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Can a non-parent give advice to parents?



After a long day at Disneyland, Ann’s brother and sister-in-law put their 5- and 6-year-olds to bed and let their “very, very cranky 8-year-old hang out and torture” everyone, recalls Ann (not her real name, for reasons that will become obvious).

“I suggested they put the boy to bed, as well, to put him — and all of us — out of his misery. My brother went off on me with, ‘Sis, until you have kids, do not tell me how to raise mine! You have no idea of the politics that exist with bedtimes and older versus younger children!’ I said, ‘If it’s about politics, aren’t you the president in this house?’”

The conversation did not grow more cordial. As for Ann? “Suffice to say, I never offered a parenting suggestion again.”

Good. Sort of. See, the problem is this: Parents, like most humans, hate hearing advice, especially when it comes to child rearing. That’s probably because, secretly, they worry they’re not doing it right. (I know I do.)

So when advice comes from someone who is not a parent, they can fairly explode with selfrighteousness: “You just cannot understand.” Sometimes I wonder whether it’s just an easy way of stabbing back at someone who has stabbed them — because advice often feels like criticism.

The real question is: Can childfree folks offer any worthwhile insights about parenting?

Of course! Pretty much anyone who has been around kids, as a teacher, coach or baby sitter — especially as a baby sitter — has gleaned some insights beyond “You’re spoiling your kids rotten.”

Before she had kids, a New Hampshire artist named Luann was a pre-K teacher. At one conference, a mom and dad were complaining that their daughter never obeyed. At that moment, the girl wandered in, and the teacher told her to sit in the corner or leave quietly. She left, obedient as a show dog. The parents were amazed.

The teacher explained a little to them about consequences and modeling behavior and this and that, and the parents left truly enlightened.

But then there are the times when a non-parent really does not get it. Gigi, a Chicago businesswoman, recalls one incident in particular before she had children: “I was visiting my friend who had a 5-year-old, and she had to give him medicine, and then she gave him candy afterwards, and I thought, ‘Oh, please! He should just learn how to take the medicine. It’s part of life!’”

A few years later, Gigi became a mom herself. “Sure enough, when my kids had to take bad medicine, I gave them candy, too, because it just makes life a little easier.”

It’s the whole “walk a mile in someone else’s bunny slippers” thing. However, whether or not a person has kids, all of us have been kids and had parents, making us all somewhat qualified to talk about child rearing.

But that should also make us shut up. Parent or not, most of us don’t like to be second-guessed. When we’re flailing and failing, the best thing anyone can give is not advice; it’s a helping hand.

And you don’t need to be a parent to have two of those.

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