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Giving Advice
Mom with a View

Giving Advice

You’re only qualified to give advice when you recognize how little you really know.


I once went to a parenting class led by a mother of very young children. Someone with slightly older kids had a question about discipline. “You just tell them no,” replied the teacher. Since I was already the mother of teenagers, I could only shake my head in mute disbelief. “Just tell them no? If only…”

But before condemning this (still) naive mother, I thought back to myself at that age. In my 20’s everything seemed so simple. The world was black and white. I had an answer to every question. And I probably also said “just tell them no” or something equally ridiculous like “Children are blank slates. You can shape them into whatever you want them to be.” Ha! I was free and easy with my advice because I knew it all.

With age came real wisdom -- the recognition that I actually know very little. Which is why I was surprised to discover the teaching in Ethics of Our Fathers that suggests that 50 is the age for advice. When I turned 50 (we won’t specify exactly how many years ago that was!), I read that idea and scratched my head.

“The age for advice? But I know less now than I ever did. How can I possibly give advice?”

“Maybe that’s why you can,” suggested my husband who, though slightly younger than me (which he never tires of pointing out) is much wiser. “Maybe you’re only really qualified to give advice when you truly recognize how little you know.”

Giving advice is a very serious responsibility.

The paradox actually makes sense. Giving advice is a very serious responsibility. I think few of us recognize the impact our words can have. People are frequently quoting back to me things I told them 20 years ago, words of which I have no memory (and sometimes don’t believe it’s possible I actually uttered them!) that affected their choices or their approach to certain situations. It’s frightening.

Every day on the radio there are talk show hosts freely dispensing advice to their listeners whose sole contact with them has been about 20 seconds of air time. Yet real lives and real life choices are at stake.

Therapists do it (although they have a little more time). Teachers do it. Rabbis do it. Spouses and friends do it also.

We all respond to situations described by others with well-intentioned suggestions even though our reaction is usually based on limited information and maybe not be well thought out. Nevertheless we proffer a definitive course of action to the confused supplicant.

This is not irresponsible only because we don’t have all the facts – or all the wisdom! – but also because we aren’t the ones who have to live with the consequences. Although we may have to help pick up the pieces…

If the wise person can, as the saying goes, learn from the mistakes of others then I make this suggestion (I was going to say “offer this advice” but I caught myself!): Listen carefully to your friend in need. Help them clarify the issues at stake. Try to be an impartial third party. Don’t offer an opinion.

And most of all, hold back on the advice. The choices they make should be theirs and theirs alone.

May 8, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) L.S., December 29, 2010 8:47 PM

RE: Medical Advice...I agree!

To the comment who wrote about medical advice: I agree with you 100%! It drives me crazy when rabbis and rebetzins try to give me advice about medications, etc. most rabbie have not gone to medical school and shoudl not give women advice about their reproductive health issues, birth control, etc. If you are not a doctor, nurse, physician assistant, etc, DO NOT give advice!

(9) Rachel, May 12, 2010 5:04 PM

If you're not a health care pro, DONT GIVE MEDICAL ADVICE

When recovering from a life-threatening illness, suddenly everyone was an "expert" on what I should do to get better. Never mind that my therapists & physicians were telling me otherwise; lots of people with no training in these fields were weighing in. If you have a sick friend and you're not a doctor, tell her you care about her and want to help. And then, if possibe, give her what she asks for. She'll get medicine, therapy, medical advice from her doctors -- from you she needs compassion, humor, a ride to an appointment, a home-cooked meal for her family, a good book to read -- the possibilities are many.

(8) Anonymous, May 12, 2010 3:49 AM

Excellent article!

Thank you so much for this truly thoughtful and useful article!

(7) yehudit levy, May 11, 2010 7:06 PM

Truly Miraculous!

An article about giving advice, without giving advice, on a Jewish website, written by a Jewish mother (no less) !

(6) Jennifer, May 11, 2010 3:25 PM

To add to what you said

Instead of offering advice, offer your experienes of what has worked for you. That way, the person can listen to information that may (or may not) apply in his situation, yet the final decision is his alone to make. That's what I was taught as a La Leche League leader. As you said, when we offer advice, we also take responsibility for the consequences of that advice, which may not always be good. Yet, when asked by others to share what worked for us in a specific situation, we are simply giving more information that may help the person make the decision that is best for himself. For instance, when asked what to do about a toddler tantrum, state some of the ideas that have worked for you. That way, the parent is free to choose one of those solutions; perhaps what you say will lead the person to another path that works. That way, you're widening the scope of possibilities to solve the problem, yet you aren't making the decision for the other person.

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