Why Parenting Advice Is So Hard to Take

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Photo: Masaaki Toyoura/Getty Images

This week, the Cut is talking advice — the good, the bad, the weird, and the pieces of it you really wish you would have taken.

Late last summer I drove with my children and some extended family from Chicago to a lake house in southwestern Michigan. The weather was lovely, mild and dry. The kids enjoyed themselves on the beach and the tiny, gravelly roads leading to the house. They played, they wore themselves out, and they became quiet, which meant the grown-ups had a good time as well.

One afternoon toward the end of the trip we decided to go into town for lunch. We all gathered in the driveway and began the complicated human arithmetic of trying to apportion bodies and booster seats into cars. My uncle — my mother’s brother — was unusually adamant that we take just one car. Specifically, mine. Practically and ecologically this did not seem unreasonable, but there was a snag. If we took one car, I’d have to move my daughter from her usual booster to a smaller one in the way-back. This process, I knew from experience, would result in a thermonuclear meltdown. She was never capable of explaining why being in the rear was such a trauma. Was it a diminished view? The preponderance of backs of heads in front of her? Who knew? Transportation flexibility is not her strong suit. Flexibility is not her strong suit. Also, she was 4.

“It’s only a few miles,” I told my uncle. “Do you mind if we just follow you there?”

“You know, when I was a kid, it was my parents who called the shots,” he said. His tone was a mixture of indignation and certitude. “The kids did as told. If my dad said to get in the trunk, I got in the trunk. If he said to shut up and enjoy the ride, we shut up and enjoyed the ride. End of story. That’s how it’s done. That’s my advice to you now.”

For about two minutes, nobody spoke. We stood in the driveway as though all of our cars had just vanished. My mother tried to say something that reassured me and chastised her brother, but it was too late. Iris walked over to me and climbed into my arms. My heart was racing. I felt what must have been a cocktail of adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol flooding my brain. When I finally answered, my own voice sounded faraway. “Thanks for telling me how to raise my own kid,” I said. 

I could tell that my uncle regretted his words. Whether it was what I said, Iris’s reaction, or the multiple sets of glaring eyes that made him feel that way, I don’t know. He put his hand to his forehead. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business. Forgive me. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

I told him it was fine, not a big deal — the usual passive-aggressive shuffling. 

“I think I’m going to pass on lunch,” I said. I didn’t go into town with everyone. I went back into the house with my daughter, packed our bag, got in the car, drove home, and didn’t speak to my uncle for six months.

When I share this story with friends, I’m embarrassed by my anger and my nearly anaphylactic reaction to my uncle’s comment. Indeed, most of my friends agree that I went overboard by a factor of many. At the same time, more than a few have their own stories of becoming infuriated by parenting advice offered by a friend or family member. They recall with rage that time their mother-in-law tried to advise them on breast-feeding, or the friend who was sure she knew the best way to discourage tantrums or facilitate longer naps.

And yet these same friends are constantly seeking parenting advice in the form of books, message boards, blogs, and comment sections where they can forage for knowledge anonymously. They (or we, I should really say) would rather take advice from an unseen “expert” or a stranger with the handle JediMama78 than from a person we actually know.

For me, this is a phenomenon unique to parenting. I’ve heeded friends’ and family members’ guidance on relationships, fashion, my career, my exercise routine, personal hygiene, and my credit score. “Tell me what to do,” I often say to begin a conversation, because nothing feeds my ego quite as much as having the private details of my life picked over and debated by people I love.

My life, though. Not my kids’, and sure as hell not the way I raise them. When it’s my parenting on display, I don’t want to hear it unless you have a Ph.D. beside your name or if Blue Cross is reimbursing you by the hour.

Why should this be the case? What is so distressing about a person I care about trying to tell me that I’m doing something wrong as a parent, or that I might want to consider doing it differently? There is embarrassment in it, I think — also shame and insecurity. But what I find myself most blindsided by are the shards of resentment and anger, and something resembling mistrust: We may drink or walk or go to Michigan together, but do you really think you know me well enough to tell me how to discharge my most sacred and somber obligation?

Parenting remains one of the few arenas of modern life where advice — and the judgment it so often masks — is issued fast and easy without the usual humble what-do-I-know disclaimers. In part, I think this is because it’s a thing so many of us do, or did, or plan to do one of these days. And when we see someone doing it differently, it’s easy to interpret that difference as rebuke. I see a woman nursing her 3-year-old and am conscious that I weaned my kid at 6 months. I hear a parent use the phrase “screen-free” and picture my daughter hypnotized before the television.

Practices that used to be communal have become competitive; knowledge that used to be received is now invented, and when a kid is acting up in a public setting, all bets are off. Last week I was having dinner with a friend on the patio of a restaurant when a kid, playing by a fountain, started yelling loudly. “Hey,” my friend said to the child. “Not so loud.” I sunk into my chair a little and told her she was going to piss the parent off. My friend didn’t retreat. “Why shouldn’t I say something?” she asked. “It’s not the kid’s backyard. I’m here, too.”

At the same time, no matter how many times I find myself on the business end of hard-to-hear advice, I find it impossible to refrain from occasionally commenting on others’ parenting choices as well. When a close friend’s daughter was less than a year old, she fell into what my friend referred to as a sleep crisis. She’d worn her daughter as a newborn in a sling almost permanently, allowing her to sleep throughout the day tucked against her torso. This arrangement had worked well when the baby was nine pounds. Now she was pushing 20. It was February in Chicago, the city was in an unremitting churn of ice and snow, and my friend was fed up with wandering the snowy streets just to make the baby doze. She wanted her daughter to sleep inside, in her crib, off of her person; she couldn’t constantly pace the 800 square feet of her apartment yoked to an infant and retain the few shreds of sanity she was left with. The baby, finding herself exiled from the perpetual warmth machine of her mother, refused to sleep. My friend and her husband were exhausted. And so she did something that seems perfectly natural and reasonable to me, a mother who, in the course of eight years of parenthood has run up bills with lactation experts, social workers, occupational therapists, fussy-baby consultants, developmental pediatricians, and nutritionists: She hired a sleep specialist, a woman who, for a sum my friend would not disclose, would come to her apartment and help her teach her baby how to nap in her crib.

I nodded when she told me all this. It made sense. But I couldn’t resist asking what seemed an obvious question: “Is it possible you just need to let her cry?”

Her answer was an icy gaze. All of her friends knew what she needed to do. And relatives. The ones who hadn’t been responsible for an infant in decades. The ones who swore they’d never have children. The ones who shouldn’t have been entrusted with the care of a goldfish. The ones whose own children were weird. Everyone knew how to get her baby to sleep. But she didn’t want to hear it from us. What my friend wanted was guidance that was professional but also disinterested, encouragement that was personalized but not personal. “What did the sleep specialist say?” I asked her shortly after the first session. “That there’d be some crying,” she answered. “And then it would get better.”

Parenting is private life performed in public. Anyone who’s ever had to discipline a child in a grocery store or nurse a baby in a restaurant or entertain a toddler on an airplane knows this well. These moments are excruciating because they force us to display before others our own limitations, our children’s limitations, and the messy and imperfect realm of never-ending negotiation that makes up parenthood. All too often we must perform this negotiation before a narrow-minded and not-so-patient audience, an audience (and a culture) that, as much as it fetishizes childhood and glorifies parenthood, is deeply ambivalent about children themselves — the messy, immediate, inconvenient demands they make on individuals and communities.

In the Victorian era, Dr. L. Emmett Holt, one of the first modern child-rearing experts, presented his own guidance as a scientific alternative to the advice of “relatives and friends whose knowledge is very limited, but whose prejudices are very strong.” A century later, we still cling to the professionals’ advice (even though there is so little consensus, perhaps because there is so little consensus), and shun suggestions from relatives and friends. But what if avoiding those closest to us when we’re struggling with parenting only exacerbates the isolation and loneliness, that feeling that our kids are our own problem and no one else’s, that we have to have all the answers? Wanting help, giving help, and accepting it seem like an impossible trinity of child-rearing.

When we left Michigan my parents rode with my aunt and uncle. Iris and I drove back alone, which meant she could sit in her beloved middle row. When she is in the right place, when she is where she wants to be, Iris can be a very tranquil presence. Every few miles I looked back at her. She was stroking her pink bunny, sucking her thumb, watching the landscape, an unremarkable stretch of rural interstate, slip by. “You’re such a good girl,” I told her, smiling in the mirror, feeling both proud and lonely, wishing there was someone else there with me to notice.