Monday, December 22, 2014

Should divorced parents respond to criticism?

Receiving a “bad review” from an ex or an observer to their divorce is not a unique experience for most divorced parents.    At some point, deserved or not, divorced parents are likely to be upbraided or censored in an email or text or social post somewhere.  But should parents respond to their critics?

In almost all instances, I would counsel no, no, no...decisively no.   Divorced parents should remain resolutely above tit-for-tat displays of vituperation.  The risk of responding is to reveal oneself to be exactly what the critic observed.  Sam Rayburn, the famed Texas congressman, remarked “No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.”  And Sally Berger reminds those who have trouble following his sage advice:  “You never saw a fish on a wall with its mouth shut.”

When responding to criticism, parents are invariably angry and defensive.   And while the resulting exchange can make good theater for observers on social media or desirable fodder for divorce lawyers’ testimony questions, it rarely puts the writer in a good light.  Indeed, the angry retort likely reinforces what the critic observed: the writer as small minded, petty, more concerned about ego than substance.  Further, the angry retort keeps the issue alive and gives the critic yet another opportunity to overwork the finer points of their argument. Better to remain silent and let it die indignantly.

A strong incentive to restraint is that parents, when reacting to criticism, rarely get the tone right. It’s like road-rage; angry retorts are often wrecks in the making.  As rewarding as it is to write and send a rejoinder seemingly filled with astute observations about the critic’s flaws and delusional reasoning, upon rereading, such missives often seem more self-righteous and self-congratulatory than insightful.  They make the writer look, frankly, stupid.

Compelled to respond but understanding the risk of sounding shrill and whiny, some parents attempt humor to puncture the critic’s puffed up charges.  But being truly and disarmingly funny is very difficult when feeling unfairly maligned.  Instead of witty, the angry parent is more likely to sound childish (“get a life”) or unpersuasively sarcastic (“I have given considerable thought to your well-reasoned and extensive remarks about my parenting and concluded, however reluctantly, that you are full of s….”).   When asked to review and comment on such communication threads, I am reminded of Pogo’s observation: “Yep son, we have met the enemy, and he is us.” 

Parents should also remember that having third parties respond to unfair accusations, including their lawyers, does not necessarily solve the problem. They, too, are human and likely identify with the recipient’s outrage.  Unrestrained by social considerations (“I have to get along with this person through school graduations, marriages, grandchildren, whatever”), they may come across as even more vindictive and self-righteous than the parent.  If you need a reminder about what happens when people do not feel compelled to observe standard courtesies, take a look at readers’ comments following important news articles.  It will make you wonder if schools are teaching anything at all about critical thinking.

At some point, of course, we all lose it.  Tired of the attacks, having concluded that patience is for wimps, we rant and rave, giving our critics more reason to laugh and point out our sensitivities and failings.  But all is not lost.  Parenting is a lifetime endeavor. There will be many opportunities to redeem oneself and recover a measure of dignity by responding, to the next critic or the next criticism, with silence.

It’s so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.
                                                                                                                                                Sam Levenson


  1. What a wonderful post about divorce. Great idea flawlessly executed.

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  2. I'm spreading this far & wide to my clients & peers. Everyone needs to work on this.