My husband and I moved to Brunei with a 10-month-old baby and had two more children overseas, so I grew into motherhood immersed in a culture that’s not my own. Mothering within a Southeast Asian culture that often upholds significantly different parenting norms than the Western ones I’m accustomed to gives me the daily opportunity to choose between two diverging paths: pridefully judging my neighbor or humbly seeking understanding and offering grace.
My husband once got into a friendly argument with our local babysitter because he noticed her throwing away food that fell off of our toddler’s plate and onto the table. While we considered it completely fine to pick it up and give it to her again, the babysitter found that unacceptable.
It also surprised us to learn that many local parents don’t use car seats. There are no car seat laws here, and every day I see children unbuckled in cars, jumping around in the backseat with their siblings or being held by their mothers in the front seat.
At first, I found myself almost automatically making judgements, not only about parents’ actions, but also regarding their hearts. Ironically, our neighbors saw me allowing my kids to do things differently than the Asian customs of our new home and could have made the exact same judgements.
When I’m the recipient of judgment, it’s easy to see the unfairness of someone judging my heart. Given the chance, I could explain all the reasons behind the decision to let my kids eat that “dirty” food or my insistence on a car seat. The funny thing is, I rarely thought to give others the chance to explain themselves before I began to privately judge their choices and feel superior for my “better” parenting decisions.
The believers of the early church, who came together from separate Jewish and Gentile cultures, faced a similar temptation to judge one another for their differing practices and opinions about food. In Romans 14, Paul addressed believers who disagreed whether it was acceptable to eat all foods or whether certain foods should be avoided.
His instructions were nuanced. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:13-19)
Paul’s response to the Roman church indicates that some issues of Christian life can be more gray than black and white. Certainly God’s word explicitly defines sin in some areas of life, but it also leaves others open for interpretation by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For instance, the Bible is largely silent about most of the nitty gritty details of parenting, like whether to use car seats or allow our kids to eat food off the table. So we must approach these kinds of gray areas, both individually and in relationship with other parents, by exercising discernment, understanding, caution, and wisdom.
The longer I lived overseas, the more often I observed my friends from Brunei and elsewhere in the world making parenting choices that seemed opposite to my own. But as I grew in relationship with them, I began to understand that they were doing what they believed was best for their own families, often according to their unique cultural values. I more quickly recognized gray areas versus sin issues—feeling more reluctant to judge other parents for their decisions, and more motivated to understand and pursue peace as Paul instructed the Romans.
Although the different parenting choices I’m regularly exposed to may be more extreme in my cross-cultural context, the struggle of hasty judgement is universal. Wherever we call home, we see parents making different choices and are tempted to finish the thought, “That is not my choice” with, “therefore, you are a bad parent.”
Where God’s word doesn’t offer a direct command, there’s freedom in the gospel to choose our course with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus we’re able to humbly concede: what I believe is best for me and my house may not unquestionably be the best for everyone. When we’re tempted to automatically judge the mom who makes a different or even a seemingly wrong choice, let us instead seek to understand God’s word, grow in understanding through relationship with her, and “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
Nicole Payne is a former teacher turned stay at home mom to two boys and a girl. Ironically, although her family moved from the U.S. to Southeast Asia over five years ago, she wouldn’t describe herself as particularly adventurous or energized by world travel, but instead prefers the comforts of home...wherever home may be. In addition to raising kids with roots in two countries an ocean apart, she is an avid podcast listener and dabbles occasionally in writing and photography. You can find more from Nicole on her blog or Instagram.