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A Lack of Education

Nate Bagley

What’s the proper response to unwanted/unhelpful advice on how to raise your child? Recently, a stranger loudly chastised me in the store after my son slipped off a shopping cart. Then my mom-in-law (a real Bible pounder) said my 13-year-old daughter’s shorts and tank tops were “sexually inappropriate.” These buttinskies drive me crazy and ruin my day. Is there a way to express my dissatisfaction other than screaming, “Mind your own damn business”?

—Actually Minding My Business

Some days it would feel incredibly good to yell “Mind your own damn business!”—but I’m guessing you don’t want to get into fistfights at the grocery store, or deal with the inter-family fallout of screaming at your mother-in-law. However, this drive-by parenting advice is in no way helpful. While people who step in with their uninvited (and therefore unwanted and unhelpful) advice are sometimes well-meaning, they often do so because of their own anxiety.

Although it’s usually easiest to just ignore it, and then fantasize about the amazingly articulate way we could have shut ’em up for good, these experiences can leave us feeling violated. That being said, it’s okay, and sometimes even important for us to stick up for ourselves, our children, and our parenting. This can be done in non-attacking but firm ways. When this unsolicited criticism is “offered” in front of children, it can be confusing and they need to hear we have their backs and have things under control.

I had a similar situation to your grocery store scenario, in which a lady stopped me on the sidewalk because my two-year-old had fallen asleep in the carrier on my back, head flung back and arms out to the side like an airplane. She was worried that his “neck wasn’t supported,” and tried to start adjusting him on my back without even stopping to ask. (I’m under the assumption that two-year-olds don’t need their necks supported at all times—and no, I don’t like strangers touching my sleeping child without my permission). My favorite response is to look them in the eye, and firmly let them know I have the situation under control. Then walk away.

If you’re feeling an extra dose of kindness and generosity, you can thank them for their concern and wanting to make sure your children are safe and cared for, and then kindly explain how you’ve got it covered and that you don’t need any support or advice at that time. With mothers-in-law, or other family or friends, this is a lot more complicated. It may require initiating a hard conversation that very possibly may not go well—but will hopefully start building structure and clarifying some boundaries to make this less likely to happen in the future. It’s not easy... but you can do it!

Nate Bagley is a child and family counselor at Bridge City Counseling (bridgecitycounseling.com), where he serves as clinical director. He’s also a part-time stay-at-home dad to a kindergartner and toddler.