A Piece of Unsolicited Parenting Advice: Don't Offer Any

Filed under: Gay Parenting, Opinions

My friend Gwen was taking a stroll, her sleeping 1-year-old daughter Lola pressed to her chest in a baby sling. It was a lovely day, the nicest so far in a too-late spring, and Gwen was thrilled to be out of the house. A Friendly Stranger rolled up alongside her on his bicycle, cooing over Lola before asking, "How old is she?"

When Gwen answered, Friendly Stranger asked if he could "say something." He was already "saying something," so the phrase was just a euphemism for his real intention. Like a preacher at a revival, he lectured Gwen.

"Your problem is that your daughter is facing the wrong way. She has to face out at this age."

Until that moment, Gwen had been unaware that she had any "problem" or that this wasn't a casual chat. But she played it cool.

"Lola likes to sleep this way."

The cyclist's voice rose. "But she's too OLD! You CAN'T let her do that any more!"

Gwen's a writer and a lawyer -- she could have verbally sliced up the Less-Friendly Stranger, but instead she tried to de-escalate the situation.

"I'm aware there are a lot of opinions on this, but I'm comfortable that she'll be fine."

"You're going to DEFORM her! Her neck will be TWISTED!"

Gwen's jaw tightened. "OK. You've shared your opinion. Move along."

The decidedly Un-Friendly Stranger did roll off, but not before shouting: "This is ABUSE! They should TAKE THAT CHILD AWAY FROM YOU." And thus ended Gwen's lovely morning.

Is there anything your average parent wants less than unsolicited advice? And, yet, we all get it, in brief comments or lengthy diatribes, always from someone claiming to have the best interest of the child at heart.

It's clear in these exchanges that if we are "good" parents, we'll absorb this information and do one of three things: 1) Immediately leap into action, proving to the speaker that we have learned from them; 2) Nod thoughtfully and promise to do better in the future; or 3) Redden with shame at our exposed failures.

The option that many of us take -- 4) Say thanks and leave it there -- seems entirely unwelcome. Because sages like that cyclist crave visual evidence that they've bettered the world, noncommittal responses make them crazy. I think many advice-givers even prefer to be told in no uncertain terms where they can stick their suggestions. At least then they know they've made an impression.

Granted, there are situations that truly merit offering advice to someone you don't know and who hasn't asked. If a child bursts into flames and his oblivious parents are sitting nearby on a bench made of fire extinguishers, that would count. Or, maybe Grandma is letting the kiddos eat ice cream sundaes using razor blades or live cobras instead of spoons -- sure, intercede.

However, the way my daughter's hair is done, where she goes in flip-flops, whether she goes up the slide instead of down -- none of these things warrant your direct intervention. (And, if, as dozens of readers suggested after my previous column, your big advice is that gay people shouldn't have kids, well, too bad: The cow has already left that barn.)

Yes, you might well have a firm opinion you're dying to share, but ask yourself how crucial it is that you do so -- and what else you really mean deep down. When you say "my daughter always wears leggings under her skirt on chilly days like this," the (unspoken) rest of your speech is loud and clear: "I am innately superior to you in wisdom. I truly believe you've never given any thought at all to your child's attire. And I don't remotely care if the fight you had with your 5-year-old this morning ended with 'if your legs get cold now, next time you'll know better.' "

When a stranger approaches with unsolicited advice, maybe it should become a teaching moment in reverse. Cheerfully reply, "You can give me one piece of advice, if I can give you one back." Then, offer your own hastily-considered opinion about some surface detail that you can only judge on sight. Note a distinct body odor, comment on a frightening hairdo, marvel at a startlingly inept fashion choice -- whatever your opinion, it should be shallow, context-free and completely ignorant about every day of that person's life leading up to this one interaction. (I didn't say it would be a nice teaching moment.)

Call it the Golden Rule of Stranger Advice: Dis unto others, as they've just dissed unto you. Is that noble? No. Is it instructive? Perhaps. Is it an effective way to make sure at least one person is reluctant to foist an unwanted commentary on you ever again? Absolutely.

Of course, that's just my opinion -- and it's not like you asked.

Veronica Rhodes and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.

David Valdes Greenwood has written about marriage and parenting for the Boston Globe and in his first book "Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage." The author of three nonfiction books and the creator of the blog "Diva Has Two Daddies," he also finds time to be a kindergarten room parent and Barbie pretend play expert. Read his blog on Red Room.

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