Public Shaming: Why We Feel The Need To Judge Parents Online

Sick of all the judgment? Alyson Schafer explains the psychology behind parent shaming.
Executives at conference table holding score cards, portrait
Executives at conference table holding score cards, portrait

Last week was an epic week for parent shaming on social media. Between the three-year-old getting into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and the reports from Japan of a seven-year-old boy turfed from his parents' car and lost for days in the woods, it’s been a parent-palooza of online slams, digs and, sadly, even death threats.

Clearly, I don’t agree with this behaviour, but how can I possibly criticize the criticizers without being a criticizer myself? Oh, it’s a vicious circle.

Well, don’t worry, I won’t criticize or judge. Instead I will offer an understanding of the psychology behind why parent shaming occurs.

Slapping down another person, IRL or online, is a form of relational aggression. The severity can range from mild to extreme.

On the mild end of the spectrum when the aggression is verbal, we call it being snarky, insulting and so forth. On the far extreme of the verbal aggression scale is abuse; uttering death threats or defamation of character. These can lead to criminal charges.

Think of parent shaming as a form of online bullying.

Taunts and insults are directed at an easy target. The bully feels superior over another human being by making the other person look or feel small and inadequate. Of course, like teens, the anonymity of being online allows people to act more outrageously than they presumably would in a face-to-face encounter.

Unique to parent shaming is the passion that fuels the remarks. Unlike regular bullying, those who insult and mock others justify their comments as defending their morally superior position of how they feel raising children should be done correctly.

Our universal steadfast care and concern for children is our common ground. The need to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to protect the vulnerable is a noble cause.

When we feel a child has been harmed, we are enraged. As our emotions rise, we feel a need to take action, which is often a hastily posted comment. Cathartic one moment, but ultimately impotent in bringing about any help for the child in question and surely hurtful to the parent reading the remark.

The feelings of catharsis and moral superiority provide enough benefit to the shamers that they continue on. After all, as parents themselves, they probably have many days of doubting their own parenting actions (who doesn’t?) and so their own ego could use a boost. It’s easy to look around and find fault with others so we can determine who we are doing better than.

On social media, parents tend to post idyllic family scenes, which can threaten our feelings of inadequacy as parents. So when a poor parenting post crops up in our social feeds, it’s a welcome respite from feeling like a crappy mom or dad.

If you have caught yourself wagging the finger, let me offer this advice. Pay attention and simply notice how often you judge others and think critically of them. (You don’t have to be saying critical remarks, you can just be THINKING them.)

With this new awareness, practice changing your thoughts to something more open minded and loving. What would the less judgmental story be?

Instead of “what kind of mother sends their child to school without a coat?” replace it with the more compassionate “perhaps this mother was in a terrible hurry to get to the hospital to visit her baby in the NICU and rushed out the door, forgetting her child’s coat.”

Practice flexibility and kindness in your thinking. Doesn’t that feel better already?


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