When Relatives Criticize

By Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, www.naomialdort.com

Q:  My relatives criticize Attachment Parenting. They question my ability to parent and tell me that I am jeopardizing the children’s development and keeping them dependent and attached for too long. How can I best fend for my views and protect my children from my relatives’ intervention about breastfeeding, bedsharing, and wanting to be with me?


A: One of the main reasons we find it so hard to inspire respect from relatives and friends is because we seek their agreement. When my children were young, my father used to interrupt every one of my attempts to explain our parenting philosophy; he would say, “That’s rubbish” followed by, “Let me tell you how it works.” He never heard what I had to say.

With time, I learned to generate his respect by honoring who he is while keeping my own vision unharmed. I realized that my desire to explain got in the way of granting my father his own thoughts. He needed to be heard and to have his point of view appreciated. My fear that if I showed interest in his ideas I will have to follow them was unfounded, not because he did not wish that I would, but because it was up to me to be the parent of my children.

Engaging in parenting discussions with relatives is like telling them that they have a say about how your children are raised. Defending our position, we enter our relatives’ court and lose our own ground of self-confidence; we become their kids, instead of being our own adult beings. We cannot elicit their respect while we are caught inside their web of thoughts, or when we attempt to sway them to ours side.

Your relatives and friends can have their opinions while you keep being the parent you choose to be. There is no need for them to agree or even understand your ways. Your parenting is not up for a vote.

How to Elicit Respect & Non-intervention

Listen to your relatives’ doubts of your parenting ways and validate their feelings and thoughts. Give them your ear but do not give them power over you. Be appreciative of their caring while staying secure in your own path.

After her phone session in which we spoke about listening to her mother-in-law (MIL), Teresa had the following conversation:

MIL: “Danny should sleep in his own bed and his own room. How will he ever become independent?”

Teresa: “Are you worried that Danny will never be able to sleep and do things by himself?”

MIL: “He is already unable to sleep by himself. What are you waiting for?”

Teresa: “I understand your worry and appreciate your love and concern.”

MIL (Interrupting): “Good, then buy him a bed and get him to be like a normal kid.”

Teresa: “So, you are concerned that if he doesn’t sleep by himself at four, he will develop a problem with independence. I can understand that.”

MIL: “Well, he will!!!”

Teresa: “You may be right and we shall both get to see. Thank you for sharing. I value your thoughts.”

(Notice, so far, not a word about bedsharing, no defense at all, just creating a connection.)

MIL (angrily): “OMG, you experiment at the expense of Danny. How dare you!”

Teresa: “Oh dear, you see my parenting as a harmful experiment? That must feel painful.”

MIL: “Well it is. You said yourself that you will see how it turns out.”

Teresa: “Yes, you are right. I cannot know for sure. I wish I could. It is really hard to know.

MIL (in a softer tone): “Hmn. I guess I didn’t know, either. But I followed the normal way, like I was raised.”

Teresa: “Yes, that would make it much easier. Trying a new way has its challenges. I just learn and do what I see as best, just like you did.”

MIL: “I wish you let him sleep by himself, so he can also come visit us overnight.”

Teresa: “Yes, I know. I love that you are so connected to Danny.”

The conversation continued and Teresa never discussed cosleeping. At the end, she said, “I know you want the best for Danny and my way is not easy for you. Would you like to read some of what helped me to feel so good about it?”

Her mother-in-law may not want to read anything, but the door is open and it is clear who is raising Danny. It is also clear that she is appreciated and the connection has been strengthened.

Show interest instead of fear, understanding instead of resistance. Understanding someone’s ideas doesn’t mean that you are now going to do what they say. Your fear is self-perpetuated. When you are confident in yourself, you can feel relaxed and able to focus on other people’s ideas. Keep a loving connection; you can inquire about their childhood and their parenting experience. You may even find pearls of wisdom in what they have to say and be able to use these without altering your parenting path.

“But I Need My Family’s Approval…”

Some parents find it difficult to avoid being defensive because they believe that they need their family’s approval. You owe it to yourself and to your children to move away from needing approval and be self-reliant. Not only you will be a more authentic parent, but your child will learn from you to be rooted in himself. In a phone session, a mother said to me, “For years, when my Dad would criticize me, I used to see myself as a failure and I yearned for his agreement. Now I take my worth for granted and I can listen to him easily.”

Being confident does not mean putting on a tough front. On the contrary, when you don’t fear your own ability to stay true to yourself, you can be vulnerable and soft with those who love you and care about your child. Your relatives are more likely to feel included when you share your doubts, and they may even engage in an inquiry rather than tell you what to do.

In addition, when free of needing approval, you are more likely to stay open rather than become righteous. There is always something to learn. Let go of the need to convince anyone of anything and you will find yourself at peace with the view of others and unthreatened by their words. You are not going to do what they say or try to please them; you only listen and appreciate their concerns.

The Power of Listening & Connection

One father who took my advice told me that he listened to his parents’ criticism and then he said, “I can understand your concerns. You certainly had a much different experience as parents. Our ways must be bewildering for you. It will be interesting to see how our children grow up.” He then asked them about their own experiences and engaged himself in listening to their thoughts and stories. His unspoken message was one of confidence; they can have their feelings and thoughts, and he is going his way with parenting. A week later, his mother bought herself a book on Attachment Parenting.

Most often, relatives only need to vent their feelings and show that they care. If they express real interest, you may be able to give them an article to read, a book, or a CD to listen to. This will give your choices credibility beyond mere opinion. It will also spare you the painful debate.

When relatives engage with your children, you can be assertive and provide leadership. One of my children once asked, “How come some children do whatever someone tells them to?” The answer is: They learn it from their parents. If your children see you losing integrity with your values when criticized, they will learn to lose their own integrity later on and succumb to peer pressure. Model assertiveness balanced by honoring diversity, so your children can have inclusive and nurturing relationships while staying authentic with their own values.

14 thoughts on “When Relatives Criticize”

  1. Interesting article & some good constructive points made. I have a criticism though which is that in the suggested conversation the responses given by ‘Teresa’ to ‘MIL’ come across to me as patronizing & almost passive aggressive – & I am an AP parent! The result is I find that element of the article unbelievable. Sorry.

  2. *slowly raises eyebrows in surprise* That green ‘demo conversation’ was /HORRIBLE/ what a mean passive-aggressive manner of dealing with something! Disgusting! TALK to your Mother-in-law, try to understand why she feels the way she does and tell HER why you feel the way you do! Don’t just ‘smile and nod’ until she shuts up about it without ever communicating further. There is no way in hell that would work and worse still, it is so disrespectful to both her AND your own opinions!

  3. I agree that it is hard to say now how it is going to be four years later. I do understand that people try to find some safe and reliable ways to raise their children. However, I do not really see the reason for a “new wave” in parenting. If you act out of love and respect, you can hardly go wrong. It does not need a whole elaborated theory or any know-how. Nor you need to pronounce yourself a proud follower of any of it. Just feel what is good for your baby. No theory will raise your child but you will. You, the father of the baby, your family, friends, teachers. They all will play a very important part in your precious one’s life. API theory of raising children without respecting or involving other members of the family does not seem right to me. Why would you think that what the loving grandparent has to say is not to be heard, or taken in consideration?? Moreover, unlike you, she already HAD RISEN a child. There is a living proof of her MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. It is your own husband. And since you’ve married him, it seems to me that you considered him to be a fine man. Maybe it would make more sense to listen to her and find out how SHE did it to make him so perfect that you decided to marry him. I am not saying that you should follow her blindly but I would listen and CONSIDER what she and her husband got to say. If you do not give an ear to others, you will unfortunately become a blind follower of API or some other theory which is not giving much credit to your own thinking….The demo sounds totally fabricated, taken out of reality, ineffective and with all the respect to “New API thinking” pure rude. It does not give a tiny credit to your MIL for her life experience. It is far away from “door opening”. It may actually strip your baby from having full blown loving grandparents and get him a couple of old unsure people scared to death to say something because they may not get to see their grandchild if they do not behave! I am sorry, I wished I’d be wrong!

  4. I think the conversation is ok. It is important to listen and respond without discussing your Parenting choices elaborately, especially if they are routinely harassing you about it. Parents need their emotional energy for connecting with their children and need support in dealing with draining family drama. Also be grateful if grandparents are involved my Parents are not involved in our family because they don’t seem to value my family and are not attached to me as their adult child. Even if they are a nuisance be grateful that they care enough to have drama with you.

  5. I have a grandmother that is hugely critical and judgmental of our parenting decisions (including APA recommended SIDS risk reduction methods, breastfeeding, not letting an 8 week old cry it out at night, the name we chose for our son, etc.) and frankly I neither care about her opinion nor want to hear it.

    My theory is that my raising my child differently than she raised hers causes her to feel criticized and judged herself — as if to say her way isn’t good enough for me.

    I’d love some advice on how to get her to stop speaking her mind about such matters (she can think what she wants but I don’t have to hear it). I don’t want to cut her out of my life or anything, but it does grate on our nerves and causes us to want to spend less time with her which I’m sure isn’t what she wants.

  6. @Jean
    I do not agree at all to what you say about the mother in law.
    First because normally you do not marry a person because you think he or she is perfect. You marry beacuse you love him or her, despite his or her flaws. And maybe you do not want your child to have some of these flaws…
    Second, there are some men (and women), that become fine adults DESPITE their mothers or fathers, and for instance my husband is one of them. For sure I do not want to listen to my mother in law that cheated on her husband all her life and literally abandooned my husband when he was 13 years old…

  7. What a nice demonstration of nonviolent communication put to use of nonviolent parents. The model of validating the other’s viewpoint, not taking the opinions of others personally, and continuing to act in the way of doing one’s best is the way Gandhi and MLK changed countries and a very effective way of nurturing the relationship of new parents with their parents at a time when new boundaries are being born. Thank you for this article!

  8. Forty odd years ago I had a mil who was concerned about my attachment parenting of her grandchild. Told me things like “You can’t…” “You’ll turn him into…” every time she saw that I was following my own instincts in raising him. I did the smiling and nodding thing because I was young and didn’t want to argue. Thirty-some years later, when she was on her deathbed, she praised my mothering skills and told me how wonderfully my kids had grown up. I did the smiling and nodding thing again, this time because I knew she was right this time.

  9. Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought provoking article. “Model assertiveness balanced with by honouring diversity, so your children can have inclusive and nurturing relationships while staying authentic with their own values” – such a gem.

  10. The happier you are with your own choices the less you care about what others think of them.

    And when you realize the real reason the grandmother in the highlighted conversation is upset because she wants her grandson to spend the night with her, you can clearly see that the mother shouldn’t worry that the grandmother thinks she is ruining her son. She’s not worried about that at all, she’s mainly upset because her vision of grand parenthood has been derailed. And that is pretty selfish if that vision comes before the health of the child in question.

  11. Lovely article. Really helps me!
    I probably wouldn’t converse in the exactly the same way as the example with the MIL as its not my style but I do love the idea of listening and respecting others opinions even as we stay true to ourselves.
    I especially love the conclusion in this article about modelling integrity. Beautiful. Thank you.

  12. I’m sorry, but I think other people just need to keep their mouths shut and stay out of other people’s business unless they are ASKED what they think.

    I have strong opinions myself about different styles of parenting, and in fact I’m not at all an advocate of attachment parenting and in an “overall” sense topically speaking if it comes up I’ll say what I think of a given practice itself. However I would NEVER presume to tell someone else how to parent their children. That’s just plain rude, and people who do that should be told to buzz off. Suggestions offered in love with a supporting attitude are fine second guessing and criticizing however are never OK, not even from family & friends. People who do that to us, I boot them from our lives altogether.

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