Saturday, September 8, 2012

Helpful or Hurtful?

The title should probably read "Helpful or Judgmental?"  Because I'm talking about advice.  The advice we give and the advice we get, whether we want it or not.

I'm you're a regular reader, you know that my sister just had a baby.  Over the past few months, she's asked me questions, like what kind of breast pump she should get, or how the organize the changing table, or what to bring to the hospital for labor.  (By the way, the answers are: clearly not the one I recommended, since it broke the second time she used it; it doesn't matter because you'll re-do depending on how your baby is on the changing table; doesn't matter because you were barely there long enough to give birth). 

Since my brand new niece's hasty arrival, the questions have moved to topics like nursing, sleeping patterns and first baths.  I'm happy to talk with her and share in these first squishy newborn weeks, especially since I probably won't experience them for myself again.  And parenting is a job where you feel totally and completely unprepared when they send you home with this teeny tiny baby.  You've got to learn as you go and hope the mistakes you'll inevitably make are little ones.  I want to help, but I don't want to smother or insult.  So I'm treading carefully.

I'm treading carefully because giving advice can be a tricky thing.  Getting it isn't always a picnic either.  Someone telling you what you should be doing, especially with something that you are so personally and deeply invested in, is like someone telling you you're not doing a good job.  And I think that's a fear that every parent has in there somewhere.  I'm responsible for this person and I can't even get you to stop crying.  Or eat the right food.  Or play nicely.  Why can't I do this?

There are times I've been really offended by advice.  Sometimes it's totally unsolicited stranger advice, like the other day in Babies R Us.  We were in an endless line, behind someone with - no lie - FOUR CARTS full of merchandise, when a total stranger peered in at my crying 6 month old, who was tired and hungry, and my whining 2 year old, who was trying to grab everything within reach, and said "You know, I really find it's better to run errands by myself.  My kids are so much happier and I never have to worry about trying to calm their crying in public.  You should try it!"  (Insert big bright "I am so much better than you are smile").   I probably should have said a lot of things, but I did the fake smile back with a "wouldn't that be nice" type of non-response.  Then God smiled at me and another register opened and I escaped.  I've had people tell me about their annoyance with that kind of advice ALL the time.

But I'm also sometimes annoyed by advice that is given with the best of intentions (at least I hope so).  Like when I post a joke type vent on Facebook and I get tips on toddler behavior management or infant sleep and I feel like the people who comment think I'm a totally incompetent parent.  Or when I ask a question, and I get preached to about the right way to do something, because in their opinion, that's the only way.

The worst is when I realize that I've hurt, or annoyed, or offended someone, because I KNOW I have the best intentions.  There are at least three instances where someone has been deeply offended.  The kicker is for two of those times for sure (and I think all three), my advice wasn't unsolicited.  I was asked.  And by answering, I made things worse for that parent.

This is how my advice sounds in my head as the one giving it: "Oh my God, I completely get it.  My kids did that too.  I was completely tearing my hair out and I tried sixty different things and read five books and researched online and then I happened to stumble on this one thing and it worked!!  So skip the ninety-two things I tried that didn't work and just do this!  It saved my sanity!"

But this is how advice can sound when I receive it: "Oh my God, I can't believe you are dealing with that.  I wonder why your kid is so awful?  Did you do something to create that problem?  Or is your kid just a lemon?  So sorry they are so screwed up...well, look, my kid is awesome, and this is what I do.  So it must be the right way."

Because when someone asks for parenting help, what they are really asking is "This is normal, right?  My kid is normal?  Just tell me that it's not me.  And that my kid and I are fine".  They don't want to hear it's a phase they'll have to wait out.  They don't want to hear that there's something totally obvious they were too stupid to try.  They want to hear your experience, and what worked.  And more importantly, I think people occasionally want to hear your "failures" and what didn't work, so they feel a kinship.  Once that happens, most people, and definitely me, are willing to try something new.  It may not work for everyone, but it's worth a shot.

Sometimes getting advice is like getting a gift that just isn't what you need.  It's clothes you'll need to return, or a knick knacky thing (that inevitably you'll have to put away because you have small children).  It just isn't right and you wonder if that person really understands who you are.  The gift you need is that single flower.  That says I care.  You're doing OK.  I'm here.  It's not a full showy bouquet that doesn't give you any substance and overwhelms you.  It's the single stem that you can look at, smile, and get encouraged to try just one more trick.  Because that little experience, that one flower, just might do it.

I'm still treading carefully around new parents.  Because now having two kids, and being around many, many babies and toddlers over the last two years, I know that every kid is different and every parent is doing their best.  I felt like a first time mom all over again when I had Reagan, and I thought that I'd be at least a little competent. 

So my goal is to be encouraging when I can.  Offer the single flower.  And when I get the gift that isn't right, smile, listen, think the best of the intentions, and keep trying to raise my girls the best I can.

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