There’s this guy at the gym always giving advice. “Keep your back straight,” “you're lifting too much weight,” “keep your arms parallel to the floor.” Without introduction, without invitation, he has guidance for newbies and veterans alike. Is he willing do demonstrate a technique? You betcha. Does he have some suggestions for any and every exercise? Right again.
What is his agenda? Why does he offer endless recommendations? Is he being thoughtful? Did he have a physiological issue as a child? Is he adamant that no one else suffer as he did? Is he just a nice guy, happy to help?
Or is he just showing off? Is his counsel thinly veiled bragging? Is he actually communicating, “I know how to do this exercise,” “I’m better at this than you are”?
I’m curmudgeonly—I own that. But I wish this guy would just hush. Isn’t the purpose of advice to help? I mean, isn’t support the first and most important aspect of advice? If I wanted to see people who are more fit than I, there would be no reason for me to go to the gym. I could sit on the couch and watch TV. There are any number of people who are more fit than I. Younger too. More attractive and likely less curmudgeonly for that matter.
At least this guy in the gym is right. He does know about exercise and fitness. Whereas one of my students blubbered into my office yesterday having been brutalized by a different kind of guidance. She had just come from an “advice” session at a university. She had gotten so much “advice” that she was just about ready to give up on the idea of college altogether. She was considering throwing out all her good essays. She wanted to change her list of appropriate schools. She had been "adviced" to the point of sadness.
“The speaker was supposed to help us,” my student opined “but all she did was make me feel uncomfortable.”
“She just kept talking,” my student went on. ““Don’t mention courses from the college catalog in your essay.'” “'Remember to list all your extra-curriculars.'” "'The competition is tough.'" “It got to the point where everybody in the room was just stunned. We all felt like we had no chance, like everything we had ever done in high school was not only inadequate but wrong.”
The advisor may have been correct. Admissions at some schools is tough. But the speaker was using her position of authority to flex her power rather than help the applicants find their voice. She was showing off her knowledge of admissions, not helping students shine their light. She certainly wasn’t helping them feel good about applying.
“Why don’t they just get taller dancers?” asked Henny Youngman. Indeed, the nasty truth is that not everyone will be admitted to this highly selective university. All the ballerinas could be on stilts. But the eloquence of the dance will be lost. Everyone will be taller, but everyone will also be awkward. Leaping while on stilts isn’t a thing. At the risk of explaining the joke, if all applicants have access to this same crappy advice, then everyone’s essay may be better, but there will still be the same number of admitted students out of the multitudes of applicants.
The problem isn’t that your kids don’t trust you; the problem is that they do. Boy scout leaders, clergy, relatives—so many folks harming so many children. Shouldn’t you, the parent, be the one person on whom your kids can always rely? Shouldn’t your advice be mindful and age appropriate? Shouldn't your kids know that your advice is about them, not about you?
When your children ask you for help, listen to the hidden agenda. Focus on the words behind the words. Do the kids actually want help? Or do they just want to ensure that you aren’t judging? Do they want you to solve a problem? Or do they just want to be listened to?
The guy at the gym is showing off his knowledge of fitness. The speaker at the university is showing off her knowledge of admissions. Neither is genuine or genuinely helpful. As parents, the last thing we want to do is show off for our kids. The relationship between parent and child has to be the foundation on which our kids can base their secure forward march into adulthood. After all, they are going to meet enough braggarts and know-it-alls when they leave your house. At home, they should feel secure and valued. That way they will come to depend on you, know that your advice is good, and be well positioned to perceive and ignore harmful advice when they find it.