Editor's Note: While this article addresses parents giving advice to their grown-up children, it applies as well to any relationship or situation where one wants to give advice.
Giving advice is one of the points of greatest tension and conflict in our relations with our children. Parents want to help their children out of scrapes and difficult situations by telling them how to do it better. But giving advice often makes matters worse.
Heather, 34, was partnered with Sally, 28. They had been living together for three years and were planning a marriage ceremony. Heather wanted a baby very badly and had found a clinic specializing in impregnating lesbian would-be mothers with donated sperm. The problem, from Heather's parents point of view, was that she had no health insurance. Her father, Carl, got on her case without let-up.
"How come your job doesn't provide health insurance? Have you asked them? Are you sure they are not discriminating against you?"
"They're a new company, Dad, and they just haven't gotten it together yet."
"Yes, but you're trying to get pregnant. You have to get insurance before you get pregnant in order to get all your pre-natal and delivery costs paid for. And what if you have some special problem in the pregnancy? Do you realize what that can cost? Tens of thousands!"
"It's okay, Dad, trust me. The clinic is actually very inexpensive and they cover the basics. Everything will be all right. And, anyway, I'm not pregnant yet. It'll all work out."
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"It'll be fine."
Where did Carl go wrong? Or did he? Carl's approach is probably recognizable to all parents concerned about a situation which could result in financial disaster for their child. However, he could have improved his chances of moving his daughter in the direction of sensible decision-making around money with some changes in his approach.
He needs to be aware that continual questioning is perceived by the person being questioned as invasive. This will turn the listener off.
She will either no longer hear the questions or change the subject or walk out of the room. She will probably not answer such questions honestly. "Everything will be all right" is basically a dishonest answer. It is very different from an answer she would give a friend towards whom she had no animosity and with whom there was no power imbalance. It is a brush-off answer that tells nothing.
Less Talking, More Listening
Besides the questioning, Carl does too much talking and not enough listening. He engages in the more-is-better system of confrontation, to wit, if you bombard someone with unassailable facts and arguments over and over the listener will sooner or later break down and follow your advice. This is a desperation move. Carl's good arguments and knowledge of relevant facts collapse when he uses them to bludgeon his daughter. If he listened to her story first, and saved his trump cards for the end of the interaction, Heather might be able to hear and to follow his advice.
If Carl is secretly worried that he and his wife will have to pick up the tab in the event of a complication of pregnancy, he should say so. This may be one of the causes of tension and irritability underlying his manner. He may not want to bring this out for fear of appearing selfish in Heather's eyes. If he isn't sure how he would feel about paying for his uninsured daughter, he should express his unsureness. Everyone can understand ambivalence; it is part of our everyday lives. He might have said something like:
"If you have a complication of pregnancy or delivery and you get a $25,000 bill from the hospital -- which is by no means unheard of -- I'm going to be torn about whether I should pay the bill to get you out of a jam or whether I should just let you sink or swim on your own. This is causing me a lot of anxiety. I want to do the right thing, but I'm not sure what the right thing is."
Heather would then have to mull over her father's honest statement of his perplexity and come up with a response. She would also want to do the right thing, partly because her father is modeling conscience and character for her. She might say, "Don't worry, Dad, I will take financial responsibility for everything." If a 34-year-old, able-to-cope individual agrees to financial responsibility for her actions, her parents should honor that pact, come what may.
Guidelines For Giving Advice
What, then, are the guidelines for giving advice to our adult children?
1. Ask yourself, "Does my child really need my advice?" You may discover, on reflection, that your son's messy home, with unwashed dishes in the sink and mountains of unfolded laundry piling up, is a pattern that works for him. It doesn't hurt him especially nor does it hurt anyone else. You are under no obligation to do his laundry or wash his dishes to alleviate this problem, nor do you have to advise him to get a housekeeper or find some other solution.
2. Ask yourself, "Does my child really want my advice?" This is harder than the above because part of you thinks that, whether she wants it or not, she should have it. This is the part of you that needs re-training.
Marty and Janet, a Caucasian couple, were planning to adopt a mixed-race baby. Janet's parents fretted for months over this decision, thinking of all the potential difficulties for both Marty and Janet and the baby. They discussed this between themselves at great length, and finally decided that their daughter and son-in-law were making this decision with their eyes open and their feet on the ground. They decided to do nothing.
3. Trust your intuition. This does not mean acting on the basis of your initial impression. A decision whether or not to give advice requires as much thought and information as you can get. Intuition is not flighty or superficial: it is an expression of our wisest and best selves.
4. Differentiate between advice to help your child (e.g., tips on study habits, advice on investing) and advice to alleviate a conflict or sore spot in your relationship (e.g., your ban on smoking in your own home). With the former, ideally, you are a disinterested party. I say ideally because it is really very tempting (and very common) for one's ego to become involved in one's children's study habits, investing practices, or almost anything else. With the latter, the advice may be larded with anger, attempts at punishment, or parental problem-solving. If you tell your child not to smoke in your home you may be subtly advising him not to smoke anywhere while, at the same time, enjoining him to not smoke in your home. If you tell your child not to smoke in your home, you shouldn't be contaminating the instruction with morality. Make it a judgment-free command that says, implicitly, that what he does in his own home, or anywhere else, is not your business. He will appreciate your not judging him, but he will also get a keen sense of your opinion of smoking.
5. Give some thought to the thorny issue of embarrassment -- yours, not hers. While this may have no relation to a crisis, it is germane to the issue of advice giving. It also crops up at unexpected times and may loom so large as to obliterate more important issues. Your daughter or son may embarrass you in public with her choice of clothes or hairstyle, tattoos or nose ring. She might exhibit behavior that you define as unseemly or rude. She may have personal habits such as loud belching, passing gas noisily, or bathing irregularly which make you want to crawl into the nearest hole. Paradoxically, this might be the perfect place for advice laced with humor. "You'll never get nominated for president with that nose ring. It says so in the Constitution." Humor lets you both laugh together. Humor lets your child know that you still love her, in spite of it all.
Tackling the issue of embarrassment over your adult child's behavior or appearance is thorny because it forces you to separate from him. You may have thought you had separated long ago, but all of a sudden your son's unkempt appearance causes you embarrassment, anxiety, and, yes, even pain in the presence of your friends. Something tells you that you cannot change him, at least not right now and not with a frontal attack. The only sensible and humane avenue open to you is to let him be himself. Any embarrassment needs to be felt by him, not by you. These are his choices, not yours.
6. Finally, your decision to advise or not to advise falls largely on your ability to keep your ego out of the proceedings. Your advice should be for your child and only for your child. He will know if you have a hidden agenda, if your needs rather than his are being reflected in your "advice."
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. ©2001.
All Grown Up: Living Happily Ever After with Your Adult Children
by Roberta Maisel.
Using conflict resolution strategies borrowed from the field of mediation, a healthy respect for generation-gap issues engendered by the social revolutions of the 1960s and '70s, and a broad spiritual perspective, the author provides both practical solutions to on-going problems, as well as thought-provoking discussions of how these problems came to be. All Grown Up addresses the cultural changes of the late 20th century which deeply affect how we approach parenting, self-development and lifestyle issues.
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About the Author
ROBERTA MAISEL is a volunteer mediator with the Berkeley Dispute Resolution Service in Berkeley, California. She is an enthusiastic parent of three grown children and, at various times in her life, has been a school and college teacher, antique shop owner, piano accompanist, and political activist working with and for Central American refugees, homeless people and Middle East peace. More recently she has given talks and workshops on aging, living with loss, and getting along with adult children.