How Our Judgments Hurt Kids (And What We Can Do Instead)

One of the most unproductive tendencies we have as parents is our rush to judgment. For example, we might assess and designate certain toddlers as bullies and others as fearful or shy. Their behavior with peers or siblings is stealing, hoarding, or too bossy. They’re not playing nicely. Their crying and tantrums are manipulative.  They are “threenagers,” brats, and so on.

The tendency to quickly judge and label seems to be on the rise recently (from this reporter’s POV), which makes sense considering the tsunami of information that inundates us daily. We have busier, more cluttered, rushed lives, less time for daydreaming and pondering, and shorter attention spans. We’re inclined to want to cut to the chase and move on.

Opening our minds and hearts to young children and being curious explorers can seem to take too much effort, because it also requires us to become more self-aware. Maybe I’m judging my daughter’s assertiveness as negative because my parents shamed me for this very thing? Maybe my parents were wrong to do that? Maybe I’m really okay, and my daughter is, too?

The biggest problem with our hasty judgments (or what psychologist Carol Dweck termed “fixed mindsets”) is that they slam the door on opportunities to be of real help to our children or ourselves. The labels we apply to certain behaviors blind us to the causes of that behavior and what it is communicating. This creates distance and even dislike of our children (which can be hard to overcome), instead of understanding, empathy, and positive growth, all of which deepen our parent-child bonds.

There is always a reason children feel and behave the way they do. When our child’s behavior upsets, annoys or baffles us… what if, instead of judging, then closing the book and reacting out of that fixed mindset, we took the time to observe and listen? What if we dared to release ourselves to an open, uncomfortable, unfinished space of not knowing?

Amber did all of that, and this happened:

Hi Janet,

Firstly I would like to say thank you for your wealth of knowledge in relation to child development. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old and was struggling with certain behaviours. I visited a psychologist to help me learn how to cope with all the big emotions in my house. She referred me to your podcast, and I have not looked back. I look forward to driving home from work so I can listen to your advice, and especially the pep talk at the end which sets me up for a good day the next morning.

I am writing to thank you for the post on “fake crying” and wanted to let you know that you are exactly right. I have had a personal experience of this with my first child.

I was expecting our second child (35 weeks pregnant), moved house, transitioned to a bed, AND changed child care centres — a very hectic time in a two-year-old’s life. My daughter went from loving her previous child care centre to crying as soon as she realized she was going to the new Kindy that day. She would scream and the teachers would have to pry her off me.

The teachers would say, “Cut that out. Let Mum go and let’s go outside and play. Stop being silly… Oh, she is doing it again. I thought she would be too old for this.”

I was at a loss of what to do, and everyone kept saying it’s normal when you change child care centres. We would pick her up in the afternoon, and she would be soooo tired and sad. I recognized that in all the photos from the school, she seemed to be by herself and clinging onto a security blanket (she never even attached to a security blanket in the past, we just sent one as that is what we were told to do). At dinner, she wouldn’t even talk.

I requested a meeting with the centre director who informed me that my child had the worst separation anxiety she had ever seen but offered no guidance. My daughter had never had a problem with separation before and, if anything, we described her as a vivacious, outgoing toddler. She had also started to point at us and say quite aggressively, “You stop that right now, you hear;” and “This is all your fault that the babies are awake.”

Once the baby had arrived and was a month old, we ended up pulling her out of the centre and changed her to another, where she settled in immediately and went back to our bubbly happy girl.

A month or so later, I drove past the old centre and she pointed and said, “I don’t want to go there, Mummy.” When I asked why, she said, “Because when your eyes rain you have to sit outside with no one.” All I can assume is that my child was scared, and her way of showing that was by crying. She must have been isolated from the group as punishment.

I learned a valuable lesson from that experience — to listen to my children’s emotions – and I wanted to share that with you as I read your blog and know some people wouldn’t agree with what you said (in your post “Fake Crying” or whatever). I agree first-hand with everything you have stated and thank you again for supporting all of us Mums.

With Kind Regards,

Thank you so much, Amber, for allowing me to share your story!

I share more about understanding and addressing our children’s behaviors in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. When I was kid, adults didn’t listen to kids – at least in my experience. Kids weren’t supposed to speak up and express themselves. It was discouraged and labeled bratty.

    But, it’s so true that kids have a lot to say and they may not be able to express it in the ways (most) adults can through proper communication. If you give them a chance, you can dig around and figure out what’s wrong. It’s so important to their happiness and well-being… and yours!

  2. Basma Reza says:

    Dear Janet,

    I cannot thank you enough for your generosity with your wisdom. Your work has helped me immensely with my two kids.

    There is one question, however, that I cannot find the answer to from your posts or podcasts. How do we know when a child’s distress is because of something genuinely wrong with the circumstances or if it is just the child expressing his displeasure and feelings need to be accepted? In the example you have here, how could the mother have known earlier that the problem is with the nursery and not that her daughter is having usual feelings of getting adjusted? If a child rejects sleeping alone at night, is that because he just doesn’t like us leaving or is he having geniune fer of the situation? This is a concern I have everytime I see my kids distressed and I would appreciate any guidance you can share on this.

    Thank you once again so much for all that you do.

    1. My pleasure, Basma. You are so welcome. Thank you for your kind words.

      Yes, I understand your question. Admitting we don’t know is the first step and best way, as I suggest in the post, to keep our minds open to what is actually going on, rather than jumping to conclusions. In regard to your son sleeping in his bed, was there an event that would have caused him to be fearful of being there, i.e., something scary happened to him in that room? I would always encourage the child to feel and share whatever he is feeling and a big part of that is about calming our own fears. Also, our avoidance of quick judgments help us to more deeply know our child and that means knowing when something they do or say is out of character (i.e., “I’m afraid!”). So there are a lot of variables. One way to get clearer, is do intervene, but do less, so that our child can process the discomfort a little more safely and comfortably. In your sleeping situation, that might look like staying in his room with him until he falls asleep, so that you can all about all of those fears, or adding a nightlight, rather than just taking him straight back to your room. In this recent post of mine, it was about being near to a child so as to protect, but not picking him up or moving him away from the dogs and cats that frightened him:

      One of the most comment judgments many of us make is that our children can’t possibly handle the situation or their feelings about it — that being sad or disappointed will break them. That obviously wasn’t the case with the issue Amber shared, but it’s a common default we have that can also be harmful to their emotional development.

      1. Basma Reza says:

        Thank you soooo much for coming back to me. It is very corny, but I am slightly starstruck that you replied.

        My question was not about a particular situation but in general. You said it beautifully above (and below):

        One of the most comment judgments many of us make is that our children can’t possibly handle the situation or their feelings about it — that being sad or disappointed will break them. That obviously wasn’t the case with the issue Amber shared, but it’s a common default we have that can also be harmful to their emotional development.

        And my question is: how do we know? Do we take a step back and assess the situation and if its like our child is scared of a dog, or being left in the room alone for some minutes, then we can treat that as feelings that pass? But if a child is genuinely upset over being in someone’s care or about being in a particular class for instance then we take more active approach? Is this something you prefer to discuss in more detail in a consultation?

        Once again thank you for thoughts.

  3. Oh my god. The horror. I cannot compute how many terrible places out there that “caring” for our children with absolutely no regard for them or respect for their emotions and fears. This makes me want to scream and cry and rage and kick their door down. Poor wee mite.

    My daughters daycare is RIE-centred and bloody expensive. It’s also a little far from my house. I keep touring other (cheaper) places in the hopes of finding something closer and financially doable but every time I do I’m horrified at the way the adults treat the kids. From small things like picking up a crying child and telling them they are okay, to witnessing an adult chase and tackle a 2 year old boy who had taken my daughters toy (neither of us were worried about the toy in the slightest), then hold him down, berate him and take the toy back. I was horrified, and not the slightest bit surprised when 5 minutes later he pushed another little boy over (which he was then shamed about).

    It’s a horrifying scene out there. I wish every teacher and carer on the planet embraced RIE.

    So much love to this mom and bub. xoxoxoxoxoxo

    1. I had a similar experience. I had to pull my daughter out of a RIE informed home daycare due to her daycare providers maternity leave. The only place in town with an opening was much, much cheaper but it simply wasn’t worth keeping her long term. The kids were given junk food, teachers snapped fingers in toddler’s faces and yelled from across the room. In less than three days my daughter went from a confident, vivacious 18 month old to completely terrified and silent.

      It saddens me to think of the mothers and fathers who HAVE to use that sort of facility because they don’t have the means to pay for something better.

  4. Dear Janet,
    I’ve just discovered your work, and am falling in love with it. We are so used to express judgments all the time, whether it’s positive or negative, we often don’t even realize it. It’s an automatic response to say “don’t cry!” and it takes presence and effort to think about it and transform it in “It’s ok to cry, you have the right of expressing your feelings”. It takes time and our presence to stop, kneel down and look at our child in the eye to be able to better understand, to connect with him/her. It takes the courage to constantly review our priorities.. And supporting parents and children also through early education is such an important long-term investment for our societies, to help grow future adults that are responsible, caring and aware of their inner emotional world. Your words are priceless. Thank you

    1. Dear Clio – Thank you so much for your kind words and support. I really needed that today! I love how you are embracing this work. x Janet

    2. I have had experience with my daughter where I wasn’t listening to her emotions. She was bullied and rejected by few girls in the kindergarten and her best friend was often absent due to being sick, so she often had to play alone although she prefers playing with children. She didn’t like going to kindergarten and was always happy when she could stay home or go to grandparents. Now she is six and she is very well adjusted and have a lot of friends (group has changed and little “bullies” went to school) but now she sometimes also acts very angry towards other kids when she feels being rejected (there are some harsh words also) and also sometimes she acts (in my perspective) unreasonably unkind towards others for no obvious reason. She went from a kid who introduced herself and ask to be someone’s friend to “You can’t play with us/I wish you are not in our group/I don’t want to be your friend anymore” kid. I would like to help her to be kinder but I’m personally struggling when she s unkind and also when she express big emotions and yes, I often believe there is no valid reason and that she is too big for tantruming. She also got a baby brother five months ago and was openly jealous at first (she expressed rather freely her emotions e.g. “I think he will take my place” etc) but I think now she is rather accepting him. I’m wondering, should a six year old know better and have a more intentional behaviour? Or am I just not listening to her enough?

  5. Hi Janet, I have an 11 month old and while I realized very quickly when she was born that she was an I individual who deserved respect, finding you has helped me immensely in our daily life and interaction. I feel that we have a good relationship. The more I respect, trust, listen, and support her emotions, the more I feel she is a thriving happy little girl. Two things: as our relationship gets stronger, she seems to want me more and more. For example she loves my husband, crawls to the door when she hears him come home, although lately she wants me more. He got up with her in the morning since the early days which was their time together, but lately he has had to work a ton of hours so I’m not sure if the timing is a coincidence, but the last few days she wants me.

    Second, on same topic, do you have advice on ages for socialization? I stay home with my baby and while we go out and about, I don’t have any friends with kids (I’m 41 so we waited). I’ve also noticed how extremely physical she is and she needs time to play and move a lot during the day so I find it easier to stay home or visit local parks. I worry that since she’s not around lots of other babies and even adults, that I am shaping her social skills long term. Should I put her in a class or daycare a few mornings week? I LOVE being with her so I’m not eager to do this, although I don’t want her missing out on social interactions if it’s important at her age. Although I grew up in a huge family and am an introvert ha! We had dinner at a friends’ house the other day and she was happy to explore the house and loved my two girlfriends who gave her lots of attention. She also has bonded with one of my friends who watched her a few times and her swim teacher (swim mainly to let her move).

    Thank you for what you do! Can’t wait to read more!

  6. Courtney cowan says:

    One more comment! I had a ‘friend’ call my then 9 month old a bully for taking her 8 month olds toy. Any advice on how to approach this behavior in regards to responding for your childs’ benefit? I said to my child, ‘you’re not a bully, you’re being a baby and doing what you are supposed to’. I don’t think it helped my friendship but that’s not the priority here. I got in my car and cried as this labeling of babies makes me sad for children.

  7. This story makes me cry! How can a day care center treat children, babies!, in such a way?? The number of children that must be subjected to such treatment – it breaks my heart! There must be better training and licensing for such centers!

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