“Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life.” — British philosopher Bernard Williams
I’ve noticed that conversations with my children have devolved into a pattern that looks like something I don’t want. It could very well be my fault. I don’t always engage the brain before I open my mouth.
We’ll be yapping on the phone, me nodding and uh-huhing and my kids recounting some dilemma that’s bugging them. It may be related to work. Or their kids. Or the news, almost anything at all. Then as soon as they’re finished, I automatically launch into mom mode. Seems like I can’t help it, either. It’s my default setting.
You should… You need to consider… Have you thought of… If I were you, I’d…
That one word usually stops me in my tracks. The tone is replete with frustration and annoyance — and just enough hurt to make me balk. The meaning is obvious, too, and it speaks volumes, as in: Stop it! Enough!
I am the queen of unsolicited advice. The land I rule, however, has limited boundaries. I don’t spout wise instructions to my friends unless asked and only on occasion to The Hubby, who has very selective hearing. But when I get one of my adult kids on the line, I’m transformed into a guru, an oracle, the expert on everything and anything. Which obviously I’m not.
Sure, I know why I do it. The psychobabble I’ve read underscores what I already suspect. I want to stay relevant. I want to be part of their lives. Most of all, I want to prevent them from making mistakes that seem so obvious to me.
But they, the grown-up kids, simply want a listening ear and an open heart.
I’m hardly alone in this. Over lunch the other day, a friend confided that her son rarely listened to anything she said. Like talking to a wall, she added. “I tell him and tell him and he doesn’t do anything I suggest. Then he wonders why the very thing I warned him about happens.”
Oh, I know the feeling. I know all too well that deflating sense that comes when proffered help and well-meaning suggestions are unwelcome or, at the very least, taken not in the way they were intended. But I’m also learning — very slowly, I’ll admit, and with intensive remedial help — that talking at is not the same as talking with.
Giving advice to children is rife with potential miscues. Where we see ourselves sharing the wisdom of our years, they instead cringe at the overbearing parent who hasn’t come to terms with the fact that they’re adults with thoughts and preferences of their own.
More than a dozen years ago, at the cusp of grandparenthood, I was told something I should’ve inscribed forever in my heart. When visiting new parents, a veteran grandmother told me, “You show up and you shut up.” Same concept could be applied to those precious times when an adult child invites you into his life.
Reality is this: They’re not looking for tips or pointers. They may not even want an immediate solution to a thorny problem. What they’re hoping for is a safe place to vent with a person who loves and supports them no matter what.
We’re coming up on a new year, a new decade, a symbolic turning of the calendar page that gives us the opportunity to refine our behaviors and tweak our lives. So I’ve assigned myself the goal of slaying the unsolicited advice dragon. No easy task for parents like me who honestly think they’re being helpful, not intrusive. But I’m determined, I’m strong. I’m carrying the Show-up Sword and wearing the Mouth-Shut Shield.
I’m ready to accept that experience is the best teacher of all. Better than advice and more powerful than examples and parables. Better, yes, than Mom.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.