How to Give Parenting Advice Without Sounding Like a Jerk

parenting advice

Many of us take our mothering role pretty seriously. We look at it as our profession and our calling. We love being parents and should probably have some masters level degree based on how much reading we’ve done, the classes/conferences/seminars we’ve attended and the hours we’ve invested in perfecting our craft. When you are this passionate about something, you want to share what you’ve learned with others and sometimes want to offer some friendly parenting advice.

I am incredibly thankful for the women who have helped me along in my parenting journey. I’m glad there have been mothers who offered me wisdom, recommended a great book, or flat-out questioned what I was doing. I have learned by watching these women navigate the tricky relational waters of offering parenting advice and wisdom in a way that doesn’t feel shaming, but encouraging.

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There have also been times when a relationship was altered or severed because of unfriendly, unhelpful, judgmental parenting “advice” given at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Along with all the regular parenting issues and conversations, when you become a parent first through adoption (or especially through group home work), some people feel compelled to offer you parenting advice and tips or they feel entitled to question you because those kids obviously aren’t “yours” and you are perceived as not knowing what you’re doing the way a biological parent would. It’s hurtful and frustrating to try and explain to others why you may have to parent the unique way you do.

 

If you want to have your parenting advice heard and you want to still be friends with the parent you’re talking to, here are some tips based on what I’ve seen work, what I’ve seen flop and my own successes and failures in “talking shop” with other parents:

Be a friend first. It’s the old “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” If your parenting advice or philosophy is about grace for your child’s mistakes or about building love and attachment and trust or about treating your child with respect and kindness, people will find that a lot more believable if you approach your friendships that way, too. There are few things more head scratching to me than women who advocate gentle parenting tactics with ferociousness and hostility. I hate to break it to you ladies, but nobody is buying that. If you can’t treat your friends with love, respect, and grace for their choices, then nobody is going to be interested in your parenting wisdom.

Keep the main thing the main thing. Is this parent abusing their child? If they are, then it’s time to make a report. If they aren’t, then let’s not get too worked up about feeding, sleeping, potty training, flash card usage, etc. Having been a foster and adoptive parent for over a decade, I have seen ACTUAL abuse and neglect so it’s kind of hard to get me rattled about different parenting styles from women who love their kids and are seeking to do right by them. If a parent is really struggling, help connect them to good resources or offer to watch their kids for an afternoon so they can decompress. Giving them a lecture on what they’re doing wrong is not likely to be helpful.

Have some humility. Kids come with a wide range of needs and while your solution or theory may have worked well for you and your child, it may not be the magic bullet you think it is. I was a really awesome parent with all the answers until certain children entered my life that did not follow the rules I had mentally created. It is important to remember there are families in this world dealing with trauma and attachment issues and your parenting advice and solutions may not work for them. There are lots of children dealing with some level of unique needs whether that’s ADHD or a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, etc. Those kids have issues that require special care and your parenting “solution” may just serve to make a parent feel like more of a failure because they already know that isn’t going to work.

Start by asking questions. A good way to express humility is to ask questions. That may help get to the heart of the matter. I can give you a 30 minute speech on ways to improve your breastfeeding technique, but if what you actually want to do is start formula feeding, my speech only served to make you feel guilty and put tension into our relationship. It can be really helpful to ask a mom how she feels about what’s going on in that parenting situation rather than assuming she’s upset with it and wants help. Do I want my kids coloring on the walls? No. But other moms may have different feelings about letting their kids express creativity. If I start with my own assumptions about what is acceptable behavior, my “wisdom” may be totally useless.

Wait to be asked. I have a friend who parents very differently from me. She had kids that got up lots of times in the night to feed or get comfort from their parents. To me, this was a problem behavior I would have struggled with. I thought and thought about offering her some solutions, but eventually decided to wait until she got to the end of her rope and asked me how I had handled those issues. Shockingly enough, she never got to the end of her rope. Over the years of parenting beside her I have realized she really loves and values those sweet middle of the night times (even if she does find it frustrating occasionally) and she grieves that now her kids have outgrown them. And (GASP) her kids have all learned to sleep through the night just fine. The reality is, she didn’t need my help so she didn’t ask. Thank goodness I didn’t insert myself in a way that would have harmed our friendship just so I could tell her things she didn’t need to know. There have been many other situations where women have come to me to ask about parenting questions and then I have the open door to express what has worked for us and what I think might be helpful for them. Without that open door, I’m not going to get too far.

Have your own parenting mentors. I have a few moms and dads in my life that I know I can always go to with parenting questions. They are farther into this parenting journey and may have other skill sets that are particularly applicable in my situation (large family parenting, transracial parenting, education background, medical background, etc.). I see how these wise men and women wait for me to come to them, have good resources to offer and do it with a lot of grace. If there’s no one you trust to offer you parenting advice, then you may struggle with knowing how to offer it gracefully to others.

Cultivate parenting relationships with people who parent differently. It is a gift to watch women love and nurture their children well in ways drastically different from how you raise your own. Ask these women questions. Learn from them. You may find something they’re doing will work well for that child you keep struggling with. We don’t have to be threatened by women who do think differently or decide if they just knew what we know, they would automatically parent how we do. What they’re doing might be working for them, even if it isn’t what we would choose.

When in doubt, don’t. If you feel like someone isn’t open to hearing your parenting advice perspective or by offering it you’re going to do more harm than good, just don’t. Wait until there’s more trust built up between you or until they’ve asked you the questions. Open up about your own parenting struggles and you may find they’re more willing to share theirs. If they don’t seem open or willing, you aren’t going to gain much by trying to insert yourself.

If you did, apologize. If you realize after the fact that you may have said something hurtful or judgmental, don’t be afraid to apologize. This is not a moment for, “I’m so sorry if I hurt your feelings, but I just HATE to see your son struggling.” That is not an apology and adds to the hurt feelings. Own what you can, apologize for what you should, affirm that you can support your friend even if you do things differently.

Be a happy mom. Ultimately, if you want to be the kind of mom people ask for advice you need to be someone who enjoys her kids. I don’t care how much you know about feeding schedules or early literacy or science fair project hacks, if you and your kids seem miserable, I’m not interested. I’m not saying we need to pretend that parenting is all fun and games. I think we should be honest about the joys and challenges, but if you are clearly at the end of your parenting rope it may be time to invest in self-care rather than trying to fix other people’s perceived problems.

 

If your desire is to be a pacifist in the “mommy wars” while still offering helpful wisdom when it’s requested, I find this quote (originally about dealing with differences in theology) to be helpful:

“In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Let’s offer each other grace as we seek to parent our kids with love. We are not going to all do it the same way because we are different parents with different children. Let’s see these differences as opportunities to learn from each other and not as threats we need to squash or run from.


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Maralee Bradley
Maralee is a mom of six pretty incredible kids ages 8 and under. Four were adopted (one internationally from Liberia, three through foster care) and two were biological surprises. Prior to becoming parents, Maralee and her husband were houseparents at a children’s home and had the privilege of helping to raise 17 boys during their five year tenure. Maralee is passionate about caring for kids, foster parenting and adoption, making her family a fairly decent dinner every night, staying on top of the laundry, watching ridiculous documentaries and doing it all for God’s glory. She would LOVE for you to join her at her blog A Musing Maralee, and on her Facebook page