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The Thing You Don’t Know

Welcome to the February 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Respectful Interactions With Other Parents

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have focused on how we can communicate with other parents compassionately.


At the Baby Loves Disco party Sunday afternoon.

“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.”

This quote is one of the central ideas of the book The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver; it is a statement made by artist Frida Kahlo to fictional protagonist Harrison Shepherd, following a mutual revelation of previously undisclosed tragedy to one another together with the realization that both had judged the other wrongly.

The idea continues as a theme throughout the book and is one of the meanings of the word “lacuna” - a gap or missing piece of the story.

Shepherd ultimately becomes a famous author during the infamous McCarthy era in the US - first judged wrongly by most everyone who fawns over him, and finally judged even more harshly when the tide of public opinion turns against him.

Having recently read this book (twice – it is a really good one), this idea of ‘the thing you don’t know’ was one of the first that jumped out at me when I thought about the concept of respectful interactions with other parents that is the subject of this month’s carnival.

As most of us know, parenting is a pretty darn personal subject for a whole lot of people. Essentially, criticizing (or even gently communicating) a ‘lack’ in someone’s parenting skills amounts to criticizing or calling out who that parent is as a person – probably because when you become a parent, it becomes a major part of how you define yourself as a person. If someone has a problem with your parenting style, they have a problem with who you are.

Of course, that is not necessarily the case in many such situations, but I think it’s very difficult for us to perceive that and make the distinction. I know I’ve felt personally slighted when I’ve perceived a person or group to be critical of the way that I parent or my parenting philosophy – though it is something I believe we can get past, it’s certainly not easy.

And of course, many of us who identify as ‘natural’ parents do feel that we are ‘on the right track’ in many ways when it comes to parenting (which sounds arrogant but of course we believe it’s true – we kind of have to) and have a wish to share the things we’ve learned – often out of pure desire for the betterment of both parent and child.

We strive to advocate compassionately – a cornerstone of the attached relationship between parent and child that ideally extends to every relationship – all of this in a perfect world, of course.

To a great extent, I’ve seen many who are successful with this sort of loving communication of certain values to other parents, and I know it’s successful because I’m a total convert – I had no identification with or understanding of the attachment parenting philosophy until I came into contact with a community of awesome, loving parents who have acted exactly the way I’ve described in those previous few paragraphs and totally altered my own philosophy of parenting.

But as loving as we can be, it’s not a perfect world. Judgement slips into our words and actions – both intentionally and unintentionally - on a regular basis. We end up pushing people in the opposite direction of the very values we wish they would embrace, and half the time we’re patting ourselves on the back while we’re doing it. We’ve stood up for what’s right!

I say this, of course, as someone who has all too often fallen into that way. I don’t think I’ve been very exceptional in the past when it’s come to communicating my passions with other parents – in fact I’ve failed pretty miserably in that area.

But I do keep trying to do better – and I’ve come to believe the cornerstone of this sort of compassionate communication is what Kingsolver has so succinctly stated: “The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.”

And this means that the person I’m secretly judging for letting her 2-month-old cry it out may be struggling from a crushing bout of postpartum depression. It means the person I’m scorning for feeding her baby formula may have wanted to breastfeed more than anything and currently lives with an ever-present sense of guilt and self-loathing. It means the man I eye with horror who spanks his 2-year-old in front of me at the supermarket may have his own history of parental abuse that is worse than anything he might ever do to his child.

I could go on and on and on here, but you get the picture. And I know you get it – because how often has a person judged you for something unfairly, with you thinking, “If only they knew the whole truth…”?

And I bring all this up to say: How would your interactions with other parents – your advocacy for the things you believe are best – change if the first thing you thought of was, “I wonder what pushed this person to that point.”

If your first impulse was compassion:I hate what that child is going through, but what must his father have gone through to behave that way?

If your first act was to listen:Are you doing OK? Would you like to talk?

If your first offer was empathy:Being a parent is one of the most difficult jobs in the world – it seems there is so much conflicting advice out there!

If your first reaction was identification:I know I’ve made lots of mistakes, too.

If through every interaction, you looked at all those messed up, broken down parents who are doing it all wrong and saw them through the eyes of love.

There is a lacuna – or missing piece – inside all of us. Parenting is an incredibly vulnerable position that can break those fault lines wide open – and still keep us from truly being seen.

If we really want to reach a person’s heart and effect true change, we need to look deeper than what we see on the outside: Every. Single. Time.

Next time you and I find ourselves feeling a little judgy and like we want to “help”, let’s stop and ask ourselves – what is the thing I don’t know?

I have true and heartfelt gratitude for the many beautiful parents who have demonstrated this willingness to be understanding. You really are making amazing changes happen. I hope I can continue to learn and be more like you every day, and am so grateful to be among your community.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • How to Respond Respectfully to Unwanted Parenting Advice and Judgment — At Natural Parents Network, Amy (of Peace 4 Parents) offers some ways to deal with parenting advice and criticism, whether it’s from your mom or the grocery store clerk.
  • Judgement is Natural – Just Don’t Condemn — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shared her views on why judgment is unavoidable and why the bigger issue is condemnation.
  • Four Ways To Share Your Parenting Philosophy Gently — Valerie at Momma in Progress shares tips for communicating with fellow parents in a positive, peaceful manner.
  • When Other Parents Disagree With You — Being an attachment parent is hard enough, but when you are Lily, aka Witch Mom, someone who does not enforce gender roles on her kid, who devalues capitalism and materialism, and instead prefers homeschooling and homesteading — you are bound to disagree with someone, somewhere!
  • Mama Bashing — Lucy at Dreaming Aloud reflects on the hurt caused on the blogosphere by mama bashing and pleads for a more mindful way of dealing with differences.
  • Accentuate the Positive — Joella at Fine and Fair shares how she manages interactions with the parents she encounters in her work as a Parent Coach and Substance Abuse Counselor by building trusting relationships and affirming strengths.
  • The politics of mothers – keys to respectful interactions with other parents — Tara from MUMmedia offers great tips for handling the inevitable conflict of ideas and personalities in parenting/mother’s groups, etc.
  • Trying to build our village — Sheila at A Gift Universe tells how she went from knowing no other moms in her new town to building a real community of mothers.
  • Internet Etiquette in the Mommy Wars — Shannon at The Artful Mama discusses how she handles heated topics in the “Mommy-space” online.
  • Parenting with Convictions — Sarah at Parenting God’s Children encourages love and support for fellow parents and their convictions.
  • How To Be Respectful Despite Disagreeing On Parenting Styles… — Jenny at I’m a Full-Time Mummy shares her two cents’ worth on how to have respectful interactions with other parents despite disagreeing on parenting styles.
  • Public RelationsMomma Jorje touches on keeping the peace when discussing parenting styles.
  • Navigating Parenting Politics — Since choosing an alternative parenting style means rejecting the mainstream, Miriam at The Other Baby Book shares a few simple tips that can help avoid hurt feelings.
  • Hiding in my grace cave — Lauren at Hobo Mama wants to forget that not all parents are as respectful and tolerant as the people with whom she now surrounds herself.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting – Respectful Interactions with Other Parents — Wolfmother at Fabulous Mama Chronicles explores how her attitude has changed regarding sharing information and opinions with others and how she now chooses to keep the peace during social outings.
  • Empathy and respect — Helen at zen mummy tries to find her zen in the midst of the Mummy Wars.
  • Not Holier Than Thou — Amyables at Toddler in Tow muses about how she’s learned to love all parents, despite differences, disagreements, and awkward conversations.
  • Nonviolent Communication and Unconditional Love — Wendylori at High Needs Attachment reflects on the choice to not take offense as the key to honest and open communication.
  • Respectful Parenting As a Way of Life — Sylvia at MaMammalia writes about using her parenting philosophy as a guide to dealing with other parents who make very different choices from her.
  • Homeschooling: Why Not? — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling shares how parents can often make homeschooling work for their family even if, at first glance, it may seem daunting.
  • If You Can’t Say Something Nice… — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells her philosophy for online and offline interactions … a philosophy based primarily on a children’s movie.
  • Different Rules for Different Families — Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children discusses how differences between families affect our children, and how that can be a good thing.
  • Respectful Interaction With Other Parents — Luschka at Diary of a First Child shares the ways she surrounds herself with a like-minded support network, so that she can gently advocate in her dealings with those whose opinions on parenting differ vastly from her own.
  • Parenting as a mirror — Rather than discrediting others’ parenting styles, Kate Wicker discusses why she tries to focus on doing right rather than being right — and why she’s also not afraid to show others that she’s a heartfelt but imperfect mama just trying to be the best mom for her family.
  • The One Thing {Most} Parents Have In Common: They Try Their Best — Christine at African Babies Don’t Cry finds interacting with other parents easier once she accepts that they are all just trying their best, just like her.
  • Finding your mama-groove: 5 ways to eliminate judge/be judged metalityMudpieMama reveals 5 ways of thinking that have helped her find her mama-groove and better navigate tricky parenting discussions.
  • Speaking Up For Those Who Can’t — We’ve all had those moments when someone said something hurtful or insensitive, or downright rude that just shocks you to your core, and you’re stunned into silence. Afterwards, you go home and think “Gosh, I wish I said…” This post by Arpita at Up Down, And Natural is for all the breastfeeding mamas who have thought “Gosh, I wish I said…”
  • Thank you for your opinion — Gaby at Tmuffin shares her go-to comment when she feels like others are judging her parenting style.
  • Mending — A playground conversation about jeans veers off course until a little mending by Kenna at Million Tiny Things is needed.
  • The Thing You Don’t Know — Kelly at Becoming Crunchy talks about what she believes is one of the most important things you can consider when it comes to compassionate communication with other parents.
  • 3 Tips for Interacting with Other Parents Respectfully When You Disagree with Them — Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama shares what she has learned about respectful interactions on her parenting journey.
  • Peacefully Keeping My Cool: Quotes from Ana — How do you keep your cool? Ana from Pandamoly shares some of her favorite retorts and conversation starters when her Parenting Ethos comes into question.
  • Kind Matters — Carrie at Love Notes Mama discusses how she strives to be the type of person she’d want to meet.
  • Doing it my way but respecting your highway. — Terri from Child of the Nature Isle is determined to walk with her family on the road less travelled whether you like it or not!
  • Saying “I’m Right and You’re Wrong” Seldom Does Much To Improve Your Cause… — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment writes about how living by example motivates her actions and interactions with others.
  • Have another kid and you won’t care — Cassie of There’s a Pickle in My Life, after having her second child, knows exactly how to respond to opposing advice.
  • Ten Tips to Communicate Respectfully, Even When You Disagree — What if disagreements with our partners, our children or even complete strangers ultimately led to more harmony and deeper connections? They can! Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares ten tips to strengthen our relationships in the midst of conflict.
  • A Little Light Conversation — Zoie at TouchstoneZ explains why respect needs to be given to every parent unconditionally.
  • Why I used to hide the formula box — Laura at Pug in the Kitchen finally talks about how judgement between parents changed her views on how she handles differences in parenting.
  • Assumptions — Nada at minimomist discusses how not everyone is able to nurse, physically, mentally, or emotionally.
  • Shushing Your Inner Judgey McJudgerson — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction knows that judging others is easy to do, but recognizing that we all parent from different perspectives takes work.
  • Respectfully Interacting with Others Online — Lani at Boobie Time Blog discusses the importance of remaining respectful behind the disguise of the internet.
  • Presumption of Good Will — Why — and how — Crunchy Con Mommy is going to try to assume the best of people she disagrees with on important issues.
  • Being Gracious with Parenting Advice — Tips for giving and receiving parenting advice with grace from Lisa at My World Edenwild.
  • Explain, Smile, Escape — Don’t know what to do when you’re confronted by another parent who disagrees with you? Amy at Anktangle shares a story from her life along with a helpful method for navigating these types of tricky situations (complete with a handy flow chart!).
  • Balancing Cultures and ChoicesDulce de leche discusses the challenges of walking the tightrope between generations while balancing cultural and family ties.
  • Linky – Parenting Peacefully with Social MediaHannabert’s Mom discusses parenting in a social media world.

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30 Responses to “The Thing You Don’t Know”

  • Wow this is a powerful message indeed. Thank-you so much for sharing honestly your journey. I want to quote big chunks of this post because it so resonated with me. I love 'Judgement slips into our words and actions, both intentionally and unintentionally – on a regular basis. We end up pushing people in the opposite direction of the very values we wish they would embrace, and half the time we're patting ourselves on the back while we're doing it. We've stood up for what's right!' So true! What a challenge it is to do what is right for us and allow others to do what is right for them even if we don't agree.

    Thank you for that deep suggestion to look for the missing piece. I'm breathing this in hoping I can continue to remember and apply it well from now on. Onelove
    My recent post Doing it my way but respecting your highway.

  • Dionna@CodeName:Mama says:

    "If your first impulse was compassion" – I love this, it is what I want to live every day, in every interaction – both with other parents and with my own family. Love this, Kelly!

  • This is really a great message to remember. I don't think anyone can truthfully admit to not being judge-y at times (or all the time). But if we asked ourselves, while wrapping our heads around whatever foreign concept is happening, "What don't I know about why this is being done?" – then we can first better understand why it's happening and secondly find a better approach to rectifying the situation. Sometimes part of speaking up is learning more, and this is really one of the most valuable questions we can seek to answer when dealing with others respectfully. Thank you!
    My recent post Peacefully Keeping My Cool: Quotes from Ana

  • Charise says:

    Wow – I so love this lacuna concept! It is so right on. Thanks for sharing!

    I'm adding the Kingsolver book to my library request list right now. I love her books!

    You and I have very similar taste in books :-)
    My recent post 3 Tips for Interacting with Other Parents Respectfully When You Disagree with Them

  • @MBJunction says:

    That is beautiful advice – especially the part about listening. People sometimes just need to be heard. They need to let it all out. They don't need to be told or shamed or called out.

  • Kenna says:

    Kelly! This is so sophisticated and thoughtful. I'm so glad that the Carnival put me in contact with your writing. Simply: gratitude.
    My recent post Mending

  • I love the idea of a lacuna–a missing piece! I totally agree that you just can’t know the whole story behind the person–I also try to remember this before I judge someone’s choices…thanks for this post!

  • Sheila says:

    Once or twice I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. I’ve judged someone, criticized them, or given them a ton of unwanted advice … and then found out later that I didn’t know the whole story in their life, and that I would have kept my mouth shut if I’d only known.

    It’s good advice to assume that is always the case. Because it so often is, and it’s always the safe bet.

    Meanwhile, like you say, there’s so much we can do to advocate in those situations: from “do you want to talk about it” to “hey, want me to hold the baby for an hour or two while you take a nap.” Advocacy doesn’t have to be a lecture.
    Sheila recently posted..The terrible twos, or whatever

  • This is such an insightful post, Kelly. Yes, it is important to remember what we don’t know about other parents and what struggles or lack of support or personal challenges they might be encountering that could influence their parenting.
    Kerry @ City Kids recently posted..Homeschooling: Why Not?

  • Carrie says:

    I really enjoyed your post and related to a lot of what you said.

    Once we let go of judgment, true compassion, kindness and sharing can begin. Remembering the concept of “lacuna” is a great tool for letting go of judgment!

    This reminded me how my friend, daughter and I recently ran into a megastore after a long morning out. It was a sunny but cold day, and my daughter was hot from the car seat and from being stressed. I didn’t put a jacket on her for the quick rush to the store.

    My friend casually (and non-judgmentally) remarked how her boyfriend would get upset when he saw kids being out without a coat on.

    In my head I ran through my reasonings for forgoing the jacket. And then I thought sadly that while he would have a point, so did I in this instance. “The most important thing about a person (in any instance) is what you don’t know.”

    And judging puts up a wall, a divider, a boundary on Right vs. Wrong. While I know I can’t always stop a judgmental thought from coming in my head, when i notice it, I try to let it go and not attach to it. And it’s humbling to remember my no- winter coat story…how even the most casual things aren’t always what they may seem.

  • So important and true. I often feel that “If only they knew” reaction when someone judges me. How much more important, then, is it to extend that same courtesy of assuming we don’t know the full story when we’re tempted to judge. Thank you for this perspective of compassion.
    Lauren @ Hobo Mama recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: Valentine’s week

  • Rach says:

    How beautiful. This brought tears to my eyes. I just want to go and hug all those parents now! People act from what they know, and we can;t know what they know. It is hard to remember but I will try harder.

  • Destany says:

    I really enjoyed this post, it is very insightful! “The thing you don’t know” is something I will be taking with me and thinking about when I am feeling judgemental. I have recently discovered that I have an incessant need to show all of my warts when I meet people I really like and connect with. “Yes, I think and feel the way you do on all of these issues, but wait, just so you know… ” I now realize that it’s fear of being judged. If I can look someone in the face and cop to my weaknesses or downfalls or past faux pas, their future ammunition is weaker. If they find out later that I am an ex-smoker, or that I was not able to exclusively breastfeed all 4 of my children, it would feel like a lie. What’s far worse than being judged by strangers, is being judged by those we look up to and admire.
    Thanks for this post. I feel like I learned something important. :)

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