As parents, we want to guide our children the best we can. We want to save them from the countless mistakes we’ve made over the years. We want them to benefit from our wisdom. And what could be wrong with any of that?
The Downside of Giving Advice
One of my favorite expressions is, The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Often the advice we give comes across as nagging, controlling, belittling, over-bearing…or worse. In essence, kids, and especially teenagers, can receive this well-intentioned advice as saying:
- You aren’t smart.
- You aren’t wise.
- You don’t make good decisions.
- I don’t trust you to figure this out on your own.
There is truth that experience is often the best teacher. Just like we cannot be taught how to play a musical instrument or swing a tennis racket without practicing, one cannot learn certain things in life without experiencing them. Sometimes, the school of hard knocks really is the best way to learn. Of course, we don’t want our teens to learn some things from the school of hard knocks – like the consequences of drinking and driving, for example. But constant advice-giving can become annoying to teens very quickly. Ultimately, this can start causing tension in the relationship or a rift in it. We don’t want this to happen as the quality of the relationship is directly related to our degree of influence.
A Cognitive Exercise to Try
Here’s a little cognitive exercise I like to play sometimes. Imagine that your current self could go back in time to meet your teenage self. What advice could your current self give your teen self that would have saved your teen self from various dating mistakes, lackluster school efforts, etc.? When I do this, I don’t think my teen self would have paid much attention. Well, besides the fact that my mind would be completely blown from meeting my future self! All jesting aside, we can probably see that our teen self might not have changed behavioral choices because of the advice.
This reminds me of the quote attributed to Mark Twain (whether he actually said it or not, the wisdom is true):
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
The Irony of Giving Advice
It is very difficult to watch our kids make mistakes that we know how to avoid if they would just listen to us! Here’s an irony though: Constant advice giving can harm the relationship with our kids, and this harm can ultimately be worse than the suffering we are trying to save them from by our advice-giving!
What To Do About Giving Advice
So, what are we to do as parents about giving advice to our kids? This doesn’t always work, of course, but it is definitely worth trying. Here it is – ask permission to give the advice first. This puts your kid/teen in control of the situation. In essence, we give them “veto” power. So, if we see our teen is stepping into a rough dating situation, we might say something like, “Jackson, I know you really like Britney and are very excited about your first date with her. I have some advice that might help you with the date. Are you interested in hearing it?” If Jackson says, “No,” don’t be surprised and try not take it personally. You might say, “No problem. If you change your mind, just let me know. The door is always open for that.”
Asking permission to give advice in this way can be very empowering to our kids and our teens (who are developmentally trying to gain more competence and autonomy). Plus, it shows them a level of respect as a person. And here’s a big plus: By using this approach, it increases the odds that our kids/teens will take in the advice. Again, there are no guarantees here, but give it a try and see what happens. And remember, the more time and effort that we spend trying to strengthen the relationship with our kids and teens, the more inclined they will be give us permission to give advice and take heed of it when we do give it.