Lay off the parents already!

October 25th, 2009

OK, I’ve had it up to here and my head is about to explode.

I spoke to a group of parents at a preschool last week, and I got there early so I wouldn’t get caught in Southern California’s all-day traffic. So I sat on a teeny tiny chair at a teeny tiny table for an hour while the group took care of an agenda of issues vital to well-intentioned childrearing:

Eco consciousness
Internet privacy
How to use twitter
Pie sale
Germ control
School photos
Snack schedule
Yard sale
Teacher evaluations
Plastic forks vs. silverware
Halloween costumes

After a two-minute break, I got up to speak to a room of parents who held stacks of handouts from the one-hour meeting just concluded. I was silent for a bit, and then I shared what I’ve been feeling lately, which is the need to shut up about parenting. “You have enough on your hands. I don’t want to contribute to the enormous body of information out there. I don’t want to give you anything else to do, or worry about not doing.”

I’m not going to use my inside voice right now, because I’m angry at the way the news media, aided by all manner of publicity hounds, a whole industry of gurus, keeps bullying the most vulnerable pack on the playground. They call us names. They make fun of us. In fact, they make a sport of it. And so I’m blowing the whistle.


“Stop the presses!” exhorts one review for a recent parenting book. “Everything you thought you knew about parenting is wrong!” Way to sell buddy, but are you really helping anyone else but yourself? You think what we need is more conflicting opinions? More self-doubt? More judgment? More test results? More pseudo-science telling us how many mistakes we’ve already made? More worst-case scenarios to fret over?

You want me to believe you have the missing link to a perfect outcome? An Ivy League early admission? A fairytale future? A happy, grateful, gifted, well-adjusted child? (What does well-adjusted mean anyway?) I think I’m going to have to live with the child I have, no matter what, and with me as her mother, no matter how lacking we all might think I am. I think I’m going to have to forget all my high-minded expectations and forgive us both while I’m at it.

Last week there was a story in the New York Times that sent my cranium ricocheting off the kitchen ceiling. In the name of reporting, the article takes parents to task over shouting. Since when is shouting news? Before I send you off to read this one more time, let me level my head and admit that this is exactly the same kind of story as all those “this-is-the-new-that” stories. You know, white is the new black, paper is the new plastic, up is the new down. It doesn’t take itself half as seriously as I’m taking it.

First thing in the article comes the inconvenient fact that “parental yelling is a near-universal occurrence.” File that under “Duh.” Except then the article goes on to say, “this generation of parents seem to be uniquely troubled by their outbursts.” I don’t buy that. I think parents have always been troubled by their outbursts. But if a story doesn’t suggest some aberration, some new twist, this wouldn’t be a story at all, and there wouldn’t be an industry of experts selling into it.

Oh, those smarty pants parents who think they know it all: they can’t stop screaming! (Sorry, I can’t stop screaming.)

I finally get it. Like the story says, it’s socially unacceptable to spank children. But it’s terrific fun to spank the mom and dad.

When I speak to parents it’s with the sole aim of reassuring them that they already have everything they need to raise their children. They have enough love, enough patience and enough forgiveness, even when they think they don’t. Parents have their frustrations, their tears, their confusion, and their outbursts, the very tar pit where competence and confidence eventually oozes up from. The point where you think you can’t go on is the very point that a breakthrough occurs. Parenthood is nonstop personal transformation. We can’t figure it out because we can’t figure it out! It’s not Sudoku, you know. (Full disclosure: I can’t figure that out either.)

I’ll admit it’s a hard sell when you’re not selling anything: not a lecture series, not therapy, not an online class, not a packaged set of DVDs for $299. One of my talks was at a conference where the workshops covered the usual rugged turf: handling sibling rivalry, effective discipline, non-violent communication, how to raise girls today, how to raise boys today, resolving conflicts, teaching diversity, managing transitions and a host of terrors that have us trembling in the sanctuary of our own homes. Leaving the hotel after, I saw a woman from my workshop sitting in the hallway wiping her eyes, and I wondered if I’d hurt her feelings.

“You were the only speaker all day who didn’t convince me I was doing everything wrong!” That, my friends, is the only parenting problem they don’t presume to solve.

I’m so sad. I’m so tired. I’m so frustrated. I’m going to my room to cry it out.

I’ll be back in a day or so to talk through my feelings the way some of you probably think I should. But the thing about feelings is that they don’t last the way you think they would.

(The rant is not over, but the end is in sight, as it always is.)


  1. AMEN!!

    Comment by Emme — October 25, 2009 @ 3:57 am

  2. Seems every generation has their fear. When I was growing up it was, "Kids today"…blahbity blah…don't work hard enough, etc.

    Tables have a way of turning and shifting blame to someone else and now it seems like it's parents' turn to be in the hot seat. Seems to me that it's the just way the circle turns that someone, somewhere, take the blame for the persistent anxiety caused by existing.

    I wish you peace, Momma Zen. You have valuable insights. Thank you for your offerings.

    Comment by pixie — October 25, 2009 @ 5:42 am

  3. Well Said. I had my first child very young and didnt think to research or read or do anything but just parent on instinct. My next two kids I had in this age of talk shows and parenting websites. You know what? I think I was a better Mom the first time around because I wasn't overanalyzing everything I did. I knew that I loved my child and that I was bound to make mistakes…from there I just parented on instinct and a little bit of trial and error. Now? I'm constantly worrying about what this doctor says and that expert believes.

    Thank you for a great rant. It put into words what the voice in my head has been saying all along.

    Comment by zoot — October 25, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  4. you know, a rant that manages to humanize the badguy is a fairly good place to start. we're all muddlers, evidently, maybe we should stop reading/blogging/researching for awhile…

    Comment by wifemotherexpletive — October 25, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

  5. A friend just sent me this fabulous post and may I say? On behalf of parents everywhere?

    Thank you.

    Sometimes yelling is quite good, particularly when it's directed at the media.

    Comment by Mom101 — October 25, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  6. It's good to take the media to task when they lazily try to make news where there is none. But I truly believe the place we have to get to is inside ourselves. People will ALWAYS seem critical of us no matter how they put their thoughts. But people don't hurt us when we are secure in knowing we are doing the best we can, and that failures are not only OK, but important to learn. The thing we need to work on beside that is realizing our way isn't the only or best way for others.

    And yelling? Well, everybody yells.

    Great post.

    Comment by toyfoto — October 25, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  7. I'm feeling this way lately, but from a different angle, as you know. Brilliant. I've had enough of the fear, anxiety and doubt. The narrow definitions of what's okay and what's not.

    As long as there is love and respect, we are all going to be fine. It never ceases to amaze me that there are people who would spend so much energy arguing otherwise.

    Comment by sweetsalty kate — October 25, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  8. The idea of letting media experts define parenthood, particularly motherhood since we all know Mom gets more blame than Dad, isn't new but it the nonstop media & excessive amount of expert books/shows/articles is. Makes it feel more intense. I agree totally with you! Lay off parents. It'd be a new thing if they'd try to be supportive for a change. But I guess supportive doesn't grab headlines.

    Comment by confused homemaker — October 25, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  9. Not to mention that so much of what the media reports originates from press releases — ususally from companies with an agenda to sell something. Seems that many of our parenting insecurites can be alleviated just by buying products.

    Great post, thank you!

    Comment by Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter — October 25, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

  10. Personally I think your post basically let's parents "off the hook" for lousy and lazy parenting. If a parent does not want to take the time and effort to be a great parent and even a better parent than our parents, then they shouldn't be parents. There is nothing wrong with learning that yelling may not be beneficial to your child. Saying everyone yells is just a cop out. If yelling is hurtful (and I know that it can be) then just try not to yell. I am only using yelling as an example because you referenced the recent article.

    Doing your best to be the best parent possible sometimes means reading books, attending lectures or reading up on research while attempting to apply what you think is applicable to your family is the best way to be a great parent. Seriously, it's that simple.

    Comment by Anonymous — October 25, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

  11. i'm going to restate: wonderful, karen maezen miller… go rest . rejoin.

    Comment by wifemotherexpletive — October 25, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  12. Hi Karen,
    When we were interviewed for this piece, we didn't know the slant the story would be taking in print. It's always a crap shoot when being interviewed as one never knows what will happen down the line as the article passes from the journalist, to the editors, and then onto the page.

    It's funny, how our survey was used in the piece, because no where in our survey did we determine parents feel guiltier about spanking than they do yelling. We didn't ask that question, so somewhere along journey of that piece going to print a mistake was made. Aviva and I even poured over the index in our book to see if maybe they were rightr and we had misremembered what we had written. The word "spanking" isn't even listed in our index and appears no where in our survey.

    Aviva and I definitely do not believe for one second perfection is a goal of parenting. When the journalist asked us if we ever yell at our kids, our answer was "Of course." Like you, we come from a place where you come together with people where they are, not where you think they should be.

    So, the article didn't turn out the way Aviva and I had envisioned. Fortunately we're bloggers too and we'll be writing our own post next week. Probably with a title along the lines of "For Many Parents An Article About Shouting Felt Like A Spanking"

    But in the meantime, I am glad to see we weren't the only ones who read the piece and thought "What's going on here? This isn't news."

    I've bookmarked your rant. We'll happily link to it in our post next week and I'm adding you to our blogroll and I've heard of your book and look forward to picking it up very soon. I don't doubt there will be information in there that will be awesome!

    Comment by Devra — October 25, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  13. Amen. I was actually going to write something about that same article, but you beat me to it!

    Comment by Mary (MPJ) — October 26, 2009 @ 1:10 am


    Look how ably we are each able to articulate our own point of view so clearly and without hindrance.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 26, 2009 @ 1:16 am

  15. I just came back from a weekend visiting a good friend who is on the verge becoming a mom. Much of the weekend was spent just yakking, with her having a chance to debrief me with a ton of questions about parenting. Not being an expert, as mine is only 3, I could only talk about what I knew, and admit to the vast stuff I didn't know. But in the course of that conversation, I came home realizing the best "thank you" gift I could send her for a lovely weekend was your book, which was such help to me And here you go and do this WONDERFUL post so on point! Thank you so much for what you have said in the past, and what you continue to say now.

    Anonymous in Minneapolis

    Comment by Anonymous — October 26, 2009 @ 1:20 am

  16. 1. pfft. old news. this is the latest: running away screaming is the new yelling. i'm starting this trendy parenting strategy tonight.

    2. *applause* at your rant.

    3. the feeling of doing everything wrong… this is a really big deal. you are right on.

    Comment by Terri Fischer — October 26, 2009 @ 2:06 am

  17. I'm a new mom. One thing that I have mentioned to all the other moms who gave me advice before I had the baby is, "I didn't know there was so much GUILT associated with motherhood." And, they all just tell me, "Oh YEAH." It's kind of sad, but, hey, at least I'm not alone. Seems to be universal.

    Comment by Anonymous — October 26, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  18. Brilliantly said, Karen, and worthy of running as an op-ed piece in a newspaper. Why not send it to HuffPo or the L.A. Times?

    Comment by Lauren Lipton — October 26, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  19. anybody know how to submit to Huff Po?

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 26, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  20. I don't know how to submit to Huff Po, but I'd like to run your rant in my magazine (get born: the uncensored voice of motherhood, This is the essence of why I started a print publication in the first place; moms need any kind of community we can get our hands on–real, print, online–where guilt is shut down as the energy-sapper it is and we're given a place to be honest. Truth is the only way to freedom, and as I like to say, it doesn't always come bearing a bundt cake with a fresh manicure. Sometimes truth comes in swearing like a sailor, with unwashed hair and a mascara-streaked face from the tears of defeat. And that sort of truth is the truth I can listen to, because it's real. Thanks, Karen–well spoken.

    Comment by getbornmagmomma — October 26, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  21. Of course you can print it. I don't ever stop anyone from speaking my mind!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 26, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  22. Thanks, Karen. Shall I send your our writer's agreement? For compensation, we give you a year's subscription, and either five issues of the mag your piece appears in, or two gift subscriptions given in your name. Email me at editor at getbornmag dot com.

    My friend Steph will be SO excited–she's been a fan for a long time, and has wanted you to contribute to get born for just as long. Thanks!

    Comment by getbornmagmomma — October 26, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

  23. Thank you so very much. I've been given and seen so many "parenting" books and they just sit on my shelf. I bought the "highly recommended" What to Expect in the First Year. After a month of Z being around, I didn't read it anymore. The think I love about Momma Zen and your writing is, well, you put it best, it "illuminates your experience." I still pull it out when I need a break and want something to make myself feel better when I can't do it. I will wonder if I am doing what's "right/wrong", "best/worse", no matter what I read and do. I try to just steer clear of others opinions on what I should/shouldn't do but sometimes we get sucked in and read some of it anyways. I like to take it all with a grain of salt and realize the only measure is me, myself and I. I pray everyday to know what is right in the moment and I do my best. That's all I have. Thank you for your beautifully clear insight.

    Comment by happynik — October 26, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  24. When I first read that NY Times article, I immediately felt an underlying jab– so, you parents think you're great for not spanking? Well, you're still yelling, so you still are hurting your children. Bad, bad mom and dad. Thank you for offering parents a more accepting and encouraging way to see themselves.

    Comment by Julie — October 26, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  25. Thank you Karen – well put and that helped uncover some anger I have about the "right way" to parent. As a socially phobic parent I think it hits even harder.

    Comment by Karin — October 26, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  26. Halelujah! I so agree with you. And about that stupid yelling article too. I am so sick of the abuse heaped on parents. There is no way to do it right, we are always wrong and always terrible even when we are trying our hardest to do everything that everyone says we should do.

    So I say screw it all. Do what needs to be done. Forgive what needs to be forgiven. Lay down consequences and rewards whenever necessary. Just live, as human beings, and let our parenting come out of that. Imperfect and glorious.

    Comment by Rowena — October 26, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

  27. Sorry Karen, I find this a bit hypocrifical given that you yourself are selling a book with advice about parenting. Why critize others for doing so too? PS, should Buddhist priests really be getting angry and ranting?

    Comment by Anonymous — October 26, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

  28. I didn't mean to leave that previous comment as an anonymous comment. My name's ali.

    Comment by Ali — October 26, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

  29. I definitely don't sell advice about parenting . . . since I don't have any, but rather a bunch of useless non-advice to tell the truth. But as long as I'm telling the truth, I agree I could be judged a complete failure as a Buddhist priest. I hardly spend one minute doing what others think I should.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 26, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  30. Thanks for the insight. Maybe I understand what that one anonymous poster means, and I'm all for learning and improving. Making an effort to do one's best and reading books on whatever topic is fine. Way to go.

    But reading how to do something will not be a magic pill to making one perfect. And what is perfect? One kid may love a parent's sense of humor and another may be scarred by the joke. What is this goal of a well-adjusted child? What will prove someone is well-adjusted? What job? What address? If the ultimate answer to human being were in books, we'd be less interesting.

    Sometimes I manage to not yell. I take a deep breath, remind myself yelling might not be the thing to do, and find another way. Sometimes I yell and am sorry. I apologize. And sometimes my son just has to realize that I'm human and I get mad.

    Obviously yelling can hurt. But I don't think my son will be damaged for life because I shouted, "STOP JUMPING ON THE SOFA!" Not all yells are equal.

    Comment by Marta — October 27, 2009 @ 1:44 am

  31. This is a really important topic; I can't stop thinking about how much GUILT I carry as a parent and how I judge other parents! Now I feel guilty for that! Mainly, I suppose, I'm trying too damn hard not to make my kids feel like I felt as a young child.
    I dig everything everyone has said, it all has a place! In the final analysis, I think it comes back to trusting that I can parent intuitively.
    I CAN!

    Comment by pixie — October 27, 2009 @ 4:11 am

  32. Amen. I'm not a parent, but I can relate to this post. Unfortunately this 'parenting-press' in Holland is driving friends of mine equally insane.

    Best regards,
    Els, Holland.

    Comment by Els — October 27, 2009 @ 9:04 am

  33. Amen. I'm not a parent, but I can relate to this post. Unfortunately this 'parenting-press' in Holland is driving friends of mine equally insane.

    Best regards,
    Els, Holland.

    Comment by Els — October 27, 2009 @ 9:04 am

  34. Karen, thanks for your ranting and yelling and honesty. We all need to read and hear the words of someone who is thinking and asking tough questions and answering a few and unapologetic for being imperfect. Just as we all are – but so many of us spend far more time trying to cover up our stuff and make others feel guilty for theirs.

    I especially like your admittance that you are a failed Buddhist priest doing almost nothing that others expect you to do.

    I am a failed and flawed Christian and mother and wife and person on so many levels. But what a ride it is to see this life for what it is and live it fully and give thanks in the midst of the messiness and noise and criticism and beauty of it.

    Please keep on ranting, dear friend. Keep on ranting.

    Comment by GailNHB — October 27, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  35. To Ali —

    I do see your point, but I'd like to offer a counter-argument: I've read Karen's book, and in my opinion she offers suggestions and tips to incorporate into your life to help enhance your parenting skills, as opposed to a blanket sort of "you're-doing-it-wrong" statement that the article in question seems to do. Personally, I'm always up for suggestions on how to become a better person, but I don't take too kindly to being told that I'm a failure, the way the article makes you feel.

    My $0.02. As Karen says, good on you for speaking out. 🙂


    Comment by Chookooloonks — October 27, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  36. Thank you for this post.


    Comment by serenity — October 27, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  37. I pretty much stopped reading those MightierThan/HolierThan/ShameOnThou parenting books after my first child –

    For two reasons:
    1. It drove me insane. (To Ferber or mama carebear 😉 To homeschool or go-to-school-so-i-can-bathe-today. :p To co-sleep or 'not to sleep at all cause i'm getting up and checking the baby in the nursery every 10 minutes.)

    2. I had more energy left at the end of the day if I relied on my gut rather than what a dozen "experts" told me. Juggling so much information just sucked the life out of me!

    Thank you, Karen. And good on you for being the Imperfect Priest(ess) that you are!

    Comment by Kat — October 28, 2009 @ 4:56 am

  38. Let me tell you, it's been quite the challenge to try to reposition this article in the media. No matter how many times I have been interviewed, the same stuff I say gets cut out of the story! If I say "let's not dump on parents, we all have the best of intentions" it doesn't make it into the piece.

    For Aviva and me it almost feels defamatory to be depicted in articles as podium perching, preachy parenting experts, because if you ever read our site, or have met us in person, or read our book, that is NOT the way we are at all.

    Fortunately I'm grabbing a copy of Karen's book. My guess if I get a bit more Zen it will help me feel less pissed off about the whole thing!

    Comment by Devra — October 28, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  39. I'm linking to this for my daughter-in-law and my best friend's daughter. Thanks.

    Comment by Bonnie@DailyDalliance — October 28, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  40. Thank you yet again Karen. Your honesty helps me be honest enough with myself to know I'm ok. It's so easy to lose my footing and I always feel less battered and more ok about myself, flaws and all, after reading you. I especially love that anger and outrage fit right into the puzzle.

    I made too bug a deal of it today when my daughter didn't want to say hello to someone we know who is firm about expecting greetings. That isn't my game, but I got swept into it. Then I felt shorty and my daughter ashamed. It isn't exactly what you write of, but it felt the same — letting myself get blown around in the wind instead of trusting myself and my daughter. I doubt the monkeys struggle with that. Your piece helped me be honest with myself about what happened, and as I type this I forgive myself. No shoulds had a place here for me or my daughter.

    Comment by katiesmurphy — October 29, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  41. Thanks, Karen!

    I so hear you. I was telling my friend a similar thing yesterday.

    I love the book "Parenting, Inc." (it was great to see you quoted in it, btw). I would get so stressed reading about all the things parents are (and, because they are outsourcing to 'experts') aren't doing. Simply because they don't trust themselves.

    I've yelled in frustration. (We all have, those parents who say they haven't — they are either lying or delusional…)

    I take parenting classes to learn how to be more 'positive'. I feel bad on the occasions when I do yell. But I think that if kids learn that we are human, fallible, striving and imperfect, we are giving them the best lesson of all.

    Comment by Katie — November 9, 2009 @ 2:42 am

  42. Thanks for this! When my son was an infant and showed developmental delays, to keep from going crazy we threw out the parenting books, magazines and deleted those preachy email subscriptions and decided to parent based on instinct and intellect. It has worked great and we don't fret over whether interactions with him will damage him for life.

    Comment by Allison — November 9, 2009 @ 3:38 am

  43. Your blog is a welcome breath of fresh air I sucked in as fast and hard as I could. Keep talking about this. I need the message, over & over again. Read about you from LIving an INspired Education

    Comment by Stephanie — October 26, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

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