The unsolicited wisdom of parenting advice

The unsolicited wisdom of parenting advice

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John had the miles-away stare, while Alissa poured a wall of words to the next table’s occupants. He had probably heard it all before. While he couldn’t hit mute or change the station with some magic spouse remote control, he didn’t have to listen closely.

She wasn’t talking to him anyway. She was directing her word waterfall at Linda, the five-months pregnant woman eating at the next table. She suggested parenting websites and shared advice on where to find the best strollers at the lowest price. She even suggested the name of a villa in Italy they “had to visit” before they became parents because it was the perfect final trip for a family of two.

Linda’s husband, Victor, slowly ate his mahimahi, nodding the few times Alissa looked at him. This was a woman-to-woman conversation.

My son and I observed these couples we didn’t know from a bench outside a restaurant as we waited for our table.

What is it about expectant parents and newborn babies that turns so many people into authority figures on that unlicensed job known as parenting, dispensing free advice about what to expect, how to handle everything, what to buy and what lists to make?

When my wife was pregnant with our daughter and she walked around Manhattan, people used to go out of their way to find out if she was having a boy or a girl: “Oh, honey, you’re carrying more in your back, so it must be a girl.” Then these strangers would share their thoughts on the best place to buy clothing, the ideal kindergarten in the area and the things she should do to prepare for the baby’s arrival.

The positive side of all this unsolicited wisdom is that it shows that people have a sense of community: They want to help and they see a newborn and a new parent as people in need. Birds do it, too. I’ve heard that birds flying through a forest, minding their own business, will sometimes feed a hungry bird demanding food in a nest.

There is a magic that surrounds a new life. This small person inside the bigger person could become anything: a president, a senator, a doctor, an astronaut, a teacher. While this is all true, it’s also a time when adults make that abrupt transition from one world to another, when everything comes within the context of your role as a parent.

The downside of some of that advice is that it can be worth what we pay for it.

“Buy only pink clothes for your daughter, because she’ll wind up liking pink anyway.”

“Feed your son from the floor so he gets sick now and develops a stronger immune system.”

Once a baby is born, there are parents who absolutely know better and seem to see you as younger, nervous, anxious, inexperienced version of themselves. You are the comedy to their reality, the ridiculous to their rational and the neurotic to their well-balanced lifestyles.

“She’ll be fine going outside in 40 degrees in a T-shirt. Trust me, nothing bad will happen.”

As parents, we have every right to worry about whatever is important to us, to take whatever advice works for us and discard the rest.

There’s a kicker to the story about the couples at the restaurant. While sharing advice about parenting, Alissa sat next to her 2-year old daughter for close to half an hour. Not once did she speak to, or look at, her own little girl, who disappeared into a video game during the meal.

Parents giving parental advice are not always perfect themselves.