Better Ways of Giving Parents Parenting Advice
So you’re at a family gathering and you witness your brother yelling intensely at your nephew for getting his clothes dirty. Perhaps you find yourself listening to a friend or co-worker griping about potty-training challenges, sibling rivalry, back talk, or kids not doing homework, brushing their teeth, chores, etc. Whether you’re a friend, relative or a professional, wanting to share your ideas for better solutions is natural.
Parenting approaches that include corporal punishment or lax standards, not enough or too much structure, being a doormat or a dictator - can all prompt a desire to suggest another approach. But suggesting to a parent that they may want to do something differently can be pretty dicey. First, many parents have their own harsh internal critic to deal with and don’t want yours. Second, there are some parents who actually don’t have an internal critic and have not even considered that they should be doing something differently.
What can you do? Here are 10 suggestions for giving parenting advice to a parent who, under the right circumstances, is open to hearing it:
1. Check Yourself - as in Don’t Give Advice
When you are tempted to spout out pearls of wisdom to a parent, the very first thing you should ask yourself is - is it necessary? We can all use a good gripe now and again. If this is just a little blowing off steam take the opportunity to listen and empathize. If this parent is being pretty hard on themselves, you could share all that you see the parent doing well. If the harshness is directed at the child, empathize (with the parent!) and let them vent for now. Best suggestion - offer lots of encouragement, little or no advice, and maybe a little humor. (See #5 & #7 for more.)
Being your own filter and choosing carefully when to try to influence someone’s parenting gives you the best shot at being heard. Unless a parent comes to you, offering too much parenting advice (especially unasked for!) may diminish your chance of getting your ideas across. This is doubly true for parents of parents!
2. Check Your Watch
Timing isn’t everything but it’s close. Offering advice to a worked-up parent rarely helps. In the heat of a bad parenting moment, intervening - with respect, distraction and maybe a little humor to help ease the tension - is a better goal. Also appreciate that if a parent feels overwhelmed on a regular basis, there is not a lot of room to take in what you may have to offer.
Check in: Make sure the parent needs advice and not a break! Especially when there is a lot of stress, what a parent needs is help not more
‘shoulds’. If you have the ability, and the parent is interested, helping directly can be great. ‘Why don’t I take Jesse for the weekend. It will give you a break and we would love to see him.’
Then approach the advice-giving by acknowledging the stress, ‘I know you are feeling a lot of stress with your kids, I was thinking that I may have an idea that could help make it easier. Are you interested?’ You then need to gauge whether to offer something simple to ease the tension or something radical to change the whole game plan.
3. Check Out The Situation
Often parents get advice they have already tried or that won’t work because of their particular circumstances. Wasting your opportunity to offer advice because you have not taken the time to find out what the parent has already tried or the specifics of the situation will take away your influence. Instead first listen without a solution already poised on your tongue. Then ask what they have tried before you offer ideas. Possibly your solution is a tweaking of something they have already thought of. If so - give them lots of credit and suggest the slight variation. If you keep getting resistance - this parent may just not be open to your advice.
4. Check Your Boundaries
One fact should never escape your awareness - You cannot MAKE someone take your advice. By keeping that fact front and center you may actually have a better chance of influencing someone. Without good boundaries, your attempts may trigger a power struggle where the parent takes a defensive position or shuts down. Be respectful and acknowledge that the parent has the power to accept or reject your idea. Most importantly: Ask permission to even offer your advice in the first place and accept it if they say or show that they would rather you not. (Becoming trustworthy with respecting boundaries often gives you more ability to influence in the long run.)
5. Check Your Baggage
Ask yourself honestly - why am I offering this advice? Do you have a history of offering lots ideas? Is the issue at hand triggering some past issue of your own? Are you a professional who has lost your empathy for parents, had no empathy to begin with, or is burned out? Is the opportunity to offer advice due partly to the recipient of the advice being someone you want to put in their place? Except for that last one - owning your baggage out loud can actually help your credibility.
6. Check Your Relationship
What is your relationship with this parent? Do they trust your advice? Are they open to advice from anyone? From YOU? Are they suspicious of your motives? Do they have a right to be? Do they believe you are giving this advice out of care as opposed to annoyance or even worse, superiority? Do they respect your opinion? (If you are not a parent you may need to prove yourself but you can always talk from what might have worked with you as a kid.) If you do not have a good relationship with this parent it will be harder. Not impossible but trickier. Come at your advice with a genuine - ‘I know you probably don’t want to hear this from me but -’ or ‘I know we don’t always see things the same but -’ or ‘I know I give a lot of unasked for advice but - would you be open to a suggestion?’
You may also consider that the cost of the advice may be the relationship - at least temporarily. Advice given carefully may sidestep this possibility, but people often shoot the messenger. Especially if the parent is someone who has esteem issues or a history of being criticized, they may not be able to hear you. If you suspect this will happen, weigh your decision. If you decide it is worth the risk for both the child and eventually the parent, being as kind and encouraging as possible and not taking their reaction personally (even if they bait you) may minimize the damage. Keeping the eye on the prize - you really do care and want to help - can allow the person to come back at some point. And if that happens, being gracious - instead of ‘I told you so’ will help the parent want to stick around.
7. Check Your Technique - Use this formula: Empathize, Advise, Encourage
Giving advice without encouragement is like the wire mother monkey experiments of the late 50s and early 60s. Researcher Harry Harlow, placed terry cloth and wire ‘mothers’ in a cage with infant rhesus monkeys. The infants avoided the wire ‘mothers’ if possible and preferred the terry cloth ‘mothers’ even when the softer mothers provided no food. Encouragement and empathy are the equivalent of terry cloth. Practical advice is not going to be effective if no one wants to go near it.
Ask yourself - do you offer advice from a superior or irritated place? As a professional do parents perceive you as looking down on them? Do you offer your advice with no empathy? If so - you are in your own way. Possibly because you think empathy is weakness, or because you yourself were raised without a lot of terry cloth, you may have a hard time with this skill. Also, if you are burned out on this parent’s challenges or burned out with your job you may need to take a break from advice giving.
Encouragement is about helping a person have the courage to do something challenging. This is the definition of parenting! Being a caring ear, showing empathy, CAREFULLY offering perspective to a parent by helping them remember what parts of parenting they are doing well (or at the right time - how great their kids are), reminding them that kids go through normal stages, that behavior often gets better with time and development, and that there are solutions out there can be very supportive for parents.
Always go to the most positive interpretation of the parent’s intentions, concerns, motives: When you call your brother a few days later – say: You look like you were having a really hard time with Jesse when he got his clothes dirty. That’s not like you to get so upset. Are things going ok? (or if it is like them say: It is hard wanting the kids to look nice and having them make a mess.) And take it from there.
Of course a parent’s defensiveness may have nothing to do with you. We all have baggage and hearing a message that you are not doing a good enough job can challenge anyone. Being the kind of person that uses good advice giving skills will make it easier for parents to hear. Having great insights only helps if you are the kind of person a parent WANTS advice from.
8. Check Your Credentials
If you’ve never been a parent, the parent of a child with learning disabilities, the parent of a child who: - bites, is a girl, is a teenager; a single parent, a father, a mother, etc - there may be a credibility gap and your advice may be questioned. Especially if the parent already feels challenged, defensive or overwhelmed they may be looking for any opportunity to dismiss your suggestions. The best way to deal with this is to admit your lack of first-hand knowledge up front.
I know I’ve never been the parent of a teenager but do you want my take on things?
I know it must be 100 times harder being a single parent but are you up for a suggestion?
I don’t know if I can imagine what it’s like to have a child with depression but I read this article and wondered if you wanted to see it.
On the other hand, if you do have knowledge or expertise with a particular issue, now may be the time to bring it up. And adding your own relevant stories - especially failures! - can help break down a parent’s defensiveness. Coming from a place of humility can be easier to take.
9. Check Your Facts
Now it comes down to actually having GOOD advice! Be knowledgeable. Ask experts, read books and articles. Google search ideas - though check your sources! Backing up your advice with outside credible sources may help you sell your case. I read of a case where there was a parent educator who was also a physician who found that parents were much more willing to listen to her advice as the latter than the former. People still trust doctors.
10. Consider the indirect approach
If for some reason, you do not feel like you are the best person to offer advice, consider enlisting the help of someone who may be better able to make the suggestion. A person that parent respects - an older, wiser mother or father that the parent does not feel has any agenda may be a better choice. If there is a professional team involved with the parent, having a point person whom the parent trusts and has a good rapport with - someone with good optimism skills who can mentor or even joke the parent into considering alternative strategies, will likely have much more success.
11. Bonus: Check Your Own Openness to Advice
Are YOU open to advice? Do you accept that you are in a place of learning? If you've read this far, my guess is - yes. Remember that when you are trying to give advice. Being a person who appreciates that you too have things to learn, makes you a much better advice giver and keeps you in touch with how challenging it can be to have to change your ways. Connecting on this point is a great place to start. Good luck.
Annie Zirkel is a parenting consultant, speaker and writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.