Discriminative Thinking versus Being Judgmental

Discriminative Thinking versus Being Judgmental

A situation that I run into a lot when I see people in therapy is the problem of identifying behaviors they see as "bad" in others versus the desire not to "be judgmental." In other words, someone who is a friend or acquaintance is doing something that you may not approve of, but you quickly censor your critical thoughts about this person because you don't believe it is right to criticize others. You end up saying something like "everyone has their own way of doing things," or "it's not my place to judge others."

Certainly it is not right to "be judgmental." But it is necessary to discern the difference between right and wrong both in our own behavior and in other's. This is particularly true when we consider who we spend time with, have relationships with, do business with, etc. The fact is we are all greatly influenced by the company we keep and in order to choose the right company, we must be aware of the behaviors and values that others have as well as of our own.

So, how is all this related to parenting? Quite simply one of the areas of concern for all parents is who our kids' friends are. Why? Because we know that peer pressure is a powerful force during childhood and adolescence. In order to help our children learn how to pick friends and make decisions about what behaviors they will or will not choose to participate in and join, we have to be clear ourselves on what the process is to make the proper "judgments" without "being judgmental.

Confused? Let's break it down. Very simply what I am saying is this: There is a big difference between what I call "discriminative thinking" and "being judgmental." In the first process, we make a distinction between what behaviors, thoughts, actions or attitudes are productive, evolutionary, relationship enhancing, forward thinking, and in general healthy versus those that are destructive, cruel, de-evolutionary, hard on relationships, and generally unhealthy. For example, I had a friend who used to take supplies from the office where we were both employed for her own personal use at home. She rationalized that she wasn't being paid enough (which was true), so they owed it to her. She felt she was righting a wrong by taking the situation into her own hands. She thought I should do the same. I certainly agreed with her that we weren't paid enough, but in my estimation what she was doing was nothing short of stealing and I didn't want to participate. I didn't voice my opinion about it until she pressed me for it at which point I did tell her why I didn't want to take any supplies. She was upset and defensive and it caused a rift for awhile in our relationship. Eventually she came around to my way of thinking and we were able to mend fences.

The point of this example is that in thinking about the situation, I did not jump to a blanket conclusion that my friend was a "bad person" or even a "thief." There was no need to label her or try and make her feel bad or guilty about her behavior. That would be "judgmental." I did however need to use discriminative thinking and recognize that her behavior was not productive, could have serious consequences, was dishonest, and overall wasn't in anyone's best interest. I recognized the behavior for what it was, made a decision that I could not participate in it, and when pressed, had to speak up and draw a boundary. I still loved my friend and wished we didn't have to go through a rift in our relationship which caused us both some pain, but ultimately there was no other decision for me.

In another situation in the same office setting, one of the secretaries let it be known that she was having an affair with a married man. Soon the office was buzzing with gossip and condemnation of this woman. Many of the regular comments were aimed at seeing her as a bad person with "no morals." There were rather lengthy conversations describing her "sinful" behavior, her "poor taste," and other such personally denigrating characterizations. She was ostracized by some of the other women and soon stories began to appear accusing her other things unrelated to the original theme of her participation in an extramarital affair.

The two situations point out very clearly the difference between discriminative thinking and judgment. In the first situation, there was a recognition of destructive behavior and a setting of boundaries against participation in it. The integrity of all persons concerned was maintained. I valued my friend and did not want to harm her even though I did not approve of her behavior. In the second scenario, the recognition of the poor behavior on the part of one person was matched by the equally destructive behavior of those judging her. In fact, they left a trail of blame, criticism, and hate in their wake that was harmful to both themselves and the woman in question, and did not contribute to the integrity of anyone involved.

The point is this: we cannot nor should we ever deny seeing reality. Of course it is not always so easy to see reality especially when the area is grey, but we must always strive to see things the way they are the best that we can. What we don't know does hurt us. At the same time, behavior that is judgmental, critical, labeling, blaming, hateful or cruel is never healthy. What we want to aim toward is discriminative thinking. We want to recognize poor behavior, attitudes, and activity and set boundaries for ourselves against these without adding a new series of behaviors, attitudes and actions that are equally as bad. The table below sums up the differences between "being judgmental" and making use of "discriminative thinking."

Discriminative Thinking Being Judgmental
Maintains the integrity and value of all persons involved
Denigrates the value of the other person; labels him/her as "bad" or "unworthy"
Makes a distinction between behavior and personal value
Lops together behavior and personal value
Recognizes without harsh blame
Blames and devalues
Allows us to set boundaries while maintaining relationships if that is our aim
Destroys relationships
Gives us a chance to examine our own behavior, attitudes, beliefs and values
Keeps our attention on someone else's faults while avoiding recognizing our own
Promotes love and respect
Promotes hate and disrespect
Is ultimately kind
Is cruel
Helps us develop emotionally, mentally and psychologically
Moves us backward emotionally, mentally and psychologically
Allows us to take proper action when necessary
Allows us to take proper action when necessary
Teaching Our Children Discriminative Thinking
Teaching our kids how to think discriminatively is a process that is learned over time and with lots of repetition. Based on the age of the child, the lessons will be quite simple at first and growing more complex as the child ages. The whole process gets more cemented once a child is able to use abstract thinking which begins to appear more frequently around the age of nine and gathers steam as a child approaches adolescence. That being said, the main activities and practices to be used are listed below.

#1 By Example

This is probably rather obvious and refers simply to practicing discriminative thinking when involved in correcting behavior with our own children. We point out what behaviors, actions, and attitudes are acceptable and enforce those without condemning, humiliating, being cruel, or attacking our child's sense of self. We might be stern in some cases or even show our dislike or dismay at a behavior, but we preserve our child's self esteem and self image at the same time. By operating in this way, we teach our children by experience that making a mistake is not what defines us. At the same time, we can make use of constructive criticism to make improvements.

#2 Reviewing Problems with Peers

Use the opportunities provided early in your child's life with playmates to begin teaching him how to recognize undesired behaviors and attitudes, and set boundaries where necessary, all without personally attacking the playmate in question. Use language that is suitable for your child's age. Long dissertations are usually not helpful. For example:

Child: I got in trouble today at recess.

Parent: You did? What happened?

Child: Justin was kicking Joey while we were playing kickball and I started yelling at Justin to stop, and then the teacher called all three of us inside and we had to sit at our desks for the rest of recess.

Parent: I bet that made you mad. It seems unfair.

Child: Yeah, it is! Justin's the bad one, not me!

Parent: Justin is the one who was misbehaving for sure, and you tried to stop it.

Child: Yeah, and look what I got. Well, at least I didn't kick anyone.

Parent: That's right. You knew that wasn't the right thing to do because it hurt someone.

Child: Justin's always kicking and hitting.

Parent: Looks like he's having some problems and he doesn't know how to fix them.

Child: Yeah, he is having problems. He cries a lot and he's always mad. I guess he's not very happy.

Parent: I think you're right. He probably needs some help.

Child: What can I do?

Parent: You can be nice to him when he's not hurting anyone. What are you going to do if he kicks someone again.

Child: I'll go straight to the teacher and tell her.

Parent: Good idea!

There are several steps that this example brings to light. The first one is to find out what is going on or what happened with as little questioning as possible. Let your child do most of the talking. Second is to validate his feelings about the situation. When you do this you strengthen your bond with your child because he feels like you understand his point of view. Next is to help him see the difference between the behavior and the person. In this scenario this was done be gently separating Justin's behavior (kicking and hitting) from his state of being (his unhappiness). He is a person with problems, not just a problem. Finally, you can be instructive by setting up a new way of handling the same situation should it arise again.

#3 Evaluate the Behavior On Its Own Merit

There are some regular steps everyone can take when trying to decide if a behavior is something that should be pursued or not. Ask these questions:


Will the behavior cause anyone harm including myself? This is a rather complex idea that often can lead to good discussions with kids. The notion of "causing harm" can be quite involved. It requires defining values.

What are the consequences of the behavior both in the short-term and long-term? This one teaches kids to use objective thinking and to delay gratification. In other words, we have to think and evaluate before we act.

How will I feel once the behavior is acted out? Will this behavior leave me feeling good about myself? Is it in keeping with my values and principles? Will I feel comfortable talking to my parents about it?
This is a process you can teach your kids to use on their own. Begin by going over the questions with them as different situations arise. You can use the questions retroactively for situations that already occurred as a means of evaluating them and helping kids to understand the process. I would caution against too much talking though as it works best when the situation is current and a child can feel the potency of the situation. I would also caution you that in order for kids to feel comfortable talking to you about anything, you need to be able to listen without preaching, accept that your child has her own feelings even if they don't coincide with yours, and keep your words to a minimum while encouraging your child to do most of the talking. Your real concern is the most important element.

Final Thoughts
In some of the examples I have given above, the relationships were kept intact in spite of unwanted behaviors. It is important to teach our children to go one step further and make a decision regarding whether a relationship with a peer should continue or not. The questions to answer with your child are: (1) Will my continued relationship with this person be in my best interest? (2) Are their problems extensive so that my hanging out with them will lead to my getting into poor behaviors also? (3) Is this a person who is able to make corrections or do they continue to make the same mistakes over and over? Your aim is help your child learn to think very carefully about the longer term consequences of relationships. By teaching them to think discriminatively, you help them preserve any good feelings they may have about a peer while also showing them how to evaluate the effect of that person on them. This makes it easier to set boundaries. In other words, we don't have to hate someone or see them as all bad to set a boundary. It is not an all or nothing proposition. We do, however, have the right and obligation to protect ourselves from behavior that is not going to be good for us overall. In fact, this is a lesson that many adults still struggle with as they attempt to avoid "being judgmental." For adults, the process is the same as the one I've outlined here. Hopefully, everyone can benefit.

blog comments powered by Disqus