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Giving Parental Advice: Is It A Good Idea?

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Dear Dr. Yael:

How do I express my opinion in an appropriate way?

There are some aspects of my sister’s parenting that I do not agree with, and feel that her methods in these areas are harming her children. I do not claim to be the best parent in the world, but I am confident that my instincts in my sister’s situation are correct.

For example, for many years my sister put her four-year-old son to bed at a late hour and he would not wake up for school the next day. She always had difficulty in the mornings, frustrating her. I knew that if she would put her son to bed 10 minutes earlier each night, she would eventually get him to bed at a decent hour and he would wake up earlier without difficulty.

Here’s my problem: I did not know if I should say anything to her and, if yes, what to say. My sister kept complaining to me, so eventually I bluntly said, “Why don’t you just put him to bed 10 minutes earlier each night?” At first she was annoyed with me for having given her advice, but after a few days she did as I suggested and, lo and behold, it worked.

I had very mixed feelings about what I had done. On the one hand, I saw that my sister got annoyed; on the other hand, she got over it quickly and my advice helped her and my nephew.

Recently, my sister has been talking to me about an issue she’s having with another one of her sons. He is overweight, and my sister worries about his emotional and physical wellbeing. Others are making fun of him in school because of this. I know that if my sister would completely change things in her home, making it a healthier environment, her son and all of her children would be greatly helped. But I recognize that this is a very sensitive topic, in addition to the fact that it is not easy to change eating habits.

This leaves me in a precarious situation, as I do not know what to do. While I want to help my nephew by sharing my ideas with my sister, I do not want to hurt her or get involved if she feels that it is none of my business. What would you suggest I do in this situation and in future ones?

A Loving Sister

Dear Loving Sister:

Thank you for your interesting letter. You are not alone in your dilemma as many siblings love and want to help each other but do not always know the best way to go about it. You are indeed in a precarious situation, with much depending on how – rather than what – you say.

There is definitely an art to communication. You can say almost anything if phrased correctly. For instance, in your current situation, you can try to make your point without directly telling your sister what to do.  This can be done for example, by telling your sister a story about your friend’s overweight daughter. Tell your sister that your friend took her daughter to a nutritionist who encouraged her to change the entire family’s lifestyle so the young girl would not feel like the “problem” and, at the same time, everyone would eat in a healthier way.

You can excitedly report that although this was a difficult challenge, your friend did as prescribed and her daughter lost a lot of weight. Nothing more need be said during this conversation. You can then tactfully change the subject, or you can answer any questions that your sister has. This tactic would relieve you of being considered bossy and giving your sister unsolicited advice. This may become complicated if your sister asks to speak to this friend, but you can always say that your friend wishes to remain anonymous.

If you are more comfortable speaking in a direct fashion with your sister, you can tell her – in a loving and non-confrontational way – that although the subject matter you wish to discuss with her might be considered out of line, you would like to help her deal with an issue regarding her son. Calmly and non-judgmentally state that you have heard about other people having utilized nutritionists to help them in similar situations that your son faces. With the right guidance, those seeking help were able to change the eating habits of their families – ultimately helping their overweight children.

It is essential that you not feel defensive or nervous during this discussion. You need to ensure that your expressed opinion does not come off as intrusive. However, if you feel nervous and do not think you can speak to your sister calmly, it would be prudent to share your feeling of nervousness with her, showing her that you love her and would never want to hurt her. Being honest about your feelings can only help the situation. And make sure that you do not lose sight of the fact that it’s your sister’s needs – not yours – that must be addressed.

Weigh the pros and cons of the specifics of what you want to say, always remembering that your goal is to be helpful. After all, no one likes being told what to do.

Parenting is often a sensitive topic. We all strive to be good parents on our own while many are consumed by “Jewish guilt” for never being good enough. Thus, hearing parenting advice from a sibling or friend can often be difficult to accept. So when advice is given by relaying a story about a friend as opposed to a personal experience, the counsel is likely to be accepted more readily.

If a more direct approach is warranted, be extremely sensitive and say as little as possible while getting your point across. Take notice that in my aforementioned example, the sister did not mention that her overweight child would be helped. This was purposely done because no one wants to hear that his or her child has problems or is being labeled. Even if we label our children or complain about them, it is still very painful to hear someone else say the same thing about them. Hence the need to be very careful with your tone and lack of unsolicited mussar.

Bottom line: make your case sweet and simple, and then change topics to avoid continuing to talk about a painful subject. Hatzlachah!

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