What is appropriate parenting advice?

Reader Annie (of PhD in Parenting fame) asked the following question in reply to my last post, On parenting advice and the idiocy thereof:

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.

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18 Responses to What is appropriate parenting advice?

  1. I love what you said about humility – I am likely to ignore any parenting advice if it is delivered to me in a condescending tone. This happened to me quite a bit from parents with more than one child.

    Example: “once you have the second – you’ll just let them cry”

    And obviously I am ill equipped to respond because I ONLY have one child *sarcasm*

  2. I have to admit I am one of those who really, really hates getting parenting advice from non-parents. Without exception, every single piece of ‘advice’ I’ve had regarding parenting from non-parents, has been arrogant and useless. It always comes in a “Do it this way!” command rather than a “I’ve heard this can work…” suggestion, and it is always obvious that the person speaking does not in fact have children because if they did, they’d know that whatever hair-brained idea they’ve scoured from Supernanny (or other terrible ‘parenting advice’ TV shows, books, whatever) does. not. work.

    One childless woman told me (not suggested to me, flat out told me) to lock my son in his bedroom and leave him to it when he was having a tantrum (in this situation he wasn’t even really tantrumming, he was crying because he was genuinely upset about something). I couldn’t think anything else other than “wait until you have kids of your own and then tell me what to do with mine!” The same woman is one of the worst offenders for telling me what to do with my son; she worked in a preschool and believed this made her some sort of expert. You can’t help but resent that, really.

    • I would argue that you’ve learned (with good reason!) to associate advice from non-parents with advice that was inappropriate — that particular piece sounds like it violates at least 3 or 4 of the above guidelines.

      And I agree, the “I’ve taught/nannied/done preschool makes me a better expert on kids than you” thing is extremely irritating. I still think those without kids can offer good support, but one does need to be particularly careful because of people like her getting parents on the defensive off the bat (because we’ve had bad experiences, that is).

  3. on the “experiential” tip…a lot of really useful advice i’ve gotten is from people with no children, because all people, even people with no children, used to be children themselves. if their advice is given from that perspective, and not as an absolute “This Is the Way Things Ought to Be Done”.

    as a non-custodial stepmom, i have gotten really valuable advice from my childhood best friend who had every-other-weekend visits with her dad and stepmom growing up, and from other friends who grew up with separated parents. none of them have children, but they have a lot to share in terms of what they liked and didn’t like about their own situations.

    i often feel out of my element having an opinion on things like childbirth and even regular parenting, since i’m only a part-time parent. sometimes the only advice i can relate is secondhand, so i’m careful to couch it as such, and not take a critical or didactic tone. i think (or hope, at least) that it should be easy to tell the difference between someone who is criticizing or being judgmental, and someone who honestly just wants to help out.

    • That’s an excellent point I completely left out: sharing one’s experience as the receiver of parenting (because we’ve all been children) can be really useful. It doesn’t always translate, but the perspective, offered kindly, is nevertheless usually interesting and often helpful in at least creating a picture of the ways parenting is received over time.

      As for your second point, I think sometimes we get stuck in defensive mode (from previous bad experiences and the anticipation of more) and have a knee-jerk reaction that’s not actually related to the person in front of us — but if we can get past that, let it go, then I do think it’s pretty easy to tell the difference, and to respond appropriately whether the suggestion is something we’d want to do or not.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head here. I like to hear from people who have experience, who are of a similar philosophy, and who present their information in a way I can access it. The thinly veiled criticism I can do without. Also, the leading questions meant to lead into the thinly veiled criticism.

    I am in a position to provide a lot of ‘parenting advice’ as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor. While it’s always solicited, I like to say that I provide information and support, NOT advice. Because advice implies a way that someone should act. I find it’s more accessible to present options that other people find useful, and theory where necessary. That way it’s about someone else making their own decisions based on their own situation. When offering advice you either become a parenting guru, which isn’t very empowering for others, or the advice doesn’t work and you look like an idiot. Either way, you lose.

    • I kept thinking of pointing out that the best advice isn’t advice at all so much as information, support, or suggestions, and it’s just for that reason.

      You sound like a fabulous counselor.

  5. Thank you for the detailed response to my question. I agree with much of what you said, but do have to say that even with those guidelines it is hard to know when to say something and when not to. There may be cases where those guidelines have to go out the window and other cases where you follow them all to a T and still end up insulting someone.

    I should probably elaborate a bit on my reasons for asking you that question:

    1) As you know, I have a blog where I sometimes offer parenting advice. Sometimes it is in response to a reader question and sometimes just a “here’s what I’ve learned” or “here’s what works for me” or even “here is what I think is best”. The issue there is that some people welcome that advice. They either read my blog in order to get that advice or Google for information and land on my blog (e.g. co-sleeping safety). However, other people who happen across my posts or regular readers who disagree with me on a particular issue will often get upset. Someone could have a parenting philosophy that is 90% aligned with mine, but disagrees with me on one issue and suddenly my posts are inappropriate and insulting.

    2) I also moderate a popular parenting board. Certainly when people ask questions and we provide related advice, things generally go well (solicited advice). The problem comes in when a user brings something up in passing that we feel we need to address. As a made-up example, they say “Can someone give me some advice on getting vomit stains out of crib sheets and off of stuffed animals? My son has been vomiting while crying it out lately”. Well…in those cases, we feel that we need to address the stuffed animals in the crib (SIDS danger) and the crying it out until he vomits (yikes!), in addition to giving advice on the stains. That is perhaps an exaggerated example, but those types of things do come up all the time.

    3) I think sometimes that people don’t make it beyond the typical mainstream parenting books and if no one speaks up or shows them that there are other ways, then they will never know that there may be other parenting philosophies out there that may be a better fit for them and their child. Personally, I only came across attachment parenting because I happened to see it mentioned on an Exclusively Pumping board that I went to when my son wasn’t able to latch. If my son had latched beautifully from Day 1 and never had any problems, I probably would have been following “What to Expect During the First Year” to the letter.

    • Annie, I think you’re looking for the answer for how to make people not get mad at you ever, and there just isn’t any. Following these guidelines (which I by no means created, just tried to distill what I’ve observed over the years) isn’t a guarantee that the advice (support, suggestions, information) will be well-received, much less taken. It’s just trying to minimize the chance of an interaction that belittles and offends (and therefore pisses off) the parent receiving the advice. It’s just my way of trying to make sure I’m keeping my side of the street clean, as it were. And no, I don’t always do all of these, and sometimes it’s because I’m taking liberties with those I know well, and sometimes it works anyway (“works” meaning just that I don’t get in a fight with the other person), and sometimes it’s because I messed up, and the other person has every reason to be pissed at me.

      To 1) I say, you do a pretty good job of presenting your information and opinion in a non-judgy way. The nature of that information and opinion is inherently controversial sometimes, which means folks are gonna come in to the topic already activated, especially if they disagree. That’s just the nature of the endeavor, I’m afraid. I don’t think you’re doing anything “wrong” that would need to be “fixed” or changed, though.

      2) I think that sounds fairly typical of things I’ve dealt with on the board I work on. I don’t think unsolicited advice is always inappropriate, just that it’s often unwelcomed, and we need to be cautious how and when we offer it, and back off if we’re told it’s not desired. Things are a little different on a discussion forum, though, because not only are we dealing with that individual, we’re creating a resource for the people reading, and sometimes we need to say things for their benefit as well as the person whose situation we’re actually addressing. It still needs to be done respectfully and gently, but it’s not quite the same as a person-to-person situation.

      3) That’s absolutely true. I usually try to show by example, or (especially for things like birth, that are once-only, or babywearing, that we sadly rarely get to actually do anymore) just offer a different perspective when someone states a false absolute. Things people take for granted, like “everyone needs a stroller/crib/disposables/bottles/pump”, I’ll usually speak up just enough to say “Not really, actually” or “I know a lot of people who don’t” or just “I never did”. Then they know there are other ways, and have the chance to ask me about it if they want to. And not if they don’t.

  6. I think that it is really important to acknowledge that no one knows the child better than the parents. I always make sure to state that because parents should be validated for the hard work that they do. I further believe that any advice has to come from a place of best interest of the child and not a desire to condescend or appear as a wise sage. If we truly believe in the idea of community someone else seeking to offer a different point of view should not be challenging. I think the issue with advice is that many see children as property rather than as unique individuals.

  7. Fab post. And also what Renee said here:

    I further believe that any advice has to come from a place of best interest of the child and not a desire to condescend or appear as a wise sage.

  8. I think the “humble” part of the equation is huge. Nothing turns me off more than hubris and evangelism and “I must SHOW YOU THE LIGHT” when it comes to parenting advice, regardless of the source (and I’ve seen those attitudes on all ends of the childrearing philosophy spectrum).

    I once told someone (who *is* a parenting philosophy evangelist) that I was the kind of person who liked to mull advice over and see if it felt like a good “fit” for me, rather than just thinking “Oh, well, all my friends do X and it works for them, or Parenting Guru Y says it’s the Best Philosophy Ever.” The person in question seemed surprised by this, and responded with something along the lines of “Well, if this has worked well for so many other people, why not just save yourself the time and energy and learn from your older and wiser sisters?” Uhh … because I have an intellect and an intuition and I actually care to use them?

  9. Looks like your threaded comments only allow one level of replies, so I can’t reply to your reply to me Arwyn.

    In any case, I don’t think I’m looking for a way to ensure that no one gets mad at me ever. I think I was just looking to vent (mostly) and to say in my own way that this is really hard stuff. It is difficult to know what will be too much for whom under what circumstances. What might really help one parent and one child, may put a major rift in a relationship in another case.

    This is something I’ll be balancing in a different way too now that my SIL is pregnant.

    • Yea, I phrased that really poorly. My own arrogance getting out. I apologize.

      SILs should have their own category of advice on advice, because damn, that’s dicey stuff. I’ve barely talked to my SIL since she had her second kid (the last conversation about parenting was about a year ago, with her telling me about the solids her 4 month old was eating). I have absolutely no desire to have it out with her, and we’re going to be family for decades after the choices of infancy fade away, but the pain of angry words last forever. So for now, few words at all. :(

      I hope and trust you’ll manage this far better than I have. And congratulations on impending aunt-hood!

      (Re comment threads: grr, it’s supposed to be 5 deep. Of course, it’s also not supposed to change : ( to :( and is supposed to email me when I have a comment in moderation, so basically my whole comment system is messed up. :-/ )

  10. Would advice given in a blog not fall out of these particular guidelines? I am thinking of Annie’s comments here. Someone coming to your blog for info (or any other reason) is not the same as giving unsolicited or solicited advice in real life, person to person. Isn’t a blog a place where you can post your own ideas, thoughts, opinions without feeling like you are shoving them down someone’s throat? I mean you can choose not to read a blog, or to stop reading if you don’t like it and the writer won’t know the difference. Not so easy in real life.

    While unsolicited advice is almost always unwanted, no matter what the topic or reason for the advice, when can we provide info to other parents without crossing any lines? How will other mothers know about the dangers of formula, for example, in cases where breastfeeding is not contraindicated? I wonder where mainstream parents can get good information? Or do we just forget about them and hope someone, somewhere, someday finds the information needed to do what is best for their children? Or is this where blogs come in?

    I am not necessarily looking for answers, who has all the answers anyway??? Just wondering how and when we can hope for a more peaceful world for children.

  11. @Rashel – Most of my parent audience would be considered mainstream parents. They’re no different than anyone else – they need to be met where they’re at and helped in contexts that they can understand.

    I find that when I meet them where they are, talk to them about the stuff that they’re concerned about, that then they’re more willing to hear other perspectives.

    Unfortunately, it often comes down to a lack of patience.

    Alternative parents often don’t have the patience for mainstream parents – and mainstream parents often don’t have patience for alternative parents. As a stereotype, neither group is seeking to meet each other where they other one is coming from.

    Helping people evolve & grow in any context means we have to start where they are, build rapport and trust and let them know we care and understand, and then move forward together in a new direction if that’s the next thing to do.

    So if there are mainstream parents giving their kids formula and you don’t think that’s a safe thing to do, you don’t have to forget about those parents and hope they eventually figure out what’s best for their kids…

    If you’re really committed to educating parents about formula, then you could start by just making friends with some mainstream parents, connecting with them, and listening to them. Appreciating them for who they are. See if you can understand where they’re coming from. As they experience you as a friendly, safe, loving individual, they’ll be more likely to be receptive to what you have to say about breastfeeding.

    Advice that comes outside of an established friendly/trusting relationship can feel harsh and we’re more likely to defend against it. When it comes from someone we trust and we think respects us, we’re much more likely to listen.

    P.S. If you have a blog post about the dangers of formula, I’d like to read it and possibly share the news on my magazine site for parents. Thank you.

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