Monday, October 31, 2011

Things I've Learned as a Parent

Parenting is so challenging, and as any aware mother knows, the physical changes of pregnancy are almost insignificant compared to the changes we discover in ourselves as we move through our journey of life with kids. Parenting is all about changing, be it in reference to diapers or our own minds. This morning as I lay in bed, slowly waking, I was struck with some of the changes I've noticed in my own life. Some are funny, some are more philosophical, but no matter what, one thing is clear: if you are a parent and you haven't changed--somehow or in some way--we need to check you for vital signs.

In no particular order, here are some ways my son has changed me, and some things I've learned over the last four years, for better or worse:

1. I am now the lightest sleeper ever.  My brain has developed some sort of sophisticated sound-cue system which wakes the body whenever certain sounds travel through the environment: the signature 'crack' creak of my son's bedroom door; the croup Strider cough; or the early morning calls of "I'm tired of sleeping, Mama".  This will, however, work in my favor once the Kiddo becomes Teenager and tries to sneak out at night. I am the alarm system in this house.

2. I never knew how much I could love sleep. This love is almost scandalous.  Pre-child, staying up late was a voluntary activity. Now, if I were to ever have an affair, it would be with Sleep, because nothing looks better than the insides of my eyelids. I'd easily pay good money to have an uninterrupted ten hours of sleep.

3. I've come to see that the idea of Parental Authority is--like unicorns and centaurs-- largely the stuff of myth.  Some will disagree with me here, but basically, we have about as much absolute, sovereign authority over our kids as a boss has with their employees--only we can't fire our disgruntled workers. Instead we are required to provide them room, board and health insurance and cute clothes. When we say "jump", we might not get a jump, or a "how high?", we might just get an annoyed stare with a "Why?" which will make us want to fire them for insubordination. My job is far more about persuasion than domination, although I have been known to whip out the weekly-used threat of "If you don't stay in bed, there will be no video time tomorrow" when I am tired, finished with the extended bedtime routine and ready to escape for a well-deserved Beer and a Sitcom. At that point, the Progressive Parenting part of my brain has clocked off, exhausted after a busy day, and is also ready to put up its metaphorical feet and veg out. 6:15 a.m.-7:30 p.m. is a fairly long workday for that part of my brain, and if I time out after 13 hours plus, can you blame me for grabbing the cheap threat and beating a hasty retreat?

3. The best parenting brains are like an Olympic gymnast: flexible and strong and able to change it up. Especially in regard to parenting philosophies. Who gets more advice thrown at them than a parent? How many gajillion parenting philosophies are out there, to both ends of the extreme? I remember adamantly following Attachment /Child-Led Parenting theories--until I was tired of waiting for my three year old to want to wean and sleep in his own bed. Despite all of the hypothetical "Make It Positive for Everyone" parenting philosophies and techniques, sometimes, we are going to have to make our kids do things that don't feel good for anyone. Sometimes you simply can't reason a child into cooperation. Sometimes, they are going to have to go to the doctor and get their shots or go to school when they don't want to simply because "That's the way it is". (Or, as I tell Kiddo sometimes, "We do because we do because we doobie-doobie-doo.") Sometimes empathy is all we have to offer, and their cooperation is pretty much a moot point: some things in life must be done and yeah, it kinda sucks. That said, I've learned that no parenting technique or theory is bulletproof; rather, there are no silver bullets out there that are going to solve any problem permanently. Besides, silver bullets should be reserved for werewolves, not kids. I am still learning, still having my own ideas challenged, and stretching, stretching, stretching every day as a parent.

4. I'm not the parent I thought I'd be. Remember that time in your life as a new parent of a baby, when  you'd see another parent struggling with their misbehaving kid and think to yourself "I'll never do that!" Let me tell it to you straight: Oh, yeah, you will. You will do that, and then some. You will have moments in which you think "I am just about the shittiest parent in the world right now, except the ones who are in jail" and the ones who are in jail will be your sad consolation for the angry stupid thing you said to your kid. I've had those moments myself. I never thought I would threaten my son with punishments, but I have, even if only because I'd run out of the time, patience or energy to pull yet another idea out of the parenting toolbox. We all do this occasionally, and as long as I am not threatening physical punishment or abandonment or something equally scarring, this is a part of myself that I'm going to have to accept. We all make mistakes from time to time (okay, daily), and when your kid is acting like an insane crazy person and you are tired or out of brainpower to effectively parent through the crazy, you will say something stupid. You will disappoint yourself as a parent. I know I have.

5. Make your peace about not being a perfect parent now; talk to your therapist if needed, so that your kid might not need one later on. What I mean here is simply this: if I white-knuckle the ideals and the details, I am going to end up being a pretty unpleasant parent/spouse to live with. I've come to the conclusion that there's no such thing as perfection as a parent, and if we don't mess up from time to time, our kids miss out on the chance to discover what it is to be wholly human-- to make mistakes, to make amends, and to keep loving each other as we all keep growing. Imposing our desire for perfection is pretty much like wrapping your kid in a straitjacket (while the crazy person is on the outside, no less) and can considerably alter how they perceive their childhood in later years.

6. Keep in mind the core of what's important, and let that guide your family's journey together through life.  My usual mantra fits here: balance is everything.  Frankly, some things aren't negotiable, but we should try to keep that list relatively short and cut down to essentials. What exactly are one's family values? If it can be a short, specific list, that helps. In our house, it boils down to respecting ourselves and others and the Earth, which can encompass a lot of areas: eating well, being careful and kind to others in our actions and words, good stewardship of the planet, and taking care of one's self-care responsibilities. (This is on par for my four year old. Parents of children of different ages will have a different list, I'm certain.) Non-violent media and eating healthy are going to be two struggles we'll have to face down the line because of all the other messages our culture sends, and we're going to have to grow with our son in understanding what he needs, socially and psychologically, as he matures. I know I will be challenged throughout my son's life as to how to impart values without them becoming something he resents, and so we try to weigh our preferences as parents against what the consequences of not-allowing might be: feeling left out; being considered too "other" by peers; and Kiddo's own genuine preferences, etc. The parents who reserve "NO" for the important, serious stuff may end up having kids who feel more confident  and make better decisions because the little choices have been allowed to them and there's less to rebel against. They've learned that when their parents say "no", it is more often a meaningful "no" instead of a rote one. Better for everyone.

7. Just when one area of parenting gets better, another becomes more challenging. Parenting will mess with your mind, no doubt about it. Children seem like shapeshifters some days, moving through phases with alarming speed and unpredictability. Kids do return to unresolved issues to work through them in their own way, and just when we think we've conquered a specific beast, it might come back days, weeks, months or even years later. My theory is this: kids have to learn "X" amount of stuff before we send them off on their way as young adults, and they can really only focus on a couple areas at a time. I'm not talking academic lessons either, but life's larger lessons in belonging, security, self-regulation, self-expression, assertion of one's personality while conforming to the needs of the larger group. These lessons go on forever, and we are still learning them as adults, however, we adults usually have the intellectual capacity and perspective to approach  life with more objectivity than our children, who have such a sense of being in the present that objectivity is impossible for them.

8. My friends won't parent the same way I will, and that's fine. When my son was wee tiny, I so desired a cocoon of like-minded persons surrounding us, parenting in ways that supported each other. What I've learned is that I can enjoy other women and not make the same choices as they do and admire them and be fine with it all at once. This is about my own peace in my decisions and acceptance with who I am, and I think those two factors allow people to be comfortable and confident while spending time with people who do things very differently. I am lucky in that there is something in each of my friends which I admire in some way, be it because they homeschool or because they stay active in their communities or chosen professions and have figured out a way to do what makes them feel best as a parent and as a person. So often, we get busy judging ourselves and because we feel 'less than', we judge others. None of my friends parent the same way I do, 100% across the board, and that's why we all have our own kids. As long as we are all respectful about it and up front about what we want, things usually work out.

In thinking on these points, I want to say that the last one has been key to my happiness as a mom. So often much is made of friends whose relationships change drastically after a baby comes into the picture. In my life, I've met like-minded people who had similar parenting views as I did, but we might not have had much else in common. The core of the relationship has to be larger than what we do with our kids. I've discovered that some of my staunch "never gonna have kids" friends really enjoy my son in ways that most of my friends with kids don't. Perhaps it's novelty, who knows? Nonetheless, it's this broad, patchwork sense of community that lifts me up when I need it and helps me feel connected on days when I feel stuck in what is sometimes a very insular job. In earlier years, I was more comfortable keeping to myself; since Kiddo, I've expanded my friendships because of him. He is an ambassador in some ways, pushing me to get myself out there and fascinated to learn more about these new people in my life, the new friends we make as a family. That's keeping me flexible too~ stepping outside my comfort zone.

In fact, so much of changing as parents is precisely about doing what we are uncomfortable with, whether you are a brand new parent trying to get used to poopy diapers or someone like me, who had tamed that beast a long time ago but still struggles with a sometimes-paralyzing social anxiety around the large groups of people that parenting sometimes requires us to be a part of. Throughout our lives, we will be meeting new caregivers, teachers, the families of our child's friends, and new situations each and every day. We will learn that sometimes, our comfort zone is going to get squashed by someone else's comfort zone because they are perhaps older, or less flexible, or less tolerant of kids than we are. And then, we have to find a way to navigate through that, and resolve to ourselves to be more comfortable or assertive the next time that situation arises, to do what needs to be done or say what needs to be said without feeling bad about ourselves for it.

Balance and flexibility: parenting is gymnastics in so many ways. I'm going to keep working at it, though, keep trying to stay limber and learn new tricks. I might even go to bed early tonight so I can keep at it tomorrow, learning through every day, changing in so many ways.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Birthday Panties and a Three Dollar Latte-- Trying Not to Come in Last Around Here

Yesterday morning I was tickled pink to open a birthday card from my sister to myself. This sister writes the kind of cards that tell you some of the good things about yourself that you like to hear. This was a truly appreciated and much-needed ego-booster shot. Thanks, sis.

Enclosed was a check. "I'm sending you the gift of $ for new underwear...remember that chat? Every mama should have wonderful, whole panties!"

Amen, sister!

In case you're wondering, "that chat" took place via email back in August and looked like this:

Sis, on shopping for her kids: "Somehow we have 3002 pr of underwear for them.  Not me.  I have old, ugly underwear. Not that you were wondering."

Me: "Nothing to say but "ditto on the underwear". Not that you were wondering either. Amazing, though, how I feel that a $21 3-pack of quality training pants is fine, but then I cheap out and sneer at the $10 3pack of Hanes Her Way bikini panties.....Obviously, our brains are overcooked.:)"

Not that anyone out there was wondering, but I am trying to make a point, which is this: When one is down to three pairs of decent underpants and one feels more justified in buying panties because one's sister has sent a birthday check specifically for that purpose, it must be presumed that one's priorities might not entirely be in the right places.

Or, the short version is this: Often, as moms, we take better care of our families than we do our selves.

I think I just heard a chorus of "Amen, sister!" on that one.

I do remember a time in my life when I had cute, girly underpants. Loads of them. I was also in my twenties and had time to shop for cute, silky things hung on individual hangers. Now I'm more of a "find a pack in my size and go" sort of gal. I'm a mom, and I do not have the lifestyle that allows me to go shopping leisurely for frilly things. Nor do I run those sorts of loads of laundry. If it can't live being washed on "Regular, Cold/Cold" with zippered sweatshirts and jeans, it doesn't come into the house. So, Yeay! for sensible Birthday Panties. I might even buy something with a printed pattern on them, just to show my husband that I do know how to live a little.

Still, there's that other part of the equation: the wonky priorities regarding one's personal time and space. I have sent out the memo several times, but as Kiddo can't read and has the short-term memory of a rabbit, this is of no use and sometimes the content of those memos has to be yelled at him. Like, for example, this morning. I personally believe that one's time in the shower--all ten minutes of it-- should be free of conflict and need. As in, "unless the house is burning down or your bottom needs to be wiped, it can wait". Not today.

Sent to husband, earlier today: "This morning was AWFUL. No time for tea, so picked up a latte (also b/c we needed to leave the house a little early to pull Kiddo 'out of it'. ). Let's have a meeting tonight regarding morning routines, because ours needs to be tweaked. I was getting hit through the shower curtain this morning. You are lucky I just bought a latte instead of running away to join the Occupy group downtown. While there may be some contentious downers in that group, I'm pretty sure none of them would scream at me during my morning ablutions."

That Three Dollar Latte (short, soy, tepid) was what saved my bacon and helped me to keep my head on straight. In the traumatic forty minutes it took Kiddo to get dressed this morning, I didn't have the time or space to make a cup of tea and relax. Swinging by the Huge Corporate Ubiquitous Coffee Place and spending three dollars so that I could have my head screwed on straight before dropping Kiddo off to preschool was a good call, but I still felt a little guilty about it. Leaving ten minutes early, though, did the trick; Kiddo perked up and put on his happy face, collecting autumn leaves and fallen fuchsia blossoms to give to his teachers. We even had a conversation during our walk that was not related to either electric guitars or dinosaurs. Despite the coffee, I felt more relaxed than I had since I'd woken up. We were out, we were walking to school, life was good.

I'm learning that the things I need are not going to be anyone else's priority around here but my own. My husband is pretty good in this regard, but here, I'm not really talking about him. Sometimes, on some days, I'm going to have to shout to get what I need, because Kiddo's too busy listening to his own noise. There's a method to the mad-sounding advice of "put on your own oxygen mask first, and then assist your child". Let's face it, today, if Kiddo had had his way, he'd still be in his pajamas, playing his Tinkertoy guitar, and I would be right there, rapt with attention for him and nothing else. He's four, and that's what he wants. And when I think about it, like it or not, it kind of makes sense~ four year old sense, mind you, but it does make sense.

So, I'll set my bar at a reasonable height and just say this: I don't want to come in last, nor do I need to be first. I'll be satisfied with being tied for first with Kiddo and the good husband. If we can all take turns winning, and being the one who is second or third, that's probably the best I really hope for. And a quiet shower. Every mama deserves that. Along with wonderful, whole panties, that is.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Here We Go Gathering Nuts and May"

Recognize the quote? It's Eeyore, misquoting Alice Gomme's 19th century song, set to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush". You can find it in Gomme's "Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland ", if you happen to have a copy handy.*

This morning, after our dishes were done, Kiddo and I headed out into a cold and misty morning to survey the dregs of the Apple Festival at Portland Nursery. I was determined to make some applesauce, and the looked-over Galas fit the bill. Of course, they are nothing fancy, you can find them at the grocery store year-round, but at  99cents a pound, that's a lot of cheap applesauce. Kiddo helped me pick some out, looking for bruises and spots. Then we headed over and grabbed up a bag of Cascade pears, one of my favorite varieties besides the D'Anjous. Inside, we stopped and picked out a handful or two of crocus corms in a variety of colors to plant along the borders of the front yard. Crocuses are one of those cheerful harbingers of spring that always make me glad to see on the cold, wet February mornings.

On our way home, we stopped beneath a chestnut tree and collected the shiny brown nuts, sometimes having to carefully extract them from their prickly hulls. This was a big, fun game for us, finding them in the street (watching for cars as we rescued them from being pulverized by traffic), seeking them under the spent lily greens in the garden below the tree, and finding a few out in the open, showy like brown marbles waiting on the sidewalk. They sit now in a bowl, waiting for me to find a "how to roast chestnuts" article online. Even after roasting and eating them, I'm sure the memory of collecting them will be the best part of it all.

This afternoon has been pretty terrific. Good sandwiches for lunch when we got home; I prepped all the apples while talking to my sister in Washington and Kiddo sprinkled them with cinnamon, then into the crock-pot they went. We worked in the front yard for nearly two hours today, digging out a now-illegal butterfly bush. They are considered an invasive plant and were placed on the Oregon Department of Agriculture's no-no list, so that they cannot be grown, sold or transported throughout the state. This has been in effect since early 2010, so we're a bit late in being law-abiding citizens, but Kiddo was so excited about the butterfly bush this spring I thought I'd give it a bit of a reprieve, if only for this season. "It's sad that you are digging it out" he told me today, and while I was sad too, this will only make sure that my relationship with the Native Plants Only gardener next door doesn't suffer.

Corn soup for dinner tonight with good crusty bread and smoked salmon. The light outside is changing, which tells me it's time to start thinking about setting the table and getting bowls out. Today was good. Really good. I'm going to savor it for a while, to think about the silly moments: spotting a squirrel digging through the composter like crazy; Kiddo still in his underwear because his pants were totally trashed after he sat in a hole full of fresh dirt; Kiddo finding leaves to bring home from our morning outing, even the ugly ones. (I suppose that's more sweet than silly.) All in all, a very satisfying day. Just as an autumn day gathering nuts and apples should be.

*I don't have a copy, just Wikipedia and a curiosity about these things.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Oh Crap! The Croup

AGAIN?!

Kiddo's got the croup. A couple isolated barky coughs on Saturday night got my attention, so I wasn't completely surprised to hear him last night making seals-at-the-beach sounds as he slept. The tv schedule had promised a marathon of The Simpson's (yeay!) but delivered The X Factor (boo!) instead, so I settled in with my good book. Which was a good thing, as Kiddo coughed that terrible Strider cough and stirred enough to be upset. I was glad I could hear it, and snuggled up with him for a while.

One a.m. found me grabbing my pillow and heading down to his bed for good. The rest of the night was, more or less, pretty freakin' miserable. Despite the intermittent coughing, I'm pretty sure Kiddo got a better night of sleep than I did.

This morning, however, guess who was a pistol, running all over the place like a total crazy person? And guess who was propping her eyelids open so she could stay awake and call the doctor's office as soon as it opened? 

After having a minor skirmish regarding that horribly arduous task of washing one's hands and putting on day clothes, I got into the shower and the following inane conversation transpired in my dead-tired brain:

Me: So, Croup, I see you're back to slap me around again and call me Nancy.

Croup: Yep. So what, Nancy?

Me: Well, your timing is at least considerate. Now that my seasonal crazy-making job is over, you've come to ensure that I don't want for drama in my life.

Croup: Yep. You can thank me for keeping it interesting, Nancy.

Less than an hour later, I was pulling Kiddo up the hill to the bus stop by the arm. In order to minimize Joe's time away from the office (because the wonderful doctor is crosstown and then some), we took the bus downtown and then all got in the car. Somehow, when your kid has a cold, all the gross people sucking on cigarettes seem like The Worst People In The World. Not trying to be judgy, but really? I don't force Kiddo's Music Together cds on the public, so I kinda wish they could just not light up when we are sharing a bus stop.

Speaking of the walking clueless, another epiphany I had this morning: the weary-bleary-eyed mothers at Urgent Care with croupy kids are in danger of being accidentally mistaken for the Zombie Apocalypse. At least, when I looked into the mirror, I was pretty sure there was someone staring back at me thinking "Braaaains....."

The doctor tells us that the croup is going around. Like last winter season, I'm expecting that this won't be our last time going to the doctor to get that awesome oral steroid medication before springtime. What I'm most grateful for, however, is my developing familiarity with this cough. I don't get scared any more. I know we probably have a few bad nights ahead before it's over, and I'll likely truly look like a bona-fide 100% walking undead person when all of this is done, but I didn't panic, and I didn't wait until Kiddo had a full-on bad night. Like many unpleasant things in life, knowing what you're walking into is a consolation in some way. It's bad, but you've done this particular bad before. It's like that terrible person you know you're going to see at a friend's party; you know the deal already, you know what to say and what not to say and when to say "Oh, excuse me for a minute, I see the deviled eggs have arrived" and politely excuse yourself.  It's those devils we know that, in some way, I appreciate, because they aren't sudden natural disasters or industrial catastrophes. They're just little devils.

In short, I can wrap my head around Kiddo's croup. We'll get past it. Even if it does like to slap me around and call me Nancy...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Good Advice

A while back, I got a call from a friend. She was frustrated, wondering what to do with some new, unwelcome behaviors she had begun to see from her child. At her wits end, she had tried many of the ideas in her parenting toolbox to no avail and was considering packing up her child for boarding school in a land far, far away. I laughed at this suggestion and suggested that my kid could have the seat on that train next to her child's, because my parenting life, too, was far from perfect. We talked for a while; I suggested a few ideas that had worked for me with other children, and then commented that I had seen this in other kids the age of her child, that it wasn't uncommon.

Later, I would come to realize that this last piece of reassurance was what she needed most. To know that it wasn't so much her, or her kid, it was just another sticky part of growing up that had been experienced by many children and that this, too, would pass. What parent wouldn't be happy, in some way, to hear that those horrid moments with their kid were being universally experienced? It didn't excuse this mother from doing her best, nor her child from needing to change how they were responding to disappointments or frustrations. (Which, I believe, is the root of much we consider to be 'misbehavior' on the part of the child.) Instead, it just gave us as adults permission to feel exasperated--and rightly so--while also allowing hope and space for the child's growth.

I recently was on the other end of this experience. Over the last two weeks, the return to preschool has prompted some rather unlovely behaviors in our own house. I called my dear sister and asked her for advice, turned to my copy of "Taking Charge"* to see what I needed to be doing, and then tried my best to correct my responses to my son's outbursts and undesired actions. What helped me most, though, was to hear from a couple neighbors that their kids, too, had regressed to two-year-old behavior in the last few weeks. Even though these revelations only happened during passing conversations, I was relieved: if our children were acting like strange aliens, at least it was from a familiar planet that many other people's kids were also temporarily visiting.

Over my time as a mother, I've become convinced that both giving and receiving advice can be, at its best, an art form. During my pregnancy I was reading one of Sheila Kitzinger's** books, "The Year After Childbirth: Surviving and enjoying the first year of Motherhood", in which she suggests not asking everyone for advice, but to be careful and find a few experienced mothers whom you trust. This is probably one of the most valuable suggestions regarding parenting that I have ever come across. Consequently, I have four people (besides the pediatrician) that I will turn to for parenting advice: Two are older mothers, whose children I previously cared for and whose mothering practices I deeply admire; two are contemporaries of mine, a close sister and a dear friend who has lots of experience with children. This doesn't mean that I won't share my parenting joys and frustrations with other mothers, but I will rarely ask others for advice because you know that old saying about too many cooks in the kitchen....

Selecting Trusted Advisors
Who to turn to for advice? I regard my son's preschool teachers with a deep sense of trust; knowing that they know, love and care for my son with genuine affection and concern. Earlier this year, when parenting challenges were beginning to seep into our marriage, we turned to them for guidance and came away from the experience feeling lifted up, encouraged, and strengthened by their wisdom. We felt embraced in their care, and our problems regarding those challenges resolved relatively quickly  in part because we understood that they wanted what was best for us. If one has this sort of person in their life, this is the person to ask for help when challenges and struggles arise in our parenting; their solid background in working with children and the added objectivity regarding the situation gives us confidence as parents to follow through with making sometimes-difficult changes for the better.

Trust has much to do with how we choose our advisors. Mutual trust is invaluable in this regard, because sometimes when advice is given, in a truly respectful relationship, we may say or hear hard things which might hurt or are unpleasant, even when they are not meant to be. By this, I do not refer to one being tactless, but to the truthfulness itself. At a handful of times in my life, true friends have told me things I would rather not have heard, but were true and meant in loving concern for my betterment. Once the sting of their words wore off, I realized how much risk they took in speaking out to me and how much they must have loved me to risk my anger and to sit with their discomfort. These friends cared more about me than they did about keeping things easy for us, and in doing so, they have helped me become a better person, a better parent.


On the other side of the coin, there are persons you don't want to ask for advice, nor do you want to vent to them or share your struggles in parenting. Many grandparents (or other family members) are very supportive and have a wealth of knowledge to offer, but parents,  in-laws, relatives or co-workers who regularly make critical or demeaning remarks should not be regarded as a resource. Then, the parent seeking advice may only instead feel blamed or belittled for the child's challenges instead of met in love and compassion. If you don't feel that a person genuinely accepts you for who you are, even on a good day, there's no point in opening yourself up for more harassment or scrutiny. Some grandparents or relatives would prefer to hear only the good about your child; then, leave the relationship at that and find someone else to seek for knowledge. Likewise, if you are aware that a person has a tendency to gossip with others, or seems to be competitive as a parent, always comparing their own children or parenting to those of others, this person may not be emotionally safe enough to seek out as a confidante. Trustworthiness is of vital importance when selecting an advisor.

Commiseration or Wisdom? Which do you seek?
Before seeking advice, consider what you are really wanting in that moment. Are you trying to solve a problem, or just needing to vent? It is a frustrating mistake to ask for advice when that's not what's really wanted, just as it is to give advice one hasn't been directly asked for. So if you are wanting to vent and get some empathy, a little "Can I just tell you about how awful things have been with my Usually Great Kid?" will prepare your listener for your own expectation. Likewise, some empathetic listening may be just what your friend needs when they call to tell you how their own Usually Great Kid is blowing their mind with new undesired behaviors. Being sensitive to these cues can help us considerably.

Something else to ask ourselves: Are we truly looking for another method to try, or for validation that what we are doing is, in fact, right? These are two entirely different questions. While one can usually find advice that reflects our own interests and beliefs in books (I believe that there is a book which validates nearly every type of parenting philosophy known to man), this can be a narrow way of going about getting advice, especially if we do not understand ourselves what's behind our own beliefs.

When We Ourselves Are Asked...
When being asked for advice, it helps to be thoughtful in regard to what the asking parent needs. As I mentioned before, sometimes reassurance is really what is wanted. Creative solutions can help, certainly, but it is, I think, on some deep level that we all want to feel like we are doing okay as parents. Also consider the very real limitations the individual parent has to work within: telling a single mom who works full time that she should spend more time with her child will likely make her feel worse than she did before the conversation. Guilt is a terrible emotion to carry around and we do not want to burden our dearest ones with it any more than we ourselves want it. Parents must deal with the amount of resources they have at any given moment, whether it is the amount of time they have available to spend with their children or the very real impact of income on a family. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to financial or familial situations and offer solutions which are truly accessible/available to the person who is asking for help.

Keeping your ideas or advice open-ended can also help. More than one friend of mine likes to offer gentle, open-ended, take-it-or-leave-it advice along the lines of "I don't know if this will work for you, but here's what worked for us in this similar situation." Advice like this might be offered without being asked for directly, and comes across as more of a suggestion. Less is on the line for both the giver and the recipient. Likewise, suggesting books may also be helpful. "Some parts of this book really helped us, you can try what seems right for you" is a nice way to offer suggestions without directly instructing another parent to try things your way.

The Harder Truths
Here is where some of the stickiest and hardest advice can come into play: sometimes, counseling will be the most beneficial suggestion to the person seeking advice.  Sometimes, a friend may suggest seeking a counselor or parenting coach because they are at the limit of their own knowledge or of what they can give to the person needing help or advice. While it's easy to read this as a negative message or an accusation, or even a lack of interest from the friend, what we have to understand is simply this: sometimes our friends don't have all the answers. Sometimes, our troubles may be more than what they can absorb, for whatever reason, or it may be that giving us advice regarding a complex situation is more than what they feel able to do well as a friend. More often than not, we seek out our friends for validation; there are some situations where it is best to allow our friends to keep themselves in a supportive role rather than one which is directive or diagnostic. There is no shame in finding ourselves in need of a counselor; counselors do a valuable job in helping us explore our deeper feelings and beliefs about a given situation and it is both the scrutiny of these aspects of our thinking as well as understanding and accepting certain realities of the situation which help us to make the better, more satisfactory changes in our lives. In this way, we actually protect our friendships by letting our friends and loved ones be our cheerleaders and finding a good counselor or parenting coach to guide us through our more challenging work.

Advice, given when asked for, or well received, is a gift. That said, I believe that keeping ourselves aware of our own intentions when either giving or asking for advice is one of the best ways to make the most of this interaction.  We should also be aware that if we are asking for advice and not getting the answers we need (or like), then it is likely time to consult a pro. Sometimes, we may not like the information we receive because we aren't ready to hear it yet. If you are finding that those who love you best, and with the best intentions for you, are telling you things you don't want to hear, it's time to look deeper as to the cause of this. This is one downfall of giving "hard truth" advice: it can hurt and sting, so it's important to do this with compassion and whatever wisdom one has, and to understand that it may be argued with or not accepted at all. If you feel this might be the case, suggesting a counselor may be better for the friendship, for the many reasons stated above.

I go into the future as a parent and friend with all of this in mind. Likely, at times, I will forget aspects of this advice I give about giving advice. Overall, however, we as women have relied on each other, our mothers and grandmothers and peer mothers, for guidance to solving problems both simple (diaper rash) or complex (acting-out behaviors). We do well to wisely turn to those who would support us, those who have gone before us as parents. We can also hopefully offer support and wisdom to other mothers and parents. This is a never-ending circle of giving and receiving, one that should be considered blessed and even, a bit, sacred. One worth guarding carefully and being thoughtful about. For as much as good advice is a gift for the receiver, it is also a wonderful opportunity for the giver to practice love and care and consideration for a dear friend. As it is to the one, let it be for the other.


*Taking Charge: Caring Discipline That Works at Home and at School by JoAnne Nordling. This book is highly comprehensive and breaks down a child's undesired actions into four classes of misbehaviors; each misbehavior is detailed and corrections specific to the misbehavior are detailed. Emphasis is given on the value of positive attention during neutral times, loving our children just for being, empathy, and listening to our child's internal reality while being consistent with boundaries and guidance.  I love this book and have relied on it for more than ten years. JoAnne has been an elementary school teacher, an elementary school counselor and the co-founder of the Parent Support Center PDX.

**Sheila Kitzinger is a British natural childbirth activist and author on childbirth and pregnancy. She is a social anthropologist specialising in pregnancy, childbirth and the parenting of babies and young children. Her books are informative, enlightening and empowering for her readers. Although she lectures on midwifery she has never been a midwife. She campaigns for women to have the information they need to make choices about childbirth.  She is honorary professor at Thames Valley University and teaches the MA in midwifery in the Wolfson School of Health Sciences. She also teaches workshops on the social anthropology of birth and breastfeeding. (Most of this is from Wikipedia, with my own comment on her books which I find relevant and reliable.)