In front of our house is a large and failing cottonwood tree. I’ve gotten a quote for trimming it and, after a rotten-root diagnosis, a quote to cut it down. I don’t want to cut it down, though, so I emailed a “tree healer.”
Early in our correspondence, I did not respond within 24 hours. I don’t have much sit-down-at-the-computer time, and my email responses often lag. I recognize this as a bad habit, likely a character flaw, and certainly not one of the seven habits of highly effective people. It incensed the tree healer. With laudable response time on his part, he nailed me as representative of modern society’s general inconsiderateness. His missive was long and full of grand-sounding words.
My husband pegged him as insane and urged me not to reply. But defensive anger has an agenda—and a quick turnaround time. I questioned the considerateness of his snap judgments and explained the many immediate priorities on my daily lists that gave the tree’s status less urgency.
This prompted his indictment of my lifestyle choices as destructive and unhealthy, illustrative of a society obsessed with oversubscription. I didn’t answer this one, although I have in my head: My life is full. Sometimes it feels too full, but it’s full of good, interesting things. Its fullness feels more like personal Tetris than personal torture, and it does not seem to be a societal blight.
I must have deleted the tree healer’s emails, but I carry them with me anyway—not as fuel for outrage or a reminder of my failings, though his accusations contained kernels of those truths. I carry his weird example as a caution against rushed and mindless judgment.
We are so quick to judge others’ choices and circumstances, so quick to suspect bad faith and point fingers. We assign only white hats and black hats—and we are always so confident that we wear the white hats. We wear them with great self-righteousness and, so costumed, feel smugly justified in passing black hats around to everyone else.
Whether we’re Americans or Syrians or Mexicans, Christians or Muslims or Jews, Democrats or Republicans, city dwellers or rural folk, oil drillers or gasoline users, omnivores or vegans, childless adults or pregnant teens, tree healers or working mothers, black-hat-only and white-hat-only options make for a meager hat rack.
Its meagerness doesn’t account for nuance, compassion or the complexities of our world. While the good-guy/bad-guy binary is the stock of some great children’s stories and adult mythologies—and, unfortunately, much of our political discourse—it’s not the plotline to which I want to confine my children’s thinking. Teaching my kids to use good judgment and think critically is very different from teaching them to be judgmental. Decency does not depend on discrediting others, and I could use more of that kind of healing.
How do I teach that, though? My 8-year-old son and I recently talked about the differences between using good judgment and being judgmental of others. He had a pretty good grasp of the concepts and framed his explanations in terms of a competitive second-grade Lego convention.
“So, if the judge looks at all the different projects and makes lists of what’s good about them and then decides that one wins because it was the best in all the ways, then that’s good,” Theo explained.
“Yeah, I agree,” I said and then summarized, because I can’t help myself: “He’s thinking through all the issues to make sure he’s making the best, most informed decision that he can.”
“And if the judge just says, ‘You’re the winner’ because I’m his best friend, then that’s not really good judging.”
“Right. Or if he gives you a bad score just because he doesn’t like the same things you do.”
“Yeah. Or I can just make him like the same things,” Theo said.
“Well, there’s that.”
“I made Daniel think that fairies are cool. He tried to make fun of me the other day, so I just explained to him how cool fairies actually are—that they can fly and be strong and build awesome machines from nature and have magic and do all these things—and he was just like, ‘Oh. Yeah. I guess they are cool.’ So, now he can’t make fun of me anymore.”
I wasn’t sure how to summarize this one, but it was a proud parenting moment. Maybe experiencing being on the judged side of judgmentalism is as good a teacher as any for remembering to withhold the judgment that puts someone else down. But it likely needs some heavy contextualizing to avoid fueling the down-the-hierarchy bullying that pops up on the playground and in the adult world in equal measure.
Contextualizing is akin to reflection, and reflection passes the baton to compassion. Kids don’t get this on their own. It takes modeling, which is hard, and it takes talking, which requires listening. As Theo explained his judgment theories, I realized that teaching kids about judgment is a lot about teaching them to be self-reflective—to think about the world around them and their place in it.
Theo said that teaching kids not to judge people just because of how they look or what they wear or because they like different things than you do is as simple as telling kids not to do it. But it’s not that simple, as anyone who has ever been a kid will testify—or as anyone who remembers the “just say no to drugs” campaign will recall. Reflection, and self-reflection, is anything but simple. It requires humility, which is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to achieve, much less model and teach.
Theo’s fairy-as-super-hero conversion tactic is not exactly humility—conversion tactics rarely are. That said, it seems to have come from a place of self-assured reflection more than superiority: judgmentalism stopped without being lobbed back.
The stopping is interesting: Maybe teaching judgment vs. judgmentalism is just about knowing when to stop.
In the high school parenting class I teach, I often hear teen moms’ birth stories. It’s an empowering tale for a teen mom—for any mom—to tell and retell. It’s a testament to her strength, her resiliency and her capabilities in the face of nearly constant, belittling judgment. Birth stories tell of the birth not only of our children, but also of ourselves as mothers. It’s not uncommon for this powerful claim of a new mom’s new identity to include a bit of sanctimony: an unmedicated labor as a badge of honor, for example.
I have heard from several students how their “nurse told me how strong I was when I was in my labor. She said I was stronger/quieter/tougher/faster even than the old moms.” I love that my students’ nurses tell them how strong they are. They need to hear that. We all do. But in the process, do they really need to slap down all the poor old moms, in which category I certainly fall?
Maybe I’m being defensive. I’ll admit as much to my students: “Hey now! I was a geriatric pregnancy!” I also suggest that we can think through our individual decisions and own our own strengths— proudly, loudly, proactively—and stop there. Thinking. Strength. Humility. Full stop. If we can do that, I think we’re teaching our kids to use good, self-reflective judgment. Full stop.