Breaching the ‘Beautiful Wall’

 
 
 

HOW TO GIVE ADVICE TO YOUR ADULT CHILDREN

Curtis Seltzer

The best way to give advice to my 31-year-old daughter, I’ve discovered, is to arrange for her to give advice to me.

I trust in the power of inherent analogy. If I sense that she is crossways with a supervisor, for example, I might ask her for counsel on how to handle similar issues with my editors or clients. “How should I handle a screamer?” I ask. Leading with my problem may end up in sharing experiences that help with hers.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are three types of adult-children: those who accept advice from their parents—without eye-rolling; those who reject all advice based on principle or experience; and those who sometimes listen and sometimes don’t.

I was squarely in the second group with my parents. My daughter lives in the third group, with a pronounced lean toward the second. She is wiser than I was—and got wise sooner.

Parents understand the full complexity of the phrase “adult-children.” They are both full-fledged grown-ups—and our kids. As their parents, we drag along our own childhoods, with theirs. Together, we make family history.

One legacy of these connections is that every molehill of faulty advice we have given early on is more pronounced in a child’s memory than the Himalayas of good advice we’ve built. No adult-child forgets instructions offered in the seventh grade, such as:

“Dribble!” shouted from the crowded stands when she should have passed; “Pass!” when she should have shot;

“Shoot!” when she should have dribbled.

Neither we nor our adult-children can unpack our shared past or forget it. We must accept that current advice is tainted before our next declarative sentence is completed. Parents need to understand that our advice must breach the beautiful wall our kids have built on our shared border. We originate migrant advisories, then find ourselves paying for the barrier our kids have erected to keep us out.

We want our kids to be independent. We want them to acquire good judgment over time, which is usually built on small failures. Accept their mistakes as the normal price paid for growing up. To the extent we can, our job is keep the mistakes small.

Within this fraught background, what ways are available for well-intentioned parents (clueless, though we may be) to provide experience-based advice to skeptical offspring with a remote chance that it might be considered on its merits?

Show, don’t tell. One time, for example, a friend brought her brilliant 15-year-old Manhattan son to my farm for a week of hands-in-the dirt, boot camp. I told him how to work safely with tools. He listened politely and said he understood, but I could see he wasn’t incorporating what I wanted him to understand. After telling him to check his tools before using them, I gave him a mattock with a loose head. The first time he swung it, the head slipped down and struck his hand—not hard enough to injure, but hard enough to make the point. He will remember that.

Don’t attack the beautiful wall directly. Parents should never charge the adult-child’s pending choice frontally. The wise-but-marginalized parent should slip in advice from around the edges. No face-to-face confrontations. No labored phone conversations. No Tweets. No forwarding self-help emails. Embrace over, under and around.

Sometimes, however, you can’t avoid a one-to-one conversation. In these dangerous waters, consider sailing in to port on an unexpected tack. Let’s say the guy she brings home for marital inspection is totally wrong—in your opinion. Start the conversation by saying what you like about him—he ties a nice shoelace, for instance. Then slide into an enthusiastic tally of his few downsides.

Never try to get her to dump the bum in one sitting. Buy time. Keep communication open, but don’t bring up the subject with metronomic regularity. (That’s called nagging.) Eat this unpalatable elephant one bite at a time. Nibbling eventually eliminates the problem. Nagging only strengthens its defenses.

Don’t press for immediate agreement. You’re looking for a low simmer of acknowledgement, not a rolling boil. Parents have to be patient once the child drifts into adulthood. The idea is for the parent to keep planting seeds of your own credibility in hope the adult-child will harvest your good judgment subconsciously when it’s needed.

You might be able to build credibility by deliberately offering a couple of obvious dumb ideas she will immediately reject in advance of the one good idea you’re really pushing. Your gem will shine in comparison. (This, of course, requires a level of grasp far beyond my reach.) Let her make little mistakes on little things. Sacrifice pawns in order to capture the queen.

Trust in convergence. As you and your child get older, the gap begins to close; your experiences overlap more and more. By 30, most adult-children have had at least one boss they can’t abide (not counting you), gone through at least one break up and had a couple of successes and disappointments—just like you. It’s a lot easier for a 30-year-old to take advice from a 60-year-old than it is for a 16-year-old to take advice from a 40-year-old.

Don’t expect acknowledgement or gratitude. Parental advice taken is one of those things in life that is its own reward. Don’t press for thanks.

Never claim credit for saying something smart, wise, prudent or helpful. Give credit away before you earn it. And never, ever, say, “I told you so!” By the time you want to say these toxic words, it’s too late to make things right. Try these sentences instead:
“I’m sending you $5,000 in today’s mail.”
“Here’s the name of the lawyer I would use.”
“Stuff happens; welcome to the club.”

When ’The Big One’ comes, be honest. Sometimes, you have to parent up. If she wants to marry a toad, call a toad a toad. But smart honesty involves some dishonesty:
“Well, he’s not as big a toad as the guy before him.”
“I’m sure he’d do better if you can afford to hire a nanny.”

So what do you do when you’re presented with a bad done-deal?
Accept it while giving them space to get out. Don’t fence them in with being judgmental. Don’t issue ultimatums. Don’t snipe. Help pick up the pieces if it comes to that.

You can always offer to pay for a one-way ticket to Greenland—and throw in a fur hat with ear flaps. That, I think, is called “incentivizing a solution.”


Curtis Seltzer is a writer who operates a cattle-and-timber farm in Blue Grass, Virginia. His novel, The Point of the Pick, should be out by June. www.curtis-seltzer.com.