Not all judgement, of course, is helpful.
When someone is not looking for, doesn't want, and indeed doesn't need help, it is not particularly useful to offer a long, reasoned evaluation of their activities and ways that they can improve them.
Or a short one, really.
Likewise, even the most constructive and helpful of opinions, eagerly sought, and full of precious nuggets of delicious wisdom*, will be less than gladly received if it is offered with the sort of tactless rudeness that would make Simon Cowell** blush.
Then there are the comments that aren't even meant to be constructive.
There are people who will break into a Facebook thread, or a forum conversation, to offer what is quite simply an insult: "Anybody who does this doesn't really love their kids" is a popular one, or "People who do this are just lazy"***, occasionally the person offering this opinion is simply rather boorish, but more often than not they're actually trying to be rude.
By now everyone on the internet has probably seen that Facebook post: you know the one from the mother saying that baby boys don't deserve to have breastmilk because they're already stronger than baby girls****, and claiming that if she has a boy she'll be feeding him formula, as well as circumcising him so he can't get as much pleasure out of sex.
It got a lot of attention and, unsurprisingly, stirred up a lot of horrified responses.
Because, as it happens, that mother already has a son.
She also lives under a bridge and eats billy goats.
Because she's a troll.*****
Most of the people who offer such rude opinions are trolls too.
They sit, in cosy anonymity behind their screens and, out of boredom, or a weird sense of power, or whatever-the-heck-it-is that motivates them, they poke people on their tenderest areas to see if they can make them jump.
Which is all very unpleasant.
What makes it worse, though, is that because of idiots like this, and because parenting is already such an insanely sensitive issue, and because some of the trolls are disguised as newspapers with inexplicable American accents******, many people on the internet are now preconditioned to expect judgemental nastiness whenever anything child related is mentioned.
I was on a Facebook group the other month******* when I saw a new post from a woman complaining that there was "too much judging" on the group and asking everyone to read an enormous glurgey post about how everyone was equally lovely.
The thing is, there was nothing remotely judgemental on that group.
Occasionally there has been, in fact from time to time there are massive rows, but for the last month everything had been sweetness and light.
Somehow, however, this woman felt judged.********
Presumably she had endured enough slights, real or perceived, that almost any conversation on whatever-topic-it-was was now felt to her like a judgement on her personal choices.
What was funny though, was that in reaction to this she responded with a very judgemental post to the entire group, saying that everyone needed to read her enormous sticky sweet post, and especially the last line, which they should read twice (and which, of course just said that everybody was equally great).
And the odd thing is that I think that post may actually have offered a worse kind of judgement than the negative kind.
I tried to find it to repost here, but I couldn't*********.
Essentially, however, it compared and contrasted every facet of parenting she could come up with, though she missed slings versus buggies as well as hitting your kids versus not hitting your damn kids.
After mentioning each option she gave some inane comment about why it was a good thing, following it up with "Good for you!" or "You're a good mom".
The thing is, that most of her opinions probably did more harm than good.
She contrasted cloth nappies (ok, she said diapers) and disposable ones for example.
Why on Earth take the time to write a little paragraph on how cloth and disposable nappies are equally valid ways to keep your baby from dripping all over the place?
It's not exactly a subject of furious debate, at most, some people think cloth nappies take too much time or are unhygienic and some think disposables are bad for the planet, or something on those lines.
It's a subject that at most deserves a "meh", a shrug, and a new topic of conversation.
But by putting it in her Big List Of Things she somehow managed to imply that it was a topic of dissent, that people on either side of the nappy line were glaring at one another with judgemental fury.
If anyone was feeling a little uncomfortable about their choice of infant-rump-covering, they probably felt a lot worse after that.
There were others in a similar vein.
What bothered me about them was not only the weird sense that if she had to tell us all not to fight we must secretly have been hating each other all along, but also the repeated statement that "You're a good mom".
Because, seriously, how would she know?
Breastfeeding doesn't make me a good mother, you can't tell whether or not I'm a fiend in human form based on the amount of television I let my daughters watch (though they might claim otherwise).
Breastfeeding just feeds Phoebe, all you can tell from the amount of television I let my daughters watch is how much television I let them watch.
If you read this blog you know that we homeschool, you know I used a sling, that I'm vegetarian, that we make an awful lot of pie, that I think I'm funnier than I actually probably am, and that I'm terrible at updating my blog regularly.
Maybe you know a few more things, too, but in general, that's it.
You do not know whether I'm a good parent.
Because none of that information can tell you whether I'm a good parent or the maternal equivalent of Snidely Whiplash.
Generally speaking, calling someone a good parent when you don't really know whether they are one isn't going to do a lot of damage.
When it came to one of the entries in the list of Things That Can Be Done In Two Different Ways, however, things seemed a little different.
One of her "good mom"s was "The mother who fed her kids takeaway every night this week".
The thing is, that isn't ok, it certainly isn't the sort of thing that should be met with a "good for you" or a trite little remark about how it's no worse than making a home-cooked organic meal each week**********.
I've thought this over for quite some time and, honestly, the only decent response I can think of to a mother who's fed her children takeaway every night is "Is everything alright?" or maybe, "What can I do to help?"
Because the mother who feeds her kids takeaway every night has a problem.
Perhaps it's a temporary issue: maybe her kitchen has been flooded out and she can't cook, or maybe she's getting over the flu and just hasn't felt like cooking all week.
Perhaps there's no-one else in the house who could make a hot meal.
Or a cold one.
Perhaps she just couldn't get to the shops for some reason, perhaps she's too tired, or too busy, and just can't fit everything in.
Perhaps she's depressed.
Perhaps she could use a friend, to pick up the kids from school so she has time to shop, or to bring round a home-cooked meal while her life gets back under control, or to lend her some fridge-space, let her cry on their shoulder, commiserate with her woes, or tell her that, no, that doesn't sound quite normal and does she think it would help to talk to someone?
Perhaps she's fine.
But if all you say is "Good for you! You're a good mom!" then you'll never know.
So nobody will help poor Mother-on-the-theoretical-edge: her woes, if she has any, will go unnoticed and unanswered, brushed under the carpet with "You're a good mom!"
Ok, enough ranting about the presumably well-meaning woman's awful diatribe.
My point is, that if you just respond to everything with a cheerful "That's great! Everything's fine!" then real problems get ignored.
It's bad enough to tell someone they're doing everything wrong, when they just wanted to tell you how much their toddler loves Dora the Explorer, but when they're actually seeking help, or even just sympathy, to tell them that actually, they're imagining their problems, everything's fine, hurrah for them, is to completely ignore their pain and leave them feeling that, actually, no-one cares about their difficulties.
If poor takeaway-mother wasn't miserable enough before she probably is now.
I remember, some years ago when I was overweight.
I wasn't badly overweight, I was a little over the average weight for my height, but for me it was a nightmare.
I'm naturally thin, my normal healthy weight is a little under the recommended weight for my height.
But I had M.E. and couldn't exercise, could barely drag myself out of bed in the mornings and this, combined with what was, for me, a huge weight gain, made me thoroughly miserable.
What I needed was sympathy, or some useful suggestions for ways to lose weight without actually starving myself.
What I was given was reassurance that I looked fine, that my weight was perfectly normal, and various remarks about the way society judges women based on their weight.
I was told to read The Beauty Myth, and Fat Is A Feminist Issue.
But I didn't look fine, my weight wasn't normal for me, and I didn't care about society.
I cared that I didn't look like myself any more, that I didn't feel like myself, that everyone was too busy deconstructing societal norms of beauty to listen to me telling them that the only norm I cared about was my own.
So I was miserable.
And the more everyone told me that I was fine or that I looked great, the worse I felt, because what I heard was that no-one really cared.
So here's the thing: sometimes people don't want your judgement.
Then, unless it's really urgent, unless they're telling you how great it is to knock your kid out every night with a couple of shots of vodka and a chaser of cough syrup, you probably shouldn't give it.
But when they are extolling the virtues of the vodka-meltis cocktail, someone really needs to speak up.
And sometimes people do want it.
Because judgement, as I said before, doesn't mean telling people off, or running them down.
It just means a reasoned opinion.
Sometimes people need that, sometimes they want, not praise, but your real opinion, or advise, or help.
Sometimes they just need someone to hold their hand till the pain goes away.
The trick is to listen, to hear what people want, or what they need.
Listen, be thoughtful, be considerate, be kind.
Say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done.
Then move on.***********
* Mmmmmm wisdom Mcnuggets.
** Yay, pop-culture references!
That was fun, I'm going to use more!
***I've seen this applied to pretty much everything: feeding formula, breastfeeding, using a sling, using a buggy, cosleeping, not cosleeping.
Apparently all parents are unconscionably sluggish.
****Although actually it's the other way around on the whole.
***** Yes, I know it was obvious, and it sort of ruins the punchline, but I just knew that if I didn't say something then the one and only comment I'd get on this blog would be from someone asking me what the heck I was talking about.
****** Stupid "Mommy Wars".
*******Hey Facebook Breastfeeding Is Not Obscene, if you must know.
******** Given the theme of the page I would hazard a guess that she fed her baby formula and felt uncomfortable among so many breastfeeding-based posts, but I honestly couldn't say for sure.
*********I did find a much shorter, much better one, containing some identical phrases, so I suspect hers was copied from there.
That one was actually rather nice and mentioned a few moments where parents can feeling utterly at a loss and generally rubbish, before assuring them that everyone has the odd bad moment and it doesn't actually make them a bad parent.
********** No, really, that was the comparison.
Did I forget to mention that the juxtaposition gave the distinct impression that, actually, she did think there was a better and a worse choice each time but was pretending she didn't?
***********Unless they've written some awful glurge about how everyone is lovely.
Then you should totally write a long ranty blog about how dreadful they are.