Advice-giving, Aging Parents & Adult Children

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My parents and me.

Advice-giving can trip up the elder parent – adult child relationship and even cause painful divisions between parent and child.

My mother will ask me a question and the answer is fairly straightforward, but then I’ll keep on answering, advising, really. At other times, I offer unsolicited advice about one thing or another. Usually my mother listens, but it’s not uncommon for her to give me the aggravated look that she used when I was five years old and not following her directions. It’s miraculous that my parents, while momentarily irritated with me, are quick to forgive and, yes, even offer me their own advice. We trust one another, and that’s key.

I know that I should be better about offering too much advice, but it’s hard.

A thoughtful article, The Gift of Presence, the Perils of Advice, posted at Krista Tippett’s On Being website, has encouraged me to think about the advice I so effortlessly offer my mom. In his essay, On Being columnist Parker J. Palmer writes that people who need support find it considerably more helpful when we concentrate on listening and asking questions and give advice only when a person insists that we give it. I need to get better at asking questions.

Palmer, who is equal parts teacher, writer, and philosopher (I’ve read several of his books), points out that many of us are “helper types,” so we try to fix things. But help is not always what our parents want or need. Interestingly, while we all gaze through the same aging prism, we look from opposite directions, each of us perceiving different things based on our age, location, and health. While we adult children do not intend to bother or hurt our parents with our ideas, many of us —  me included — don’t take the time to consider or discover how and why our aging parent – adult child perceptions are different. My parents may be growing older and a bit frailer, but their wisdom is still there.

UnknownIn his essay Palmer notes that the problem with unsolicited helping and fixing is that too little listening takes place. More than anything else, people, our parents included, who need support want companionship. For me as an adult child, this means trying to reduce the advice stumbling blocks (perils) and  adjust my “fixer” mentality, as much as possible. It’s a challenge — and sometimes the only thing I can do is just say I am sorry.

As I’ve reread and considered the On Being essay these past few days, I discovered a quote from one of Palmer’s books, The Courage to Teach — read some ears ago as a  faculty professional development activity at my school.

“Relational trust,” he wrote, “is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” In the aging parent – adult child partnership, relational trust is at  the core, ensuring that life moves forward with bonds that strengthen rather than fray.

Parker J. Palmer has written many other books. I’ve also read Healing the Heart of Democracy and The Active Life. He is a founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and he writes and lectures on education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. I’ve never heard him speak at a conference or meeting, but plenty of his presentations are available on YouTube.



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