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Carolyn Hax: Parenting critique unwelcome

Dear Carolyn: My neighbor thinks I’m a bad parent. Not just a bad parent, a dangerous parent. She thinks this because I do things such as let my daughter climb the tree in our yard and let my son play football. She believes they are going to get injured or killed doing these activities.

Now she has started going directly to my kids, doing things such as yelling, “Get down from there!” while my daughter was sitting in our tree reading a book, and telling my son and his friend, “Football will give you brain damage,” while they were throwing a football back and forth in our yard. Is there something I can do to kindly get this woman to shut her trap?

– Neighbor

A: Not really; nor is there anything you can do to meanly get her to shut her trap, because it’s her trap.

You apparently can be more direct with her, though. People who go on and on need your permission to do so, if only by your staying there and taking it.

So, don’t stay there and take it. “I’ve heard you out, and I believe you mean well, but my kids are playing and climbing with my permission. Please don’t interfere. Thank you.” Leave. Thereafter: “Thanks for your concern,” then leave.

Talk to your kids, acknowledge how uncomfortable it must be for them, give them language: “I’m here with my parent’s permission.”

There is a different angle you can take, if you’re not too fed up with her to summon the requisite compassion: “Are you OK? Because my kids are just playing, and your anxiety about it tells me there might be more to this story.” If there is nothing more, then you cut to the I-know-you-mean-well speech. If she takes umbrage, then enjoy pointing out the irony of her believing you crossed a line.

But if she witnessed an accident or lost a nephew or has PTSD from too many shifts in a pediatric ER, then your still-necessary deflections of her concern will be more appropriate if you phrase them with that in mind.

Defusing a constant critic

Dear Carolyn: I have a friend to whom I’m not super close, but we have several common ties – we’re members of the same church, we work in similar fields and our daughters go to school together. Over the years, I’ve observed her tendency for calling out others’ shortcomings and telling them how to fix them.

For the most part, I’ve let it roll off my back. But in the last few months, it seems that whenever we interact, she is either criticizing my daughter or telling me about a way she thinks I should be parenting my child, to the point that it feels as if my daughter is being badgered.

Do I go out of my way to tell this friend that her “constructive criticisms” are unacceptable, or do I wait for her to broach the subject again? While it would be easy to just not maintain our friendship, we will most certainly cross paths several times per year, so I don’t think I can wash my hands and walk away without a confrontation of some sort.

– Mama Bear

A: I think that’s exactly what you can do. You don’t have to be friends with people who aren’t friendly, and you don’t have to explain why unless you’re close.

If you would rather try to salvage a friendship from this, then continue as usual and wait for her next delivery of unwelcome criticism. When it arrives, greet it with this: “I don’t appreciate the way you criticize me and my daughter.” Simple, firm, clear. If she expresses remorse, then I like your chances of getting along; a willingness to admit fault and back off can turn a repellent behavior into a forgivable frailty.

If, instead, she gets defensive and insists she means well or, worse, criticizes you for criticizing her criticism (whew), then shift into arm’s-length mode with: “Thank you for your concern.” Use that not just in this conversation, but at any future time she oversteps: “Thank you for your concern.” … “Thank you for your concern.”