To a first approximation, all the advice your children will ever get is bad.
I’m not even talking about, “drink this; get in the car” which is merciless enough certainly. That there are people who profit from convincing your kids to come to harm is hardly a headline. Anybody not aware that nicotine doesn’t help you grow up big and strong? Today’s version—forks will stick to your neck and your cousin will have erectile dysfunction if you take the blindingly simple step of protecting yourself and your family from the plague—is eerily similar.
Admittedly, the agenda of the person who believes that she will become magnetic or impotent all science to the contrary notwithstanding is harder for me to discern. “I can drive while impaired” may be about impersonating an adult, James Dean perhaps. Whereas, “don’t get vaccinated” suggests the speaker is emulating a Marvel character. Although again, Magneto had an issue with non-mutants, so I am at a loss to explain why anyone would prevaricate about silverware magically sticking to her skin. (Spoiler alert: vaccinations do not cause metal to attach to your body parts.)
But I want to address a more subtle form of advice, that from relatives, counselors and those who should have your child’s best interests at heart, but who are frequently tooting their own horns instead.
These folks who should be rooting for our kids can have their own agendas too, frequently bad. Have you been to Italy; you MUST go to Venice. There’s a three-star restaurant, not too expensive. The risotto alla Milanese is to die and the eggplant caponata is out of this world.
Unless the speaker is handing you airline tickets and hotel vouchers, I’m going to suggest that the agenda, rather than eleemosynary, is of the “Look at me, Ma! I’m on the diving board, I’m going to jump! Look at me!” variety. The translations of “YOU will enjoy Italy” is frequently, “I enjoyed Italy” which isn’t even a full hop, skip, and a jump from, “I have enough money to go to Europe, don’t you wish you did?”
It has been said that team sports teach kids how to win with grace, lose with equanimity. Whereas some folks say to the contrary that team sports only communicate how to be frustrated or to internalize that cooperation is not a virtue. Reasonable people can disagree, but it’s important to notice where the advice is coming from. When a neighbor says, “football helps eight-year-olds develop skills” is she actually declaring that her son is a good player? When a coach pontificates about the virtues of teamwork, is the goal just to field enough players? Is the coach hoping to get a job at the college level by demonstrating the ability to win in high school?
And I remain particularly skeptical of guidance counselors recommending course work for students about whom they know nothing. It is certainly true that kids who have successfully completed four years of a foreign language are admitted disproportionately to highly selective colleges over kids who have taken only three years of foreign language. It is also true that six foot four inch tall kids who weigh two hundred eighty pounds, can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds and play football are admitted in higher numbers than girls who are 150 pounds lighter, a foot shorter. But I don’t recommend that my female students gain weight and change their gender assigned at birth. Nor do I suggest that every student take another year of foreign language. Doing poorly in a fourth year of language benefits no one.
Except possibly the Spanish teacher whose job depends, in part, on how many students are enrolled in advanced Spanish. If the guidance counselor is dating the Spanish teacher—crazier things have happened—or the administration has directed that a specific number of kids be enrolled in Spanish Four, then the advice isn’t clean. The advice isn’t about your child but about an agenda of which you have no knowledge.
Your neighbor talking about Italy may have your best interests at heart; the coach may believe that competitive sports build character in young people; the guidance counselor may be aware that tough courses are the gateway to admission to competitive colleges. But loving parents have to be aware that not all advice applies to all students.
“To thine own self be true and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not be false to any man” suggested Polonius. Four hundred years later, I would advocate that we know who our children are. Because if we know what they need, we are best able to supply them with appropriate, helpful advice.