'Tis the Season … Handling Unwanted Parenting Advice With Grace
You’ve packed the car or dragged an unbelievable amount of baby gear to a bus, plane, or train. Whether you’re going around the block or across the country, holiday visits are work. And (spoiler alert) once you arrive, exhausted, it’s possible your trip will also include “helpful” suggestions about your child or your parenting that are anything but.
If this happens, you’re not alone. According to ZERO TO THREE’s Tuning In Survey, nearly 9 in 10 parents feel judged some or all the time!
Friends and family love us and (mostly) have our best interests in mind when they offer advice. But when you are up to here with ideas and suggestions, read on for ideas of what to do—instead of channeling your inner-baby and flinging mashed potatoes.
Insider Tip #1: You don’t have to engage.
One of the best things about being an adult is that you don’t have to make everybody happy. Your big job as a parent is to keep your child safe, secure, and loved—in the best ways you know how. There are lots of ways to be a good parent, and only you can decide what works for your child and your family. Some moms breastfeed exclusively; some families bottle-feed exclusively; some do a combo. What’s the most important thing? Babies are fed. The great thing is that you don’t have to debate, justify or explain your choices to anyone. You can just use the all-purpose response: That’s an interesting perspective/idea/suggestion. I’ll think about it. (Or: Thanks, but right now, X is working for us.)
Insider Tip #2: When the going gets rough, take a break.
Being a parent is a work in progress—you make mistakes, get up the next morning, and try again. It’s a big enough job without worrying about creating a perfect Instagram-worthy performance for everyone from well-meaning family members to random strangers. It’s OK to say, We’re going to hang out in our room/take a family walk/make a homemade raft and float away. Remember, even young babies can sense and respond to tension and anger in their caregivers, so taking a break sometimes helps everyone feel better, baby included!
Insider Tip #3: You can be clear (and kind) about your boundaries.
Grandparents may feel connected to the child-rearing approaches they used with you when you were a child—after all, you turned out great! Sometimes these ideas are good ones—like when the grandparents pull out your old wooden blocks so toddlers are occupied while the adults baste and stuff. And sometimes these ideas (like spanking as a discipline technique, for example) have been found, through research, to be harmful to children.
What to try in these moments? It can help to acknowledge the good parts (You and Dad gave us a great childhood), while acknowledging that you may choose a different parenting path (But we need to find our own way as parents. Sometimes that means we may make different choices than you did, and I hope we can count on your support while we discover what works for our family.) You can also check out and share ZERO TO THREE’s grandparenting resources, which highlight the caregiving approaches that have stayed the same across time, and the ones that have changed most (like feeding, discipline, and sleep).
Insider Tip #4: Reflect on whether you asked for help. And then share what actually will help.
Some advice on parenthood comes from a place of genuine caring. Maybe you sighed and said, “I don’t think he’s ever going to sleep through the night,” and your sister-in-law jumped in with ideas about what worked with her two kids. You can decide what you need and set the tone for the conversation: “Thanks so much for your advice. It’s helpful, but right now I just need someone to listen and tell me I’ll get through this.”
Insider Tip #5: Pick your battles.
Does the woman in the grocery store—the one you’ve never seen before and will probably never see again—really need to hear your answer to “What kind of parent would let her kids run up and down the aisles?” Um, no—keep walking. But when it comes to the people closest to you, especially if those people will be involved in your child’s care, it can be helpful to discuss some child-rearing decisions. “Our pediatrician told us it’s OK to let Jack leave the table when he decides he’s finished. The research shows that letting them decide when they are full helps kids avoid overeating later in life.” (See our grandparent resources for info on how to share the latest child development research.)
Insider Tip #6: Show yourself some love.
Some “advice” feels like criticism (“Are you sure that holding him so much isn’t going to make him spoiled?”). In those moments, take a deep breath and send yourself some self-compassion. Pause for a few seconds to notice and name your feelings (stress, frustration, and yes, sometimes vulnerability). Exhale and repeat to yourself: “He’s a baby. Everything is new and overwhelming. We’re all doing the best we can.” Then roll on, knowing that your best is always good enough for your baby. (See our mindfulness resources for more parent tips.)
Insider Tip #7: Use your humor light-saber.
Humor can defuse—and distract—during tense situations. Nichole, mom to 15-month-old Callie, remembers that her daughter at 9 months cried and screamed when her grandfather tried to hold her. Callie hadn’t seen her grandfather for months and was feeling fearful, but her grandmother asked, “Oh, doesn’t the baby know her grandfather loves her?” Nichole said that when she joked, “Callie’s allergic to beards,” it broke the tension and allowed her to explain that Callie needs time to warm up to people she doesn’t see every day. Nichole made sure to include her dad in playtime later that day and soon granddad and grandbaby were cuddled up with a board book.
About Baby Steps
This article was featured in Baby Steps, a ZERO TO THREE newsletter for parents and caregivers. Each issue offers science-based information on a topic of interest to parents and caregivers of young children—from sleep to challenging behaviors, and everything in between.
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