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People Are Obsessed with Criticizing Moms' Parenting Choices, Study Confirms

We talked to the researcher behind the study to understand how this sort of criticism can lead to further maternal anxiety and other adverse side effects.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by Rich Fury via Getty Images

Celebrity moms often speak out about the over-the-top criticism they get for their parenting decisions—see Chrissy Teigen, Charlize Theron, Kim Kardashian, and Beyoncé. A new report released today, however, found women don't have to be in the spotlight to encounter the dreaded sanctimommy.

According to the latest findings from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health from the University of Michigan, nearly two-thirds of women say they've been criticized for how they raise their children. The report, based on the responses of a national sample of 475 mothers with at least one child under the age of five, sheds light on just how pervasive this type of criticism is, and how women deal with it.

Most mothers in the survey said their biggest critics were people close to them: their spouse/co-parent, their own parents, and their in-laws. They also reported receiving unsolicited and often unhelpful advice from friends (14 percent), other mothers they encounter in public (12 percent), and commenters on social media (7 percent).

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"About 1 in 4 mothers (23%) have been criticized by three or more groups," the report states. "Overall, 62% believe that mothers get a lot of unhelpful advice from other people, while 56% believe that mothers get too much blame and not enough credit for their children's behavior. These beliefs are more common among mothers reporting criticism from multiple groups."

The most common topics of criticism had to do with how women choose to discipline their children—how one deals with the godawful tantrum in the grocery store is a prime example—what they feed them, and how they choose to put them to sleep.

While a majority of women in the poll said they sought more information about the topic they were challenged about (by doing research themselves or asking their child's healthcare provider), 47 percent reported feeling unsure of themselves as mothers. "Maternal anxiety is a real thing," says poll co-director Sarah Clark, an associate research scientist in pediatrics at the University of Michigan. "If criticism or perceived criticism—because I also think there's a difference between what a person intends and what the moms hears—if that perceived criticism builds up and makes that mom feel less and less sure of herself, she may have some adverse effects of that."

"If that perceived criticism builds up and makes that mom feel less and less sure of herself, she may have some adverse effects of that."

It's helpful for kids to have consistency, she tells Broadly. "A mom who's unsure of herself and feeling like she's getting a lot of criticism from all directions very likely is going to struggle to make a decision and struggle to be consistent with that decision. I think we worry both about the mom having anxiety and maybe feeling like she's not doing a good job, which could lead to depression, but we also worry about parenting becoming harder because we're not having a consistent approach, which then leads to more criticism, which can get into a vicious cycle."

"So many of the choices we make around discipline, sleep, feeding, what they're going to do while we're at work, they're just choices," Clark continues. "It's not necessarily a right or wrong."

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Almost every mom "has a story of someone saying some kind of crazy thing to them," she says. But Clark also admits she found it surprising that the poll's participants reported more unhelpful advice from family members than social media and strangers. She suggests people may take criticism differently from those closest to them. "You can't turn those folks off like you can social media," she says. "It's harder to avoid your spouse, or your mom, or your mother-in-law."

Clark's advice? "Find your safe space to ask about things," she says. And when moms do find themselves shamed: "Just let it roll off your back and try not to take it personally. Because a lot of times what people intend is different than what we hear."