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The Perils Of Giving Advice: A Reader Reacts

Respler-Yael

Dear Readers:

The letter below is JW’s reaction to Anonymous’s October 11 letter, in which Anonymous complains that her brother and sister-in-law “are too soft with their children.” The children’s aunt sought to “help” the couple, with whom she was very close, raise their children by employing her techniques of complimenting, encouraging respect, and raising expectations. Following what Anonymous felt was a successful strategy, she reports that her brother and his wife became distant and cool. Anonymous asked for advice on how to repair the relationship, and I supplied her with several options.

JW’s letter is followed by my response.

Dear Dr. Yael:

I was surprised by Anonymous’s inability to understand why or how she messed up her relationship with her brother and sister-in-law. As adults and parents, her brother and sister-in-law have every right – unless they are beating, molesting, or torturing their children – to raise their children as they see fit. The question is: Did they seek her advice?

When children go to someone else’s home, they are subject to that home’s rules. In other words, it’s proper that just as Anonymous’s own children must follow the rules of her home, her brother’s children should do likewise.

However, giving unsolicited parenting advice to her brother and sister-in-law was unacceptable. She overstepped her bounds, and she displayed much arrogance by describing their subsequent coolness toward her as an act of immature behavior. How could she not know what caused their sudden distance from her? Her actions and advice told them that they didn’t know how to raise their children and as a child-rearing expert, she was showing them how to do it correctly.

I don’t understand why you suggested that something else might be going on. It’s been said “the road to gehennom is paved with good intentions.” A better saying is: “don’t give advice unless it’s asked for.”

JW

Dear JW:

Thank you for your letter. Individuals are generally very sensitive when it comes to parenting and how others think of them as parents. This sister definitely put herself in a precarious situation when she decided to give her brother and sister-in-law advice on this matter.

While I believe that we must be very careful when dispensing advice, I do not believe that we should never help our loved ones when seeing something we feel may potentially be harmful or negative. Without knowing all the details, you prematurely label this woman as displaying “much arrogance.” Perhaps this woman truly loves her brother and sister-in-law and wants the best for them. Maybe she saw something that she felt might be of future harm to them and their children.

Anonymous expressed her opinion, which could be accepted or rejected. But her simple offer of advice is not a reason to sever a relationship. Maybe it was presumptuous, but if she felt she could be helpful, some might see it as her responsibility to share her view. Please remember that people have disparate takes on the issue of receiving advice from others. While some may feel slighted at first, they may appreciate the advice in the future. Nevertheless, conversing with her brother and sister-in-law may help alleviate the pain they experienced.

You are correct by saying that people should not “give advice unless it’s asked for.” But if done correctly and with the right intentions, this can sometimes lead to a successful outcome. It is all about the manner in which the advice is given.

Your letter, which seems to reflect displeasure at Anonymous’s letter, and my response, is an example of problems I encounter in writing a column of this nature. As a result of dealing with its inevitable challenges, I try to supply many possible solutions. None of us know whether there are other issues going on in this relationship, issues that may have led to the brother and sister-in-law’s reaction. Thus, not knowing all the facts, you cannot be certain that it was the advice that cooled the once close relationship.

I believe that when you see people you love doing things that you can correct, you should mete out advice in a positive fashion if you feel the parties will be amenable. It appears that Anonymous followed this rule with feelings of love. Apparently, though, your take was correct, as the advice was not received positively.

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