When I was asked to do an advice column five years ago for the university newspaper, I eagerly took the job in hopes of becoming the wisest twenty-year old on campus that everyone asks “What do I do?” The gig lasted a few semesters, but it was certainly nothing to brag about. As it turns out, I don’t know much about anything.
Advice is a tricky thing. In my circle of friends, we are continually asking each other for guidance on everything from sex to mortgage rates to vegetable oil substitutes. But what happens when advice comes unsolicited?
As a parent-to-be, I often find myself gawking at other families and thinking (or worse, saying!), “I will never do that” and wishing I could give them some parenting advice. In my head I know that every child and parent and family is unique and has a singular set of circumstances to deal with, and yet when I see a child throwing rocks at his mom in the parking lot or (on the other spectrum) hearing about “tiger mothers” punishing their children with hot sauce, my insides shout, “what are you THINKING?” The problem is, not only is that sort of judgmental persona unattractive, it’s also quite dangerous. I have never been a parent nor have I walked in their shoes and experienced what they have experienced. In short, it’s not my place.
Recently an acquaintance offered me some advice on parenting that started out with a lot of “nevers” “always” and “you shouldn’ts.” After that conversation, I realized what I sound like (even if the thoughts are often just in my head). It’s not nice or helpful.
There is an art to giving advice, most of which is in the delivery. Giving advice should sound a lot like a waiter in a fine restaurant who holds out a dessert tray and says, “Here, if you wish,” and the diner takes what is right for them. By not insisting, we increase the chances of our words being considered. When it comes to delicate issues like parenting, there’s a fine line to walk between what is helpful and what is hurtful. Most of the time it’s better to butt out and wait for an opportunity to listen.
Last night as I was reading over my old Ask Kate columns and laughing at my weak advice on dating and post-grad plans, I realized that the best advice givers in my life always do so without any hints of smugness or agenda. Like the waiter in the restaurant, they offer their opinions so casually it feels more like a discussion than advice. And that’s how it should be, because the truth is most people who ask for advice already know what they’re going to do–they just need someone to hash it out with.