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Because we parents spend so much time complaining to each other sharing best practices, we often find ourselves in situations where another parent is sharing an approach or technique that we have learned or read enough to know is less than optimal:

"Hot dogs are your two-year-old's favorite food, you say? And he only eats them whole?"

or:

"Vaccinations? Who even knows if those work? We do know they gave a number of celebrity's kids Autism."

And those are the easier ones - often it's more like the parents who don't want to "stress" their children with any pressure to establish regular sleep routines, but describe a house full of parents and kids who haven't had more than two hours sleep in row for years.

The challenge, and the question I have, is this. In those rare instances where you feel you really have something important or useful to share:

How can offer people you care about suggestions without either making your friends defensive, or by coming off as someone who considers themselves a parenting expert? (I am all too aware that the most important job I've ever had is also the one I'm least prepared to handle.)

My instinct is always to start soft, so as not to seem too pushy "I think I read that hot dogs might be a bit of a choking issue for kids that age," but that seems to go badly, because the softening on my part makes it easy for them to brush it off ("My pediatrician told me what to worry about, and didn't mention that - it's fine"). And at that point, pushing harder is starting to feel like an unwanted intervention.

And I know I can "mind my business," but I see that as a last resort; I'm talking about cases where I care about both the parents and kids, and respect the parents.

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In practical terms, you can't offer "advice" unless you are in a position of authority for some reason. You can only offer suggestions. –  keshlam Mar 12 at 16:42
    
@keshlam, fair enough. Updated. –  Jaydles Mar 12 at 17:09
    
Not sure I agree with that definition of "advice". While it has its root in 'advise', it certainly now connotes 'helpful suggestions to change strategy'. In the case of this question, the "typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable" is perhaps apropos... –  Joe Mar 13 at 2:22
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@Joe -- Literally, perhaps. If you want your advice accepted as advice, they need to have some reason to accept that you know better than they do. Which is often extremely unclear. Even suggesting can seem presumptuous. The safest approach may be "That's interesting; I always did X because I thought Y." This invites discussion -- and admits that you might be the one who is wrong -- rather than assuming they should listen to you because You Know Better. They may be as right as you, or more right, or be weighing the trade-offs differently. (This is a general point, not limited to parenting!) –  keshlam Mar 13 at 4:00
    
This has become a big internal struggle for me with a close friend of mine. She's homeschooling and both of her kids read well below the level expected for their age. Both of my children (4 and 6) read, and my 6-year-old reads at a higher level than hers (9 and 12). Her younger child doesn't write, and the older one is still using placeholder spelling and mixed case. I'm absolutely floored by it and have no idea how to discuss it with her, if at all. –  KitFox Jun 3 at 13:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Let's divide the advice you want to give into categories:

  • the child is in immediate danger to the extent you would call Child Protective Services or the police.
  • the child is, in the long term, at increased risk (your two examples relating to choking on hotdogs or being unvaccinated) but you can't "report" them, though you strongly feel you want to educate them
  • the child isn't in any danger, but you think the child or the parent could be much happier if they did something differently (your sleep example)
  • you're irritated by something and wish it would change even if it has no real effect on the child or the parent (how I feel when random strangers in the mall play endlessly-repeat-the-same-phrase games with their kids - I hate repeating!)

For the immediate danger case, speak as bluntly as you like - whatever you say will be milder than the steps you'll take if they don't accept your advice or if you chicken out and say nothing.

For the longterm increased risk, you have to decide if this is someone who listens to other parents or not. If you think they might, you can focus on questions, and on describing what you do. For example "Yes, my kids love hotdogs too. It takes almost no time to quarter them lengthwise to make them safe, but I can't wait until they're 3 and we can stop doing that." Or "how did you decide it was safe to stop quartering them lengthwise? I thought I had to do that until they were 3?"

For the happiness things, I would mostly wait until I was asked. Of course, there are things you can say that might prompt asking. Stuff like "Oh yes, I remember the sleep deprivation phase of parenting, you totally have my sympathy. It does pass. For us it was only till about 18 months, but that's partly because we took a different approach than many people." And then you don't say anything unless they ask about it.

For the last one (which to be honest is most of the situations I want to offer advice) I do absolutely nothing when it's a stranger I'll never see again. For friends, it's going to vary with the child's age and the closeness of the friendship, but being honest with yourself about your motivations will probably guide you to the right wording.

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I'm someone who would really, really like to be the "parenting expert" who tells everyone what they're doing wrong. Not quite Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, but that direction. So, I am sensitive to this, and have to watch myself.

Assuming it isn't something dramatically or imminently harmful (no, hot dogs wouldn't count here), I see if it passes the 'smell' test:

  • Is this someone I'm close enough to (at work, as a friend, etc.) that I would tell them if they smelled bad? Would they take it as friendly advice? Even if I'm close to them, are they of the kind of personality who would appreciate being told, or not?
  • If so, the degree of discretion in communicating the issue is similar: inform them casually, and then let it go. Give them what information I have if they ask, talk further if they want to, but unless they continue the conversation, just a short, casual mention.
  • If not, then I let it go entirely. Tens of millions of parents each year in this country manage to raise children successfully without my advice, undoubtedly this family will also.

The only time I might take exception to this is if the person is actively proselytizing for something (most commonly, anti-vaccines), particularly with factually incorrect information. I think if someone is trying to convince others of their point of view, then they're fair game to whatever I can toss at them. But if it's just a casual comment related to their own kids, the mouth stays shut unless it passes the smell test.

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It is not your job to correct other people's parenting, nor do you have to do that from a moral perspective or any other reason. If someone else does something with his/her kids that you would not do, then this is his/her decision and his/her responsibility. You are allowed to comment on how you see things, but if the other doesn't agree, then thats it.

On that basis you are usually able to communicate well with other parents: "Hot dog? I wouldn't do that with my son, I think he would choke on it." Note how in this sentence the other one is not judged for his actions, while you still give a statement on your perspective. If the other one now agrees that this might be an issue, you can continue that discussion, if not, then it is perfectly his or her matter.

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I don't know, parents can be very sensitive to "Oh, we wouldn't do that with our child" comments. They smack of "I desperately want to criticise your parenting, and this is as close as I dare". Which in this instance is a correct assumption. –  deworde Mar 12 at 15:17
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I learned that first hand often enough. ;) The question is: what's behind that question? Most of the time parents are very insecure about doing their parenting right and desperately want to get feedback, but then they want to hear "You are doing everything right". With some you can go the "I am doing it this way" direction, for others there is the rule: Don't discuss with fanatics. But the important part to keep in mind is: it is not your responsibility to give feedback or improve parenting of others. You can tell how you do things, but don't question their style. –  TwoThe Mar 12 at 15:21
    
wrt to it not being my job, I know. And I'm not as much of a buttinski/know-it-all as this question might imply. But my question is predicated on cases where I think it's important enough to do some work to maximize my odds of being able to help. And I do get that some things are just style, but job or no, it'd be a heavy burden to wonder whether I could have pushed a little harder about something like the very high choke risk of some foods, etc. before something tragic might happen to a nephew, close friend, etc. –  Jaydles Mar 12 at 15:42
    
There is a difference between "might happen" and "will happen". If you know something will happen (definitely) you must intervene. But if something might happen that's not your business. It is a nice gesture to hint the risk, but it's not your task to take over parenting for someone else, no matter how bad they are at it (in your perspective). One could argue why you allow your kids to play outside, while it is well known that lots of attacks and accidents happen there, yet you still put your kids at that risk every day. But then, almost always, nothing happens. –  TwoThe Mar 12 at 15:59

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