Let it Go. Or Don't. How to Deal with Unwanted Parenting Advice.

When I was pregnant, a family member found an antique crib from the 1800s.  She called me, excited, wanting my husband and me to buy it.  “What is it made of?”, I asked.   “Some kind of wood.  It is painted.”  Assuming she hadn’t asked about lead paint, and desperate to find an easy out, I instead asked, “What is the distance between the slats?”  “Who cares?”, she responded.  Who cares?!  Seriously?!  “I do”, I said. “The recommended distance between slats is not supposed to be more than 2-3/8 inches (6 centimeters).  That protects infants from falling out and toddlers from trapping their heads.”   “Oh, please”, she replied laughingly.  “Look at the population.  Obviously the human race survived the 1800s.”  “Yes”, I said, “but not everyone did.  That’s why there are product and safety regulations.  Because something bad happened to someone’s babies.”

Around the same time, apropos of nothing, my manicurist, who I just met that day, told me I needed to drink milk and honey every day to make my baby’s skin clear and beautiful. 

I drank warmed milk with honey without fail for the duration of my pregnancy.  (His skin did turn out to be gorgeous!).  I did not buy the crib.  But amongst the many mothers in our combined family, I was now that cliché.  The joke.  The slightly crazed, already over-protective, soon-to-be-mother who did not accept the wisdom of the experienced. 

Unsolicited advice starts almost the minute you start showing.  It continues as you raise your kiddos.  You get it from family members, friends, and even total strangers.  Sometimes it is palatable and does not feel like an indictment of your judgment and knowledge.  Other times?  Well, it can make you cringe, seethe, and wholly rethink your ideas about who is an acceptable babysitter.   

The reality is, dealing with unsolicited advice from strangers is easier.   You can respond with something kind, indifferent, or snarky, and walk away.  You can ignore them altogether.  You likely won’t see those people again, and their comments don’t cut you like the comments of people you care about can.  But when it comes to receiving unwelcome advice from someone you care about, things get complicated.

Also, while “nice” advice is relatively easy to absorb, how to handle not-so-nice advice can be harder to negotiate.  Oddly, when it comes to people I care about, I find the conflict-adverse, pleaser part of me often doesn’t want to make an issue or offend - even when the advice (or the way it was delivered) was offensive. 

A few years into motherhood, the unsolicited advice has lessened substantially, but it still pops up now and again.  Seasoned and new mothers alike often wonder whether there is a “good” way to handle it.  Here are some tips I found that may help.

1.  Listen with an open heart. Being open to and reflecting upon different ideas and perspectives can be helpful.  While some advice may be given for unkind motives (i.e., to belittle or criticize), in most cases people want to share knowledge to help or to feel like they are valued.  Listen without assumptions to the advice and decide whether there is value in it. 

2.  Agree or disregard. If you find the advice helpful, you might simply want to say thank you.  If you do not, you can make the choice: debate it, or simply let it go. 

If you opt to debate, know your subject.  Educated opinions fortify your own confidence and inspire others to have confidence in you.  When your opponent is up-to-date on the facts and state-of-the-art information, advice seems less necessary.  Also, I notice that leading with “I asked my doctor about that and she said…,” often puts an end to the matter. 

If you opt to let it go, there are a few tactics.  One, simply listen and say something noncommittal, like “Interesting” or “Oh”, then go about your business.  You might also try distraction – changing the subject or focus.  (This is a great tactic for toddlers, too!)  For example, if someone says you should never use formula, you might say “Interesting.  Unrelated, did you hear that John’s little Timmy is now walking?”  Another option is to provide vague responses.  For example, if someone says you should follow the “cry it out” method and you disagree, pleasantly respond, “Good sleep habits are certainly important.  We are working hard at that.” 

3.  Give them a win while diplomatically sending a message. If the particular unsolicited advice given was not of value to you, but you value your relationship with the giver, believe the giver’s motivation was an acceptable one, respect the giver’s perspective, and it feels otherwise right for you, you might be able to maneuver a win-win by asking them about something you would actually like advice on.  You could say, “Hubby and I have decided to handle that another way, but we really respect your perspective and knowledge.  I am sure we’ll have questions down the road.  Would you mind if we reach out to you when we do?”  That sends the message you value their perspective and will actually ask for advice when you want it.

4.  Embrace your choices with pride and confidence. That’s right.  Own your choices!!  You are the parents.  You know your baby better than anyone in the world.  You know what is right for you and your family.  When those pointed “observations” come (i.e., “You are still co-sleeping?!”), you simply smile and say, “We are!  And loving it!”  Say it like you are agreeing you just won the lottery.  All smiles, all pride, all confidence. 

5.  Pick a phrase and rely on it. Whether it’s “I’ll give your advice the consideration it deserves” or “This is what works for our family” or “I appreciate learning about different ideas.  That’s why we looked into all methods before we decided to choose this one”, it helps to have a phrase in mind to toss back when unsolicited advice comes your way.

6.  Pick your battles. Not every issue is worth a battle.  For example, if your mother-in-law feels strongly your baby wear a hat whenever you are outside and you disagree, using the hat when she is around may be something you can do without feeling you’ve compromised yourself.  However, some issues are worth fighting for.  For me, those matters relate to my child’s health and safety and our family’s values and principles.  They may also be related to boundaries.  When it comes to battling about boundaries, context, as well as content, is important.  If almost every decision you make as a parent is called into question and criticized, or if the advice is delivered in an unacceptable manner (belittlingly, cruelly), it may be that an otherwise innocuous comment (i.e., babies should wear hats) becomes the opening for a larger-scale discussion worth taking on.

7.  Have the tough conversation (if it is safe for you to do so). If you have any reason to wonder if the person may respond by physically hurting you or your baby, do not challenge them.  Seek professional support about whether and how to handle the situation.  If you can safely have a conversation, do not shy away from it once you realize one is needed.  Waiting too long to discuss issues can often allow resentments to fester and multiply.  Also, when the time comes, it may help to speak plainly and directly.  Often, a “tough conversation” was preceded by more subtle efforts, like those discussed above.  Take the subtle out of it and talk very clearly and directly about what is bothering you.  Think about your audience.  What will get through to them?  Emotion?  Logic?  Think about the outcome you want.  The behavior to stop?  An apology?  The relationship to end?  Try not to use absolutes (words like “always” and “never”) and stick to the facts.  For example, if your mother-in-law sometimes gives you unsolicited advice but doesn’t openly say you are doing it wrong, don’t say “you always tell us we are doing it wrong.” It is hard to accept criticism and wrong-doing.  When you misstate something, it gives your audience an out, which makes it harder for them to accept what you have to say.  And I try, though it doesn’t always work, to stay kind.  As my hubby likes to say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. 

Best of luck to you!

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