Advice and dissent

Got something to say to another parent? Tread softly.


Jill S. Browning


It was the best $15 she'd ever spent.

Tired of screaming, begging and pleading with her daughters, ages 8 and 14, to behave, mom Rita Krueger of Clarendon Hills attended a parenting workshop to learn ways to be more effective. At the workshop, she learned how her pushover parenting style might be hindering her quest for compliance.

Krueger says the information put her on the right track with her daughters. "They don't think mom's a screaming lunatic anymore," Krueger laughs.

Knowing that her best friend, Cecilia O'Neill of Elmhurst, was struggling with the same sort of rebellious behavior from her two boys, ages 10 and 15, Krueger bravely invited O'Neill to join her at the next workshop.

Was O'Neill offended?

"Absolutely not," she says. "Maybe because we are such best friends and we both really know where our weaknesses are and we talk about them." Rather than taking the invitation as criticism, she viewed it as a positive action she could take for a new perspective.

Krueger's move to approach her friend O'Neill is an exception to the usual social rule that we should remain mute when it comes to judging the parental decisions of others. She is close enough friends with O'Neill that she felt comfortable discussing her unruly boys and less-than-effective parenting style. But, experts say, most of the time it's best to think long and hard-and then think long and hard again-before sharing our thoughts about a parent's parenting skills.

Krueger knows that. Despite her enthusiasm for parenting classes, Krueger doesn't suggest to certain other friends that they attend. One session she enjoyed called "The top 10 mistakes even good parents make" rings through Krueger's brain every time she's around one of her girlfriends, since her kids frequently exhibit bratty behavior.

Even so, she knows her friend would be hurt, defensive and embarrassed if she admitted that things were less than perfect at home. "Not everyone wants to hear it-they think their parenting style is the greatest," says Krueger.

Is honesty the best policy?

Krueger felt comfortable suggesting O'Neill try a parenting makeover, but she has been wise to stay mute when dissecting the parenting techniques of other friends.

"It matters a lot how close the person is to you … and what your relationship can stand," says psychiatrist, psychologist and family therapist Dr. Art Nielsen of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

In addition to assessing your relationship with another parent, you need to evaluate the message. Nielsen says it's imperative to provide parents with information you believe they don't have but need. For example, if you know a kid is drinking, taking drugs or is suicidal, it's wrong not to share your concern with the parents. Before spilling the beans, Nielsen suggests asking yourself if you'd want to be on the receiving end of the news (which will help you determine if you're reporting facts rather than opinion or advice).

Parents who attend workshops often are looking for fresh ideas and new skills, says Dawn Lantero, a workshop speaker and author of S.P.L.A.S.H.: Practical Principles for Positive Parenting (S.P.L.A.S.H. stands for Structure, Patience, Love, Autonomy, Spirituality and Humor, although it's not in the title).

In her classes, Lantero urges parents to pay more positive attention to their kids versus noticing them only when they mess up. Also, she stresses consistency and following through on consequences. "Otherwise, you're training your child not to listen to you," she says.

Drop a hint, not a friend

When you're confident that a parent needs to hear the message, practice how to start the conversation. "Be very tentative … like you would with giving somebody advice on their outfit," says Nielsen. He suggests a gentle introduction. "You can say, 'I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but here are my observations about [fill in the blank],'" says Nielsen. "Then the conversation becomes more of a dialogue rather than a lecture."

Nielsen suggests another way to soften a message is by using research to bolster your observations-as in, "I don't know if you know this, but research shows that [blank]."

Lantero says you can also put the blame on yourself. So "you should try this … " becomes "I found when I was yelling too much, I tried …" She also recommends casually bringing up parenting books or television shows that you've found helpful in managing your own kids, like "Supernanny" or "Nanny 911."

If a friend's kids are out of control, host get-togethers at your own home-a place where you set the rules. "You're coming from a place where you possess a little bit more power because it's your environment," says Lantero.

When you blame the need for good behavior on house rules, you take the onus off yourself being the bad guy.

Where's the line?

If your observation about another kid doesn't pertain to his safety, whether to flap or bite your tongue becomes a serious shade of gray. "If it's purely the annoying type behavior, then it's more of a gut call," says Lantero.

Some of us, it seems, have more guts than others.

Three years ago during vacation, I bought some toy police cars to occupy my kids at a restaurant. To my horror, one of them flipped a previously unnoticed switch, causing the sirens to flash and blare. Before I could figure out how to stop the noise, my other two activated their toys' sirens. As my three 3-year-olds delighted, fellow diners were understandably irked. I confiscated and silenced the cars immediately.

"Great toys," a woman sneered. "Do you take those to church with you, too?"

I apologized profusely. The message through her sarcasm was received: These were inappropriate restaurant toys. I knew that. But she didn't have all the information: These new toys blindsided us with this terrific "feature."

According to Nielsen, this is exactly the problem with giving advice: You don't have all the information.

"You should approach giving advice to other parents about how to raise their kids the same as poking a group of sleeping cobras … with anxiety," says Nielsen, recalling a line from popular parenting author Anthony Wolfe.

Whether the topic is parenting, fashion or golf, Nielsen says that giving unsolicited advice is, mostly, the wrong thing to do.

For example, if you don't have an alliance with the other person (like that stranger with a screaming 2-year-old at the grocery store), you may be suggesting things they've tried many times before. You also have no idea what's happening in the parents' or child's lives.

"For all you know the kid's favorite uncle was just killed in a car wreck the day before, and then [a tantrum] is a very understandable and typical reaction," says Nielsen.

Lynn Yazbec, a Clarendon Hills mother of three girls, ages 4, 9 and 11, recalls seeing a distraught and inattentive dad at the grocery store. His kids were meandering up and down aisles and became scared when they couldn't locate their dad, so Yazbec led them back to him.

"The dad just needed someone else to take over for two minutes," she said. "We've all been there."

Lantero, whose passion is helping parents formulate discipline strategies, believes there are no bad kids, just parents who need better parenting skills.

"Parents who are dealing with children who are very badly behaved are often very overstressed parents and they need support," says Lantero. "That's when they need it the most." Both Lantero and Nielsen are fans of spending time with your friend, sans the kids, to commiserate how tough it is to be a parent.

The perfect parent

Does any parent who's not a professional have a right to advise others? Probably not, according to Nielsen.

"As a mental health person, it seems obvious to me what might be good," says Nielsen. "But I can tell you as a parent, that I have become much more humble about just how easy it is to pull off certain parenting moves on the kids."

"No parent is perfect and we all struggle at times," adds Lantero. "And that's why support and education are the key."

Jill S. Browning lives in Downers Grove with her husband and three 6-year-olds. If you see any of them behaving badly, please e-mail her at

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