On Monday, I talked about my golden rule in human interactions based on the premise “assume right intention.” I shared it because of two questions I had recently been asked. The first was a question of how I deal with any defensiveness that wells up in me when someone I have a personal relationship with offers commentary about me, my life, and my choices. Assume right intention is my first step, but I also revert to some other strategies, too, and I shared those yesterday on the blog. The second question I was asked came from a fellow mother through adoption: Can you talk about how you’ve dealt with parenting advice from non-adoption folks? If you just read that question and are a parent through adoption, you are nodding in recognition. If you are not an adoptive parent, you are likely thinking, “how in the world is parenting advice from a non-adoptive person a special issue?” So, before I go into how I handle the advice, I should probably explain why the question might even need to be asked. Here we go:
First, let’s start with the obvious. Not one of us knows a darn thing about what we are doing when we become parents. It’s one of those things that no matter how many years you taught before becoming a parent, no matter how many kids you babysat, no matter how many nieces and nephews you have whose lives you’ve influenced, no matter how many times you said, “I will NEVER do that when I become a parent”, no matter how many books you’ve read, you still don’t know how you’ll do it until you are in it and, even then, you are a bit wary and ever aware that there are probably 8 more ways you could be doing what you are doing and, well, you just go with what you got, package it in your values and beliefs, and do the best you can.
But. And there is a but. Adoptive parenting is not exactly like parenting biological children. I wish I could write grand sweeping statements right now and nail it for every single situation, but I can’t because adoptive parenting brings in a whole host of issues of which you must be aware that vary by every single family. International adoption vs. domestic adoption, open adoption vs. closed adoption, newborn adoption vs. older child adoption are just a few of the nuances families must navigate. It goes much deeper and is much complex, but I presented those details to say that every adoptive family has unique situations that they must address with in parenting their child. Adoption, by its very merit, creates a special need that you always need to be cognizant of in your parenting approach and decision. I’ve talked about some of those nuances before here and here if you want to know more. For this post’s sake, I wanted to set up that there are some unique nuances but, here’s the truth, every single parenting situation- regardless of whether or not adoption is involved- is unique. We all have to parent with an eye on our child and our realities and there’s no one way to do things. And, so, the question really can be bigger than just how do you respond to parenting advice from a person not familiar with adoption. The question really is how do you respond to any unsolicited parenting advice from anybody.
In many ways, my advice is just like Tuesday and Wednesday’s advice but scaled to this situation.
So, first and foremost, assume right intention. As longtime readers of the blog know, Happy did not sleep when he came home. Now, I don’t mean he woke up a couple times of the night to be feed. I mean that he had such a severe attachment reaction, even at just five months old, to the change in his situation that he needed to be reassured that his caregivers were not going to change again so he never fell into a deep sleep and checked in with us– in a desperate, pleading, hyper-vigilant way- every 45 minutes for MONTHS AND MONTHS AND MONTHS (is it any surprise that Happy is the most hyper-aware and sensitive kid I’ve ever known?). It was, as you might imagine, the worst sleep case our pediatrician (who has a focus on adoption medicine) AND our sleep doctor had ever seen. We did not sleep for more than 40 minute chunks for almost eight months. We then moved to a couple hours of sleep at a time. This was true for the first 13 months that Happy was home. Though we were so reluctant to talk about how he was (not) sleeping when we were asked, eventually we had to answer the questions we were being asked or we just looked rude and, of course, everyone had advice for us. And you know what everyone said? “Let him cry it out.” Except let me tell you what you cannot do to a child who has had his caregivers change over two times in just five months of life? Allow him to cry it out and wait for hours to see if you are still there. That’s a shortcut to PTSD. But our friends who weren’t adoptive parents didn’t know this and they just wanted us to sleep so we weren’t so incoherent and foggy and depressed looking and, well, you get the picture. So over and over again, we were told to let him cry it out, but we bit our tongues because we chose to assume right intention. All those people? They just wanted us to be able to sleep. They weren’t judging us for going to our child. They were just offering what they knew from their own “parenting is a crap shoot” box of tricks. And so we just nodded, assumed right intention, and let it go.
But sometimes assuming right intention is just not the best way to handle the situation. Sometimes, you need to offer an education. If the person is frequently in your life, school them on the situation. We wrote our families and friends a letter and sent it before we ever left to pick up our boy because nobody in our life had adopted, and no one was gong to be prepared for how we were going to parent. And so we went on offense and informed them of what we were going to be doing and why. Some folks didn’t like the decisions we made (i.e.: NO ONE- but our pediatrician- saw Happy- or us, really- the first week he was home) but, at least, we had rooted it in what we knew about adoptive parenting and tried to explain. We couldn’t control whether or not people accepted what we did but we could control informing them so we did that and let the rest fall as it would. Some people were angry; some people were judgy; but we absolutely did what was right by our family.
Now, sometimes even after some education about your why, someone is still particularly insistent that his or her advice is really the best advice and he/she presses on with you. It is crazy making. I know. I’ve been there. Sometimes still have to go there. And here is what I can tell you. You have to realize it is not about you. That constant advice to “do it this way” has NOTHING to do with you.. Just like how when someone criticizes your physicality it is not about you, when someone over insists on how to parent, it is also not about you. It is about that person’s parenting story and the investment he or she has in having been or being right about it. If they can get you to do it the way they did it, it’s a vote of confidence in their parenting. And, you know what, parenting is the type of situation where you can find it pretty easy to feel highly incompetent. No wonder everyone gives out advice. Affirmation is wanted. So just remember, the advice? Totally not about you.
Ask the critical question. And, sometimes, when the person is just really insistent with his or her advice, you just have to offer a mirror in that situation. In that case, don’t be afraid to ask, “why do you say this?” and encourage him and her to really reflect on why this advice is so important.
Finally, do not engage crazy. Sometimes the person offering advice so believes in his or her own way so much that, if you open the door, you will be ferreted away on a whole journey you didn’t want to go on. In those cases, it might just be best to not over engage, thank him or her for the advice, smile profusely, and step away from the maelstrom that could take you for a ride.
A final word for all of us: there is no one way to parent. There is no one rule to follow. I parent differently sometimes in the same hour. My brother, sister, and I had completely different parents (except, we all had the same parents. Our parents were just different people during each of our formative years, if that makes sense). All of us need to remember that we are all just doing the best we can at any given moment and honor the right for all parents to make the best decisions for their kids at any given time. You may think you know what they need to do, and, if they ask, by all means share your thoughts. But just like no one knows my kid better than I do, you don’t know anyone else’s kid as well as you think you do. Bite your tongue. Shun your judgy thoughts, and just be nice and enjoy your company.
Now, it is your turn. How do you handle unsolicited advice of all kinds?