Before Giving Kids Advice, Think Twice

Before Giving Kids Advice, Think Twice

Obviously, your progeny is waiting with bated breath for your next sage piece of advice. Kids long to hear their parents opine, uninvited, on their clothing, schoolwork, music, hairstyles and friends. Teens especially appreciate unsolicited suggestions from their parents regarding weight, dating and their ‘attitudes.’

Alright, back to reality now.

Much of the time, kids actually perceive unasked-for advice from Mom or Dad (or Stepmom or Stepdad) as lame, at best. And getting ‘pushback’ to parental advice is more the rule than the exception. Some kids roll their eyes, while others tune out or make sarcastic comments.

Some kids resent parent advisories so much that they might actually trigger a meltdown or aggression. Many more kids are allergic to their parent’s advice than are allergic to peanuts!

This, of course, can be highly frustrating and bewildering to parents, who ‘just want to help.’

So, why do so many parents persist in the thankless work of giving their kids advice?

Well, there’s lots of reasons, including believing it’s just what good, loving, responsible parents do. Some parents see passing on their hard-earned experience as a sacred duty. Others truly believe that ‘deep down’ kids really want and need constant guidance from their parents, but can’t admit it, or don’t know how to ask.

Okay, maybe there’s some truth here. Certainly, there is no doubt that kids can benefit from parental advice, and that, oftentimes, parents really do know better. And, maybe you are one of the parents who are fortunate enough to have offspring that are receptive to your admonitions.

However, there is an awful lot of parental advice-giving that has little to do with their child and much more to do with their own excessive anxiety, lack of trust or need for control.

Some parents cannot deal with their own anxiety and project it onto their children, providing advice that is mainly designed to make themselves feel comfortable. Other parents give advice which reflects an inability to tolerate their own discomfort about their child missing out on an opportunity, embarrassing themselves (or their parents) or making a decision that makes them unhappy, even temporarily.

Then there are those parents who have arbitrarily decided on a path that a child must take, regardless of which one the child wants to follow, and provide advice whose major impetus is to keep their child in line.

Giving advice to one’s kids is based on a very questionable assumption—that it’s the most effective way to impart information and teach a child to make the right choices. Parents also might erroneously think they are in possession of ‘crucial’ information that their child has to hear ‘right this minute,’ or they will surely ‘ruin their lives.’ From this perspective, withholding advice from a child would be unethical, which of course it is not.

Unfortunately, to the contrary, in many instances advice-giving, even when well-intentioned, can be demotivating, needlessly disruptive to the parent-child relationship and undermining of a child’s confidence and skill-development.

Moreover, too much parent advice can impede naturalistic learning from the ‘school of hard knocks,’ which might, for many kids, turn out to be the real ‘elite’ educational setting. How can a child learn to think for themselves if their parent is always doing their thinking for them?

This all leaves parents in quite a dilemma; should they give kids advice or not? And, if so, how?

Here are some tips:

  1. By all means give all the advice in the world … but primarily if your kid asks you for your input. In other words, ‘ask, then tell.’
  2. Before you provide unsolicited advice, however, it’s a good idea to first ask your child or teen if they would like some advice. If they say ‘no’ you can then say you’re always available if they change their mind.
  3. Be honest with yourself as to whether your advice is more about you than your child. But please also don’t judge yourself too harshly; it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that children have their own lives and notions about how to best live them.
  4. If you want to get out of the parent advice-giving trap, try just casually expressing interest and curiosity about even their weirdest or most obviously doomed-to-fail ideas. Unless, it’s a genuinely life-threatening situation, of course. As your child experiences ‘natural consequences’ the next step would be to ask them in a nonjudgmental, empathetic way about it, and whether they learned anything. However, ‘I told you so’s’ don’t help anybody.
  5. If you kid rejects or mocks your advice try not take it too personally, even when it feels like an undeserved slap in the face. Not heeding your parent’s advice is part of the process of shaping one’s own identity, and destiny. Sometimes a child that always follows their parent’s advice might be in more trouble developmentally than one that doesn’t.
  6. Relax. Kids grow up. One day they might actually desire and respect advice from their parents. Like many of you do.
  7. It’s important for parents to at least entertain the idea that they don’t have all the answers for their child and might actually hand out some really bad advice now and then. How many rock stars were advised by parents to ‘get a real job?’ How many parents have ‘advised’ a child into a job or profession they can’t stand? And, how many kids would have taken the risks that ultimately made them successful if they had listened to their parent’s advice?
  8. Don’t conflate advice with accountability. Providing structure and discipline for a child is based upon their adherence to family rules and values, which can be imparted without giving any advice at all.
  9. It also wouldn’t hurt to remember how much you disliked it when your own parents got excessively preachy with you. And, please, no rationalizing that ‘it’s different now.’ Also, maybe you were an ideal child that craved parental advice, but that doesn’t mean your own child must feel the same way.

Suggestion: Refrain from giving any unsolicited advice to your kid for one week. See if the world ends. Again, this doesn’t mean withholding assistance if it’s absolutely essential. By the way, make sure your definition of ‘essential advice’ does not include detailed instructions about how to brush one’s hair.

Bottom line: Giving too much unrequested advice to your child has a high potential to backfire. You may well find that giving less advice, and doing more listening, results in your kids wanting to hear what you have to say a lot more in the long run.

(Perhaps you’re thinking that an article providing unsolicited advice about not giving unsolicited advice is contradictory. You are absolutely right! Please feel free to contact me with any advice about this. But only because I asked.)

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