—we all ultimately felt united by our sympathy: Did any of these women really deserve to be arrested?

Stories of parenting vigilantes are on the rise, but of course, mom-shaming not only happens in real life: It happens daily on social media, too, where the peanut gallery sit behind the safety of their screens, unafraid to criticize, or brazenly post photos of what they deem to be "bad" parenting. One of my favorite lines in the story comes courtesy of Cliff Lampe, Ph.D., a social-media researcher at the University of Michigan: "People who are attacking you or other parents online aren't communicating. They're performing."

Are parents too judgmental these days? Ninety-four percent of parents who took our poll think so, though 40 percent admitted to being more judgmental of other parents than they'd like to be.

Read the piece, and let us know what you think!

Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three.

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