The rise of parent shaming and the psychology behind it

Germany To Face Shortage Of Child Day Care
Public shaming isn't new, but the vitriol sparked by shaming parents online is particularly intense in the modern age.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images 2012

This spring, a three-year-old boy climbed into the enclosure of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. Afraid for the boy's safety, the zoo staff was forced to kill the gorilla.

The story dominated the news for weeks, and online, a special kind of vitriol was brewing. People were upset at zoo staff — but they were more upset at the boy's mother. Online commenters berated her parenting skills and harassed her online.

This particularly visible moment of parent-shaming is representative of recent trends, where the Internet-at-large turns its eyes on parents — and wags its finger.

Where did this parent shaming practice come from? And what feeds it? MPR News host Kerri Miller spoke with two experts on the subject.

On how society and technology have fostered the parent shaming trend

"What's interesting about this shaming is that isn't not just celebrities, it's not just politicians anymore — now it is parents. I think that's what is new.

Now it's extremely possible to throw up a Facebook post about 'some woman that let her child wait in the car for 3 minutes' or the ... parents that came to a Chinese buffet in Sandusky, Ohio, and put their baby in his little baby carrier at the booth. They then went to get their food and the guy at the next table took out his camera and started videotaping them and it got 4 million views. 'They abandoned their child!'

There's two things going on: One is we have cellphones. Cellphones makes it so easy — it's like we're all the paparazzi looking for bad moms. And it's usually moms, rather than dads. The second thing that's going on is that there's this crazy new idea that any time a child does not have their parent's eyes directly upon them — even if they're at the gas station paying for the gas, even if they're getting the spare ribs at the Chinese buffet — somehow the child is not only in danger but abandoned, going to be killed, and only thanks to the vigilantism of the guy with the video camera has somebody cared."

-Lenore Skenazy, author of book and blog, "Free-Range Kids"

On the psychology of parent shaming

"It's the most primitive — and I hate to say it — normal human tendency to create a sense of superiority within the self, which means that we put other people down. It is indicative of a deep longing within all of us to feel good about ourselves.

It comes from this good place but quickly becomes toxic, because in order to feel good about oneself, one should really just feel an inner deep sense of worth. Unfortunately, because we're lacking that, we can only feel good about ourselves when we prey on the well-being of others.

When a situation like this one at the zoo arises ... [people react] because: 'Finally, there's really another parent out there who has done something, in my eyes, that is more clueless, more egregious than me! So let me jump on that wagon and allay and assuage all my incompetencies by projecting my insecurities on this parent, and for once I can claim to be better than — so I'm going to go for it.'

It really comes from a deep longing to be seen as good, to know that we are competent and worthy, because it's a deep longing that never gets checked or healed. It becomes toxic and it's rampant and it's a sickness of our society which needs to be checked."

-Dr. Shefali Tsabary, clinical psychologist and author of "The Awakened Family"

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.