Spare your parental advice unless you know how to give parental advice

If you're a parent of a child of any age, I would like to suggest that before you dispense with any parental advice to fellow parents, you carefully consider if you're qualified.   

Much of the advice that I am offered or overhear has one or two problems:

  1. It presents a bleak future. 
  2. It's often inaccurately bleak. 

Rather than talking about the joys that come with raising a child, so many parents seem hell-bent on assuring anyone who will listen that the diapers will be endless, the costs will only rise, the middle school years will be torturous, the high school years tumultuous, and you will be exhausted at all times. There will be talk of cracked nipples, late-night feedings, vomit and snot, never-ending carpools, and the inability to ever see a movie in a theater again. 

It's a lousy way to represent parenting to someone whose children are younger than yours or whose child has yet to be born.

No, lousy is not the word. It's a selfish and ignorant way to present parenting. It's despicable.  

Even if it were all true, it's still a rotten thing to do.

But it's also so often an inaccurate depiction of parenting, for one of two reasons:

1. It suffers from human being's tendency to remember the bad and forget the good. You go on a weeklong vacation to Bermuda and come home talking about the three hours spent on the runway when the plane needed repair or the lost luggage or the two days of endless rain, and you fail to mention (and sometimes fail to even remember) the five or six perfect days of sun and fun. 

The same thing happens with parenting. You stare into your baby's eyes and experience a love that you have never felt before in all your life. You rock your baby in your arms and become convinced that you could remain in this chair with your baby forever. You understand the meaning of bliss for the first time in your life.

Six hours later, that same baby vomits all over you. When someone asks the next day for parenting advice, you talk about cleaning up vomit instead of love.

I hear parents do this all the time. It's awful and unkind and unfair.  

2. The advice is also wildly inaccurate because parents assume that their experience will be everyone else's experience, when this is almost never the case. Every parent and every child is wildly different from the next. If every input is different, how could the output possibly be the same?

I was told by many friends, for example, that my children would invariably sleep in my bed for a sizable portion of their young lives, whether I liked it or not. I was told that it would be impossible for me to keep them off of my pillows. One of my friends became angry with me when I suggested that perhaps he didn't need to be sleeping in his kids' beds more than his own.

"You just wait and see," he said. "It isn't as easy as you think!" 

Today my kids are seven and four years-old, and other than about half-a-dozen late night bad dreams, neither child has ever slept in our bed. All of the doomsday advice that I received about sleeping - from many apparently well-meaning parents - was nonsense.

These inaccurate, self-assured descriptions of parenting are endless. 

I listen to the parents of teenagers warn the parents of infants about the hazards of social media, failing to realize that social media will be entirely different and probably unrecognizable in ten years.

I listen to them warn about nightly homework battles and restaurant temper tantrums and sullen. silent teenage boys. I hear about the pressures of high school and the ubiquity of drugs and alcohol and the battles with teachers over this and that.

I don't doubt that these things happen. But they don't always happen. Just because they happened to you doesn't mean they will happen to anyone else.

As a teacher for almost 20 years, it has become abundantly clear to me that children come in a multitude of varieties, and although the notion that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree is sometimes true, it's also true that parents and kids can also vary in surprising ways. The most capable, competent, consistent parent can raise the most challenging child, and the most ineffective, uninformed, inconsistent parent can raise the most respectful, responsible child ever.  

To think that your experience with your child will be like another parent's experience with another child is ridiculous. 

So if you want to give parents advice, here is what I suggest:

Be positive. When asked for general advice, I often start by telling parents that parenting is better than most people say or believe. I tell them to remember that whatever their child is doing to make them crazy is probably temporary. It will eventually be replaced by something equaling annoying, but children's behaviors tend to change rapidly. Don't think that anything is forever.  

I tell them to avoid the perils of the false threats. If you tell your child that you are going to do something, do it every time no matter what. Don't make promises you can't keep. 

I tell them to take as many photos as possible. Write down the hilarious and clever things that their children say when they are young. Drop everything and play with them whenever you can and every time they ask. I tell them to smell their child's hair and pick them up as often as possible while they still can. I tell them to invest in a self-rocking cradle and to remember that making mistakes is normal. It's exceptionally hard to break a child.

I don't tell them about the difficult times unless they ask, and even then, I try to keep it positive if possible.

Yes, my son spent two years biting Elysha, but eventually it stopped. And I was kind of jealous he only bit me once.

Yes, my daughter still won't eat a chicken nugget or any leafy vegetable, but she's growing like a week and as strong as a bull. She'll find her way.    

And yes, the two people in the world who I want to see more than anyone else - even when they are acting like rotten little brats - are my kids. I love them in a way I didn't think possible. It's glorious.

And yes, we're incredibly busy today. Hardly a free moment. But I put myself through college - a double major - while working 40-60 hours a week managing a fast food restaurant. I was once homeless and in jail. Tried for a crime I didn't commit. 

Busy? Sure. But this parenting thing is a hell of a lot more fun than anything I've ever done before. I'll take as much of it as I can get. 

This is what I tell parents. It's what you should tell parents, too.  

Speak about the joy. The laughter. The love.

If you have to speak of the vomit or the diapers or college tuition, find a way to be positive.

Either that or keep your mouth shut.