Dear Rachel,

My mother in law is constantly criticizing me and my ability to parent. No matter what I do she makes a comment, and often in front of other people. If I give my child a cookie she will say, “Don’t you think he has had too much sugar today?” and yet, if I don’t, she will snap, “Do you really think it is fair not to give him one when the other kids are having one?” I can’t win. What should I do when we are out in public and this happens? So far I have chosen to stay silent, but I feel like I am about to burst.

Renee S.
Brooklyn, NY

And you probably will. If you continue to be the silent martyr, smiling as you feel that your mother in law is berating you, you may end up eventually saying (or screaming) something that you will regret.

The first thing is to consider that while you are interpreting her behavior and comments as critical, there is the possibility that she is really trying to be helpful. While she may seem threatening or powerful to you, in truth, you most likely seem those very things to her Sometimes we are quick to feel that someone is out to get us, when in truth, all they are looking for is an opportunity to feel needed and wanted. I’m not saying that this is the case in your situation, but it is always something to consider.

Let’s put ourselves in her shoes for a moment. You are married to her son. You are the mother of her grandchildren. Basically, you have a major role in the lives of those most important to her. While she may seem threatening or powerful to you, in truth, you most likely seem those very things to her.

I would be curious to know how you react to her suggestions. Do you roll your eyes, bite your tongue and walk away? Do you stay silent but make it clear that they were not appreciated? Do you smile and do what she says but resent her terribly?

There is the Torah concept discussed in the Ethics of Our Fathers, that we have an obligation "to judge everyone favorably" — basically, to always give one the benefit of the doubt (Avot 1:6). So in this case, let’s say that she really does want to help, that she really does want what is best for her grandchildren. Maybe she doesn’t know the best way to approach it, but that is her intention.

If you could view her comments as her desire to be helpful, and take them seriously and with consideration, she may not always feel the need to say something. I would try responding to her when she says something with, for example, “Really, you think it would be better if I didn’t…” or “What do you think I should give him instead?” Let her be part of the solution. Put it on her to help figure out then what to do when your kid is screaming because he didn’t get the cookie, or when he won’t eat his dinner an hour later because he did.

Another option is to kindly explain to her why you made the decision you made. If you're convinced that you made the right decision, there is no need to be defensive. So you can simply explain, “Usually I would let him have a cookie with the other kids, but today he has had so much candy and if he eats any more Let her be part of the solution not only will he be up all night, but he will get a terrible stomach ache.” Or, “I don’t always give him cookies for a treat, but today he was so especially good that he really deserves it!”

Problems arise not so much because of what you say but, because of how you say it. If you are confident about your parenting abilities and decision making, then you can calmly and warmly justify your choices without sounding annoyed or upset. If you trust how you parent, that will come across, and others will naturally come to trust how you parent as well. But if you become reactive, then your behavior will appear erratic and defensive as opposed to a carefully made choice.

Ultimately, you are your children’s mother, you have the final word, and most likely everyone knows that. But your mother in law is their grandmother, and I would guess she adores and loves your children and wants what is best for them. While this is easier said than done, when she makes her comments try to focus on the idea that her desire is to help them, as opposed to criticizing you. If you can start to see her words as an expression of love and not ill will, you will most likely be able to either consider that perhaps she is correct, or when she is not, to be able to explain to her that while her comments are coming from the right place, you feel that what is truly best for the children is something else. And you are the one to decide that. For as everyone knows, mother knows best!