Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out
Here is the principle: Unsolicited advice is usually taken as criticism.
“But why does she need to go to Europe to find herself when I have all the answers for her life right here?”
I know there is a time to speak up and a time to keep my mouth shut,” said a friend of mine. “I just haven’t figured out what to do when.” Maybe you can relate. Knowing what to say and what not to say is one of the major challenges most of us face in transitioning to an adult relationship with a son or daughter. Although there are exceptions, I’ve learned that in most cases the best policy for parents is to bite their tongues and remain silent. Withholding advice goes against our nature as parents, but unsolicited advice is usually taken as criticism.
Many parents of adult children tell me that the most difficult part of their new job description is abstaining from giving advice when they know they’re correct. For more than two decades, our reflex was to offer our guidance. It’s hardwired into every parent’s DNA. We have advice to offer for everything from potty training to first dates and more. So it is sometimes a shock when we discover that our kids not only view our advice as criticism but also aren’t asking for it.
Here are some important guidelines to help you keep your relationship strong and avoid the trap of giving unsolicited advice.
- Trust That Experience is a Better Teacher Than Advice
However much a parent views giving advice as an act of love, most adult children resent it. They strive for independence and view a parent’s giving advice as telling them what to do or restricting their freedom. If you choose to give them advice rather than encourage their independence, they will run from you. When it comes to giving advice, author Jane Isay writes, “Don’t give it. They don’t like it. They don’t want it. They resent it.”
Instead of steering your children in the way you think they should go, trust that experience is a much better teacher. When you give them the independence and respect they desire, they’ll learn from their experiences of victory and defeat. If we keep our mouths shut and keep the welcome mat out, we increase the odds that our children will come to us for guidance on their own. If we choose to continue giving them unwanted advice, even if it’s great advice with the best of intentions, our intrusive counsel will ultimately hurt the relationship. Some call that the “high cost of good advice.” One of my wife Cathy’s love languages is “giving advice.” Whenever she runs across an article she thinks might benefit someone in the family, she cuts it out of the magazine or forwards the web link. She is our go-to authority on everything from healthy lifestyle issues to spiritual growth and numerous other aspects of life. And she not only gives good advice but also lives out what she advises the rest of us to do.
One day when our kids were younger, we were on vacation in a small town in England when we came upon a sign in a doorway that read “Citizen’s Advice Counsel.” The kids shouted, “Mom, this is the perfect job for you!” Her husband (that would be me) was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Cathy just laughed and said, “You’re probably right.” For a person like Cathy, to whom advice-giving comes naturally, it’s especially difficult to bite her tongue and keep good advice to herself. But she has learned the wisdom of not saying everything she thinks. When she does that, it’s amazing how many times our children end up seeking her counsel.
Here is the scriptural principle: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). That’s especially important for those of us who are fix-it people. If I am a fix-it person and my kids have a problem, I consider it my job to intervene. That’s what I do, and that’s who I am—Mr. Fix-It. But unless our adult kids ask us for help, we must resist the impulse to fix their problems.
When you’re tempted to give unsolicited advice, pause and ask yourself this question: Does it really matter? Most issues don’t really matter as much as we think they do. I love this bit of wisdom from Winston Churchill: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” Keep your eyes on the destination, which is a healthy and loving relationship with your adult children. Don’t get distracted by the things that don’t really matter. Adult children don’t distinguish between what we consider an innocent remark or desire to fix a problem, and parental control. If we want to keep the welcome mat out, we need to keep our mouths shut.
2. Give Respect: No Adult Wants to Be Told What to Do
My daughter Christy is a capable young adult, an incredible mother of two, and happily married. Not long ago, she was telling me about a challenge she was facing, and I said, “Christy, do you mind if I give you some advice on that situation?” Her answer surprised me.
“Not right now, Dad,” she said. “Maybe later.”
Are you kidding me? I thought. People actually pay me to give advice, and furthermore, I have some really good counsel that you need. But it was clear that my advice was not what she wanted at that moment. I needed to respect that in the same way I would respect it in any other adult who chose not to hear something I had to share.
Now that your child is an adult, decisions need to be in his or her hands, not yours. This is true whether your grownup is acting like a grownup. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is to respect them as adults. If you don’t give them respect, it’s pretty much guaranteed they will close the door on your guidance. Don’t be like the mom who had the following exchange with her grown son, who’d moved back home after his divorce.
“You need to be home by 9:00 p.m. or I won’t be able to cook you a warm dinner.”
“Mom, sometimes I work late,” he responded, “and I’m very capable of getting my own meal on those nights.”
“Then you need to tell your boss you won’t work late,” she shot back.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I’m your mother and you need to obey me,” she said.
I have a feeling that mother hadn’t revised her parental job description since the time her boy was in middle school. Here’s the point: when you are intrusive and give unsolicited guidance, your kids don’t hear it and they view it as a sign of disrespect.
I’ve found that so much of the way we give respect to our kids is in the tone of our conversations. By tone, I mean our voice, our demeanor, and even the atmosphere we bring to the conversation. We also need to be clear about the difference between having a conversation and giving a lecture. A conversation conveys respect; a lecture doesn’t.
I remember a serious conversation I had with one of my daughters about lifestyle choices when she was in college. I was sad and frustrated that she had made some choices that were not moving her forward. Apparently, my tone wasn’t very good, because she later said, “You didn’t say you were disappointed in me, but I know you were totally disappointed in me.” I did not mean to convey “total” disappointment in her, because it wasn’t an all or nothing situation, but that’s what my tone conveyed. Author and pastor Ronald Greer writes, “Whenever we are intrusive, what they hear is not the lesson we are trying to share but the message that we don’t really respect that they are now grown.” Tone is important, and some of us can be tone deaf. But when we offer advice with the respect we would give any other adult, we open the door to a healthy adult-to-adult relationship.