When you think about it, parenting is a 24-hour job, 7 days a week with no time off. Even when our children aren’t in our direct care, we intentionally make, manage and stay aware of the arrangements for the care they are in. From babies to toddlers to little kids to tweens then teens, though some stages might be easier than others, there is no truly easy stage of parenting. Every stage requires our awareness, engagement, know-how, and energy. There were times when I felt overwhelmed and when I lacked confidence. I will always remember and cherish those people who helped me out during those difficult times and offered their helpful advice.
What these other parents did for me is such an incredibly challenging thing that requires tact, knowledge, and empathy. Giving parenting advice is a slippery slope and when people assume they know what’s best for not only their child but also someone else’s child, a mudslide can occur and things can get messy! People receiving advice get defensive and feel as though you are criticizing their ability as a parent when you give them advice the wrong way. Just the mere suggestion that they might even need advice can cause strife if not delivered using the emotional intelligence skills of self-awareness, others-awareness, kindness, listening skills, empathy, and understanding.
But when I look back at those people who helped me and offered advice, more often than not, it’s a pleasant memory and they were absolutely right to offer it. What can we do to make parenting advice not become a point of conflict and how can we navigate that strong emotional reaction that accompanies being told we could be doing something differently as parents? Let’s examine this area of strong emotion and see what our emotional intelligence can do to guide us through these scenarios.
Who Knows What’s Best?
When we are thinking about giving advice to someone we know or care about, we need to really think about it first and firmly decide if we’re doing it for them or for ourselves. This self-evaluation requires the emotional intelligence skills of introspection and self-awareness. We need to look inside ourselves to understand exactly why we think this person needs our advice.
For example, let’s say that we are in the car with our child after a play-date and the first thing our child talks about is how loud and rough their friend was. Without asking our kid how this impacts them, or even giving it much thought, we assume that the other kid’s parent needs advice and we call them with the intention to advise them on how to get their child to be less disruptive. No matter how good our advice may be, the fact that we’re coming to them with a lack of awareness, curiosity, and empathy means this interaction will inevitably end poorly. This Huffington Post article about parenting advice has this to say on the subject:
“Let’s face it, parenting is hard in the best of circumstances… and really, really tough in the worst. The lives of countless families – particularly those whose kids don’t follow the path the other 85% seem to do with ease – run counter to the social and mass media images of fabulous family-dom. So what better way to support other parents than to be kind, nonjudgmental and empathic and, by word and deed, teach our children to do the same?”
But it is important to help other struggling parents when we’ve correctly identified that they need help and are struggling. When our advice is coming from a place of genuine concern, even when a desire to limit their negative impact on our lives exists, then it will be more likely to be listened to.
Again from the Huffington Post article, “After all, they really aren’t ‘my’ kids and ‘your’ kids. All kids matter. In the blink of an eye, they’ll be running the world. Unless we teach them, they will not learn to factor kindness, empathy and mindfulness about the diversity of human experience into their adult decisions.”
At the end of the day, there is no “right way” to parent. People are judged for not disciplining their children when they act out in public and people are judged for being too harsh when they do discipline them. There will always be different schools of thought when it comes to parenting, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help other parents, especially when we can see that they’re struggling to get by. Using emotional intelligence increases the chance for a positive outcome. Our next section is about the kinds of reactions we can expect when we first reach out our hands and our ears.
What to Expect When We Give Parenting Advice
People react negatively to receiving parenting advice for many reasons, most of them emotional. They don’t like being told what to do, they don’t think we’re actually qualified to offer them advice, they don’t think anyone should ever offer them advice, the list goes on.
This is why it’s so important to think about what we’re going to say to them if they immediately react with hostility and why a soft approach is necessary. If someone is taken aback by what we’ve said, we need to be ready with an apology for overstepping this boundary. But to help avoid overstepping any boundary, preface advice with an explanation of why we would appreciate the opportunity to offer it, letting them know that we’re coming from a place of genuine and in some cases, mutual concern. If it really isn’t affecting your life one way or another, ask them if they want you to share your advice. It’s integral to be communicative and open at this beginning stage where emotions are high and tensions are expectable.
If we come at them with phrases like, “here’s what you need to do,” it could end very poorly. If instead we initiate with a phrase like, “This advice worked for me and therefore, I recommend it,” it will lessen the sting of feeling judged. Nobody likes feeling like they’ve failed at something and other people have noticed that failure. We need to really consider their feelings and protect their dignity while simultaneously delivering our advice in a manageable, easy to implement way.
It’s not a task for the faint of heart, which is why it’s so important to really consider what we’re doing from both our perspective and the recipient’s perspective. It’s important to think through what we’re going to tell them and how we will respond to possible negative responses. We don’t want to risk our friendships or relationships by offering advice that isn’t welcome; the intention is to strengthen those relationships by offering needed help and showing them compassion.
The Diplomatic Method
Utilizing empathy, diplomacy, and open communication, there are a few ways in particular that may help us decide if advice is what the other parent needs and how to best approach them with it. This is far from an exact science, but the following list of six tips will be helpful when deciding whether or not it is appropriate to dispense advice and, if so, how to best deliver that message.
1. Wait for them to ask for help:
This is a big one and can be counter-intuitive for those parents who instinctively want to help others facing difficulties. Many people who see problems want to solve them immediately and it can be extremely difficult to be relegated to the sidelines while the problem persists. But sometimes we have to trust that other parents will successfully navigate their parenting journey without our advice and will come to us or someone else for assistance when the problem gets out of their control. Knowing when to give advice and when to let things sort themselves out is tricky but this story is a great example of skirting that line.
2. Ask questions:
Once we’ve decided our fellow parents might be receptive to advice or might need our help, the best way to go forward from there is to get as much information as possible. Ask questions first to find out their perspective on the issue. It could simply boil down to a difference in philosophy in which case, our advice will not get very far. Ask them about what they’ve already done to address the issue. They may have already tried out our advice and there may be a perfectly good reason why it hasn’t already worked for them. By asking lots of questions, we can avoid putting ourselves in a position where we are being simply unhelpful with our advice.
3. Be open, humble, and vulnerable:
Just because we have advice, that doesn’t make us an expert or a better parent. If we open up first and make ourselves vulnerable by speaking to our own parenting flaws, we will be easier to relate with. How many times has someone been able to reach you with an emotional story and how many times have you closed someone off because they came at you from a know-it-all position? The biggest thing is we shouldn’t be afraid to apologize if it turns out we’ve overstepped our relationship and our advice is unwelcome. Some people are completely unreceptive to parenting advice or need some time to think about it, but all we can do in that scenario is explain where we came from, apologize, and move on. And remember, your friend may have some good advice for you in return so be vulnerable and issue the invitation, “Please feel free to also share with me when you observe something about my own parenting style that you would like to offer advice about. We’re in this together!”
4. Be relatable:
Sometimes there’s just nothing we can really do to help. Kids can be loud, bratty, petulant, and exhibit all sorts of misbehaviors. Instead of advising a parent on how we would approach their situation, sometimes the best thing can just be a reassuring smile or comment. Something like, “I’ve been there,” “It gets better,” or, “Mine were the same way at that age.” It can go a long way to improve someone’s mood or day when they know that someone else has already successfully gotten through the challenge they’re facing right now and cared enough to reach out to them. We want to be friends first and advisors second.
5. Real solutions:
If we do raise an issue with someone’s parenting decision, we’d better be ready to defend our point of view. The next logical question from them is, “Well, what should I do differently?” If we aren’t prepared to offer a solution to their issue, whatever it may be, then it’s best not to speak up in the first place. It can be hard to hold our tongues, but it can come across as purely judgmental when we don’t have a real piece of advice and we’re just poking holes in someone’s parenting ability.
6. Set an example:
Before we go offering advice to others, we want to make sure we’re in a position where we should be giving advice. If we try to tell someone that they’re doing something wrong, they’re going to immediately look at us as an example. If we aren’t practicing as we preach, they will probably not care to hear what our advice is, no matter how beneficial it could be. Again, this requires self-awareness and necessitates a self-evaluation of our own parenting abilities.
In short, giving good advice to people requires you to come from a place of genuine concern, not a place of judgment. We have to be close with the person, willing to offer them real help, and aware of our own differences and biases. It’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s something that just about every parent benefits from. Having a gentle touch, a humble attitude, and complete confidence that our advice is both correct and necessary are the keys to making it a productive conversation. It’s a challenge, but if done right, it could bring us closer to someone than ever before and they will feel a great change. Has this situation ever come in your life and if so, what did you do about it? I’d love to hear what you’ve all gone through in the comments and until next time!