Smart people learn from their mistakes. Smarter people learn from the mistakes of others. The smartest people learn from good advice. A pithy observation. Also, it would seem, good advice. No one learns solely from his own experience. If he tried, he’d ﬁnd life a lot more frustrating, and perhaps a lot shorter. All of us learn, for better or worse, by others’ guidance. The aim is to get better at separating good guidance from bad.
Some years ago, I was a guest on a TV talk show about oppositional adolescents. A mother of rebellious teens challenged me, “Do you have any children?” “Yes,” I replied, “I have six.” (That was our family size at the time.) Not to be upstaged, she countered with, “Are any of them teenagers?” “Not yet,” I answered, prompting her “checkmate” expression. Clearly, she believed that to give someone helpful counsel, you need to have worn her shoes (or, in this case, raised teenaged kids).
Really? I am not a child of divorce, a troubled adolescent, addicted to drugs, or (as far as I am aware) mentally ill. Neither am I an octogenarian, atheist, or woman. If my practice were limited to subjects with which I have direct, personal experience, I would pretty much be limited to seeing clients who are middle-aged white males, married for thirty years to the same wife, with ten kids.
Am I saying that experience is not helpful for giving good advice? Of course not. Listening to the experiences of parents who have gone through similar situations, or talking to doctors and therapists who can present options you might not have thought of, makes good sense. But blindly following the advice of others is a bad idea—it can undercut your conﬁdence and authority as a parent. Here are a few examples.
Advice by Numbers
The journalist Edward R. Murrow said: “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world, doesn’t mean you are any wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”
Mr. Murrow might have trouble convincing people of his wisdom today. In our media-saturated society, numbers lend credibility. The more ears hearing a voice, the more trustworthy the source is perceived to be—whether that audience is reached through the airwaves, in print, or through cyberspace. Whether I’m talking only to my neighbor lady or to a million-plus like her, the size of the crowd holding a certain opinion of me (good or bad) is not in and of itself a reliable indicator of the soundness of my advice. Indeed, some of history’s most destructive ideas gained traction because they targeted and were absorbed by large audiences.
To quote Bishop Fulton Sheen: “Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong. Right is right even if nobody is right.” The words of highly rated TV parenting gurus are not secular gospel because they have a large market share.
Advice by letters
Educated doesn’t always mean smart. And yet, for many people, the number of letters following someone’s name exponentially increases the perceived soundness of his or her expertise. Don’t misread me. I am not impugning any and all advice backed by academic credentials. After all, that would include my own. I am saying that just because someone has a degree (or more than one) doesn’t automatically mean his perspective is sounder or more valuable than yours. Advanced letters don’t by themselves spell superior ideas. Throughout this book, I will use expert, specialist, and professional interchangeably, not necessarily to indicate the quality of their counsel, but to recognize their commonly perceived authority.
Advice by dire prediction
Expert advice often includes a warning: Ignore this, and you risk the consequences, often unseen and far away. For example, “Spank your child, and he will learn to solve problems through force, becoming more likely to abuse his own children.” Or, “Set your standards too high, and your children will rebel against them when older.” Or, “Insist that a teen attend church, and he will someday abandon religion.” When someone deﬁnitively predicts psychological peril in disregarding his words, you might want to question not only his predictions but also his words. Forecasting far down the road is marked by unforeseen curves and detours, especially if the road is travelled by young people. Too many miles of life can intervene.
Advice as a Resource, Not a Rule
But advice can be useful or useless, helpful or harmful, moral or immoral. How, then, should we separate that which is to be accepted from that to be rejected? Ask some questions. The most critical is this one: How does this advice mesh with my deepest held beliefs and morals?
Whatever an expert proposes is often colored by her personal views. She may little value what you most value for your child’s character. To illustrate, computer search “self-esteem.” The search results run into the tens of millions, as most experts rank self-esteem at or near the top of the personal well-being scale (though the research doesn’t support this). Search “childhood humility” and compare the number of results. Humility is just not a select topic for most experts.
What if you consider humility a more desirable quality than overemphasized self-image? Are you psychologically unschooled? Or are you teaching your own values, independent of an expert’s viewpoint? So much of “proper” parenting these days revolves around the misleading question: What is psychologically correct? The answer: In whose judgment?
Does the advice line up with your lived experience? Give it the squint test. If your reﬂective reaction to it is a half-closed, skeptical eye, your face may be telling your brain: Think this one over; don’t take it at face value.
If an idea sounds ﬂaky, it just might be. Does the advice square with common sense? You have a reservoir of knowledge about people and life. It’s called by various names: instincts, intuition, judgment, horse sense, gut. Someone somewhere once observed that sound advice often evokes a forehead slap that says, “Of course, I knew that!”
One mother I know regularly relied on her belly test. If something sat uneasy in her belly and she didn’t quite know why, she knew it needed more scrutiny. Her aim was to eventually put her gut sense into words. Then the kids would have something concrete to argue about. The adage is: It’s an ill wind that blows no good. Meaning, something has to be really bad to bring no beneﬁt whatsoever to anyone.
Some of the ﬁfty “expert opinions” in my book Advice Worth Ignoring: How Tuning Out the Experts Can Make You a Better Parent may strike you as nonsense. Some may sound sensible until scrutinized more closely. Much advice is more or less a mix: It can work for some parents with some kids under some circumstances.
It is not, however, a good guide for all, or even most, parents. Some advice is worth ignoring because it can cause more problems than it solves. It can mislead more than it leads. “But Dr. Ray,” you may rightly be asking, “isn’t Advice Worth Ignoring itself a piece of advice?” Why, yes, it is. So you must judge for yourself: Does anything I say have merit for your family with your morals? Does it make sense? Does it align with wisdom conﬁrmed through generations? If so, consider it. If not, ignore it.