Comments From the Parenting Peanut Gallery: Dealing With, and Learning From, Criticism
In my work, I often encounter situations that can be analogized to the world of parenting. For example, I recently gave a seminar with a couple people I used to work for on the topic of special education laws. The audience was primarily special education directors and other school personnel. I really didn’t have time to prepare for it, which is terrible, I know, but unfortunately, often the case with attorneys in general and me in particular. Some of us can just wing it a little more easily than others, but in my case, it takes an exorbitant amount of time–non-billable time–to get my act together and distill the information I need to convey during a one-hour talk into a coherent, useful presentation.
So I went into this one just giving it my best shot, and I walked out of there knowing it wasn’t my best performance, but it also wasn’t my worst (trust me, I wish it was). I just received my honorarium check from the corporate sponsor of the program, along with something I was not expecting: a collection of audience member feedback statements with comments about my performance.
Looking over the reviews, I experienced a range of gut reactions and visceral responses to the words on the page. Before my mind could jump to that worst of places, I switched my thinking to something entirely different: what lesson can I learn from this that will not only assist me in my career, but in my life as a whole? I ask the question that way because I constantly need to remind myself that my career is NOT my life; it’s just a part of my life.
And that’s when it struck me that criticism is a way to learn and grow, not just in our professional lives but as parents. Honestly, how much criticism have you been subjected to on account of your parenting skills and choices? When I think it over, I have experienced a lot more criticism as a parent than as an attorney, and certainly much, much more than I have as a public speaker.
So here’s what I learned:
1. Criticism often confirms what you already know to be true about yourself.
I went into that seminar knowing that I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked, but that I had enough raw knowledge and ability to get through it with perhaps a B- performance, rather than an A performance. The mixed reviews I got confirmed my beliefs about how I presented to the audience members, with the exception of a few outliers (more on that below).
In parenting, you already know what you need to know, or what you need to find out. The results of our parenting decisions tend to confirm this. The other day, I was running late to the daycare so I skipped the usual step of changing the baby for a second time, right before we leave. I knew this was a mistake, and sure enough, the poopy explosion that took me and one of the teachers to clean up in the pre-toddler room confirmed this. Always do what you need to do to feel like a super-star public speaker, and always do the last-minute diaper change before you get on the road.
2. Criticism should always be viewed as subjective.
Any advice or feedback you get, even from the most wisened and seasoned professionals or consumers in your career field, has been filtered through the highly biased lens of the person giving you the advice or feedback. One commenter apparently thought I contradicted myself, while another emphatically conveyed how brilliant I was and how much she learned from me. In both cases, I have no idea what either person could be referring to. What’s more likely is that both audience members were sitting there with pre-conceived notions of what they already knew about special ed law, and with what was left for them to learn or understand, and thus, the takeaway about my performance, including what they chose or chose not to focus on during my presentation.
The advice and opinions we get from acquaintances and strangers, even when passed along as “here’s what worked for me,” is really an appraisal of your parenting performance. “Oh, your baby is having trouble sleeping all night? Well I just rubbed her back and then resolved to walk out and not keep indulging her by rushing in to get her. Idiot.” Except for that last part, this is what someone will say to you (out loud) upon the first opportunity to offer feedback on how good of a job you’re doing as a parent. But occasionally, you’ll get someone like this: “You are doing such a great job. My baby didn’t sleep through the night until she was , um, 8 . . . years.” Subjectivity, based on personal experience.
3. People tend to be most honest–and opinionated–behind the veil of anonymity.
The contradicting myself thing bothers me, if only because I don’t recall what it refers to and therefore have no way to correct it going forward. But this comment and most of the others–that I read from my materials (hey, only true for part of it), and that I spoke too quickly (Connecticut born and raised, that’s how we talk!) or too softly (then say something about it and I’ll turn up the mic or whatever?)–are nitpicky things that most people would not have said to my face. Ok, so you can make the argument that there would be no point in saying these things to my face. But then, why say them at all? People like filling out feedback forms, for whatever reason, and I think it’s because it’s completely anonymous and gives people a chance to get stuff out of their system. I’m guessing one person or another was annoyed at feeling like they didn’t get the full benefit of my presentation, and was eager to express that. On the other hand, I did get some glowing comments as well, and it’s nice to know that others were equally eager to tell me how great I was.
Witness the rise of the Internet Age, in which communities of people who tend to be highly opinionated, such as parents, have zero inhibitions when it comes to speaking freely and often about such opinions. What is the point of all this discourse, some of it useful, much of it useless? I think it’s really because people have an axe to grind and like hearing themselves talk (um, seeing themselves type?). When it comes to parenting, many of us feel that shouting our opinion from the rooftops will lend some legitimacy to our own choices, unfortunately by attempting to demolish the legitimacy of others’ choices. On the other hand, the relative anonymity does give some of us who would otherwise be closet cheerleaders an opportunity to express those opinions as well.
4. When people are truly trying to learn something, they seek you out for information, regardless of your presentation or delivery.
During the break, a couple of audience members approached me with some questions they had. And they didn’t seem like they were grilling me on stuff I appeared to screw up or be less prepared to discuss. They just needed some clarification, and apparently they trusted me to give them the right answer. I took this as a sign that they were not put off by my otherwise inartful delivery.
So the next time you run through the grocery store wearing barfed-on sweatpants with screaming kids, don’t worry so much about what people think. Chances are they still see you as an authority in the realm of parenting. You see how disheveled and disorganized you are, but they see how hard you’re working and how experienced you are at juggling shopping with children.
5. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what people think.
Following the seminar, I got a follow-up call from an audience member who needed more specific information on one of the other speakers’ topics. I don’t know why she called me instead of the other speaker, who was fabulous. It just goes to show that when you’re working as an attorney and put yourself out there as an expert in your field, people are going to regard you as such and be drawn to you either for their perception of you in that way, or for other reasons that may not be readily apparent. I am a relatively young female, and so was this person who called me, I think. That could have been all that mattered to her. And despite the fact that I occasionally breeze through a seminar without adequate preparation (at least by my own standards, which I’m told are unduly harsh), I have a nice little book of business that is growing. So I would say that I’m probably doing ok.
Does it really matter whether the parenting peanut gallery champions your parenting skills and style? When your kids see you, all they see is love and a mommy who is doing an amazing job. And that is really all that matters, regardless of whether you rate your own performance as an A or a B- or worse.