Curious…do you think there is no place for parenting advice at all? Or just no place for unsolicited parenting advice directed at an individual acting as a not-so-masked criticism of their parenting?
While it’s actually in response to a very poorly-chosen post title (in my defense, it was 2am when I wrote it), it’s nevertheless a really interesting question.
I don’t think there is no place for parenting advice; that is, to unwind that double negative, I do think parenting advice has its place. The point of the previous post was that while it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss parenting advice from someone solely because of their child-less/free status, that’s not actually a good enough (or good at all) reason.
So what is appropriate parenting advice? It certainly is not “unsolicited… not-so-masked criticism of [one's] parenting.” That’s inappropriate at any time, from any source, yet is one of the most common — and most infuriating — types of “advice” parents get, and why we get so defensive on the topic in general.
Advice on parenting is least likely to be received as an attack — or to phrase positively, is most likely to be listened to and reflected on, whether adopted or not — when it is: solicited; humble; experiential; and in line with the receiver’s own basic parenting philosophy. (I’m thinking of doing a post on differences in parenting philosophy soon; was going to next, until Annie bugged me for an answer to this most worthy question, and it got in my brain.)
Solicited: this is something of a no-brainer, I would hope. While unsolicited advice isn’t always inappropriate, the only way to know it is welcome is to have it be requested. Getting unsolicited advice can be like getting hit on in a bar: sometimes it’s a nice compliment, sometimes the person is open to it if not looking for it, and sometimes it’s harassment and you deserved that drink in your face and on your faux leather shoes. Judging whether someone is open to unsolicited advice requires observation, skill, and respect; if you think anyone in a bar is asking for it, just waiting for you to bless them with it, I guarantee you’ll be getting the drink in your face. That doesn’t mean all unsolicited advice is unacceptable, however: if you hold back, and only share when you’re pretty sure the other person is actually interested, and are perfectly happy to back off at the slightest “no”, then you might end up sharing a nice drink — perhaps while the toddlers are playing in the background, to mix metaphor with reality.
Humble: this is probably the most key part, and, like it or not, most important for those who don’t have children of their own yet. The simple truth is you don’t have all the answers. It’s entirely possible you don’t have any answers that are relevant to the other’s situation; and if you do, it’ll do them no good if you come in and beat them over the head with it (even if it is awfully tempting at times). The thing is, you have not been exactly where they are. “I’ve been there” can be blessed, beautiful words to hear from a survivor to someone struggling through hell, but they are cursed and ugly when followed with “so I know just what you should do.” While an outside vantage can bring fresh perspective, it’s also always lacking the whole story, by definition. You simply aren’t there. Even if you’ve also had two under two, and struggled to buy groceries, without a car, on a strict budget, only to have both throw wobblers in the store with dozens of people looking on, you aren’t the one in that particular situation. You haven’t had those toddlers on that budget in that store, and you have no idea what all is brought to that situation by the hours and weeks and years and decades of experience of the person right in front of you — not even if she’s your best friend since first grade and you live in the same house and you talk all the time. Humility is saying that you don’t know everything, so you’d be an idiot to be arrogant. You don’t have to be diffident (though if they’re in a right state, it can help), but you do have to be humble.
Experiential: this is where those without children are most at a disadvantage, but this can be slightly ameliorated with years of hanging around other parents, listening and absorbing, and offering up the gleanings of their experiences third person with a heaping serving of humility. While theory is well and good — I’m a big fan of having the guidance of philosophy and ideals and theory — what most parents really want is to hear what others have done. Hell, this is true across humanity: ask any advice columnist, they’ll say the most common letter they get is “is this normal? has anyone else experienced this?” We want to know others have been there, and we want to know how they survived. We want to know the tips and tricks from the trenches, as it were. So often, we’ll hear about some theory (like unhindered birth, or breastfeeding, or elimination communication), and think “great! but… how do I DO it?” I’ve been a moderator on a large parenting board for years, and that’s got to be the most common type of thread on there — I certainly remember putting up not a few threads like that myself. So while talking theory (the pros of breastfeeding and the cons of formula, the whys of elimination communication, the cascade of hormones of unhindered birth and the cascade of interventions of medicalized birth) certainly has its place, it’s not what people are usually looking for in parenting advice.
Compatible philosophy: I may write more on this later, but what it comes down to is that the best advice in the world is useless if its end goals are at odds with what you actually want to do. Sure, there will be disagreements and squabbles and quibbles over how best to achieve, say, “independence“, but all of it will simply be irrelevant if that’s not a parenting goal of the person listening to that advice. And while in true Western arrogant style my fellow US citizens love to say things like “everyone wants the same things for their kids”, that simply isn’t true. It’s both variable personally, and strongly variable cross-culturally. (If you don’t believe me, go read some translations of works from people who don’t look like you and don’t speak the same language as you. And try looking up “privilege” while you’re at it.) I actually find it most easy to dismiss advice that is radically in opposition to my own parenting goals, and tend to engage most with (and be most activated by) those whose goals are similar but choices different. But advice with different goals in mind is also the most useless, except as object lessons on How Not To Do It. So don’t waste your time and theirs telling them details and how-tos if your goals and philosophies are just simply different.
The “advice” from both the Twitter Twit and the mother-blaming mother on I Blame the Mother failed (and pissed me off) because it violated every single one of the above points: in both cases, it was unsolicited, arrogant, theoretical, of incompatible philosophy, and worst of all, was simply an excuse for not-so-masked criticism. Although I was tempted to attack the Twit merely on the basis of not being a parent, the mother-blaming mother proved quite well that bad parenting advice is bad parenting advice no matter the source.
I have had — and I like to think I have offered — good parenting advice from both child-less and child-having perspectives. The key is not the status of one’s place in the perpetuation of the species; the key is in ensuring your welcome, speaking with humility, from experience, and to compatibility, and having kind intent. Come to me with that, and I will gladly listen to you, no matter who you are or who is in your life.