We’ve all heard it, and chances are that many of us have even been guilty of offering it: unsolicited advice. It can be veiled – “Oh, we don’t allow any video games in our house” – or blatant – “I can’t believe you let your daughter watch so much television!” It can come from family members, friends or complete strangers, and it can occur no matter what the age of your children.
But regardless of the source, unsolicited advice is usually as unwelcome as a wool sweater on a hot day – and it can make people just as hot under the collar!
Jennifer Taylor’s grandmother was constantly advising the young mother to put her newborn infant to sleep on his stomach. “It actually got to the point where I would go in my baby’s room to check on him and find him asleep on his tummy,” Taylor says. “My grandmother was going in and turning him over because that’s the way she did it with her own three kids.”
Taylor finally had to lay down the law and explain that, while she welcomed her grandmother’s visits, this was one rule she simply would not bend.
“I explained how pediatricians today recommend back sleeping to prevent SIDS,” she says. “My grandmother was obviously hurt, but she did back off.”
Don’t Take It Personally
In the fast-paced, competitive world we live in, we all have our own ideas about how to parent. Knowing that – and the fact that there’s not just one surefire way to raise a family – it ought to be easier to let unsolicited advice roll right off your back. But when someone in the checkout line tells you your child’s pacifier will result in braces, or your mother suggests that perhaps you’re too lenient in your discipline tactics with your teenager, it’s difficult not to take it to heart.
“Don’t personalize,” cautions adult psychiatrist Mary Ann Flatley, M.D. “Instead, try to assume that the remark is said out of good will and the person is really attempting to help you.”
Still, while assuming good intentions and helpfulness sounds easy enough, it doesn’t make the words sting any less when you’re on the receiving end of a zinger. Rather than ruin a friendship, cause strain between family members, or create an awkward situation in public by losing your cool, learn how to politely halt the conversation. Flatley recommends a three-step technique: “To say ‘no’ effectively, you must first make a positive statement, then say ‘no,’ then end with a positive statement,” she says.
In the case of Taylor and her grandmother, Flatley’s technique would have looked something like, “I understand your concern about my baby sleeping on his stomach, but I’m going to have to trust my pediatrician’s advice. Thank you for caring so much.”
“You have to make your statement without defensiveness or anger so that the ‘no’ can be heard,” adds Flatley.
Counselor and licensed social worker Theresa Moore suggests having an arsenal of what she calls “parent shrinkers” at your fingertips. These are polite responses that quickly put a stop to the conversation. They include phrases such as:
“Thank you for sharing that advice.”
“Gee, I really hadn’t looked at it that way.”
“Thanks! I’ll think about that.”
“Hmm … that’s interesting.”
These responses acknowledge the concern or interest, but don’t necessarily open the door for further discussion, she says.
Agree to Disagree
If the unwanted parenting advice is a recurrent issue in your relationship with the person (i.e., your mother-in-law), it may be time to offer a calm, kind response that carries more finality, advises Candi Wingate, president of Nannies for Hire and the author of two books on issues affecting nannies, parents and families:
“I am grateful for your desire to help me by offering me wise counsel. I very much value your knowledge base. I know that I don’t know everything, and I do want to know if there’s something I can do better. However, there are times when what you think is ‘better’ and what I think is ‘better’ may not be the same thing. I hope you understand my right to parent my kids in the way that I think is best. Please feel free to offer me your wisdom, and please do not be offended if I don’t always act on your advice.”
And if the source persists beyond that initial conversation, Wingate suggests saying the following: “I validate that what you say may have worked well for you, but it is not the way I want to parent. I have asked you to respect my right to determine my own parental boundaries, and you have chosen not to honor that request. As a result, I do not want to receive any further feedback from you about parenting. Such discussions are not constructive. In an effort to maintain a positive relationship with you (which I value and very much want to maintain), I need to draw this boundary now.”
Then if the advice comes again at a later date, you can remind the person that you both agreed to steer clear of that and change the subject, Wingate says.
When to Cut Your Losses
Chances are, once people see that they aren’t going to get a response from you, the unsolicited advice will stop. Some parents even say they have to ask for advice once their kids become teens, probably because most of us aren’t as confident about this trickier parenting terrain.
But if unwanted advice doesn’t stop, in spite of your objections, it may be time to consider the source.
“If the advice is coming from your parents, you might ask them to reflect on how they felt when they were given [unsolicited] advice from their own parents,” Flatley suggests.
In the case of a friend, however, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship and get to the root of the problem. “When someone comes across as too authoritative, it is usually due to their own underlying insecurities,” Flatley says. “Often people share their perspectives out of no reason other than anxiety over their own choices.”
Bonny Osterhage is a freelance writer and mother of two. Senior Editor Deirdre Wilson also contributed to this piece.