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.)