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Should you judge your child?

Judge Owl sits at the bench, gavel in hand—er… wing.

In the American justice system, judges are supposed to be fair and impartial. They are supposed to look at the evidence objectively and make a fair and balanced decision, that doesn’t rely on their own biases. So the mindful attitude of non-judging seems a little backward. Don’t we as parents need to judge? Don’t we need to teach our children right from wrong? 

I don’t want to disrespect the American justice system too much, but it is clearly broken. People get differing treatment based on their age, ethnic background, religion, socio-economic status, parenting status, and more. Special needs children who grow into adults suffer at the hands of this unfair system. Why? Because judging people is inherently biased. It is also a trap. It slaps labels on behavior and calls it all the same. Stealing groceries to feed your family is counted the same as stealing a gaming system you just “can’t live without”. 

Non-judging in the mindful parenting sense means to look at your child in the present moment and assume the best of your child. For example, if your child gets home after school and is grouchy and complaining about everything, just raring to pick a fight, you might say to yourself (or even your child) that he’s just being a brat. He needs to learn how to behave himself. So you start piling consequences on him to get him to behave better. Does that usually work? What about once you start having to administer all those consequences? Can you follow through? Does it help your relationship with your child?

Or, you can think to yourself, that’s right, we got to bed late last night and he had soccer after school today, so he is probably both tired and hungry, causing him to be dysregulated. I’m going to offer him a snack and see if I can get him to settle on the couch and rest until dinner. Later, when he is well-regulated, you can have a chat together about how he was feeling and how he might regulate himself in the future. This both models for him and teaches him how to regulate himself, which is important because dysregulation is at the root of most misbehavior. 

Non-judging also means other things, like not classifying days as “good days” or “bad days”. They are just days. Grading them only leads to disappointment. Same with labeling behavior good and bad. It’s just behavior that is trying to communicate a message you may or not be able to understand. It’s also important to be non-judging of yourself and your parenting. You are constantly doing your best, and your best may fluctuate from day to day. That’s perfectly OK.

Non-judging also means not bringing the past into the present situation. If you carry the fact that your child yelled at you this morning into this afternoon’s dysregulated behavior, it will only exacerbate the situation. Your child may be actually feeling guilty and defensive about his morning behavior. If you join with him on that in a blaming or shaming way, you are increasing his negative emotions about the situation.

Now, the criminal justice system tries to use these blaming, shaming and punishing tactics to keep criminals from re-offending, but how well does that work? Rehabilitation is what really works to keep behavior from repeating. One definition of rehabilitation is the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition.

You can rehabilitate the morning situation with your child by saying something like “I wonder if you might be feeling upset over yelling at me this morning and wondering if I’m still mad at you.” If the child agrees, a reply could be “it did hurt my feelings, but more it made me worry what might happen if you yelled at one of your teachers like that. What do you think?” If your child doesn’t agree that is how he is feeling, it would still be good to acknowledge that you are not holding a grudge from this morning (if you can sincerely do so).

As parents, when children find a way to push away from us, it is our job to find a path of reconnection, because many children, especially those with attachment issues, are not equipped to do so. It is important to see our children as they are in the present moment, without holding all their past behavior against them. Yes, your child might have a misbehavior “rap sheet” that is pages long, but what if you wiped all that clean and just viewed your child as you did the very first day you met them? Maybe they were a newborn baby, a squirmy toddler, a sulky teenager. Start again with fresh eyes and a fresh heart, without judgment. Connect to your child with unconditional love.