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Breaking the taboo: how to give good parenting advice image

Breaking the taboo: how to give good parenting advice

Have you ever felt you needed to give advice to another parent but just haven’t known how to do it well? Harriet Connor gives insightful and practical tips that will make for thoughtful, helpful and encouraging conversations.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of unwanted parenting advice—when a casual comment lands like a brick on your already tender conscience. But what happens when you’re on the other side—when you see someone you care about making parenting decisions you think they’ll come to regret?

In a recent article, Jon Thorpe observed that parenting has become a taboo topic in our churches. We are so afraid of offending or hurting other people that we resort to a polite silence. 

But parenting is not just a matter of private preference—we can’t just shrug and say, ‘Each to their own’. No, our parenting is much more significant than this, because it is an expression of our discipleship. The decisions we make regarding our children can reveal where our treasure truly lies. Whatever we prioritise in our children’s lives—whether their happiness, their achievements, or their growth in godliness—shows what we value most.

In the community of faith, we all need someone who cares enough to ask us how we are travelling. We need accountability in every aspect of our discipleship, including our parenting. Sometimes, we will be the one who needs to listen; but sometimes, we will be the one who needs to speak.

But how can we offer parenting advice without laying a heavy burden on people? How can we give advice that builds others up rather than tearing them down?

1. Check your motives

Often we want to give parenting advice because it makes us feel good. We feel wiser and more mature than our friend, because we can see the mistakes they are making. But good parenting advice springs from a heart of love, not pride; it comes from a genuine desire to see our friend’s family flourish.

2. Check if they are coping

The way we parent can’t be separated from our overall wellbeing—our mental health and the health of our relationships. If someone you care about is making poor parenting decisions, it could be a signal that not all is well. Health or relationship problems can drain off our emotional energy, leaving us running on empty when it comes to our kids.

Before giving any advice, we need to find out if our friend is coping. If they are struggling with anxiety, depression or marriage problems, they may need professional help. If they are simply feeling overwhelmed, some practical help—a meal or some babysitting—might do more good for their parenting than any advice ever could.

3. Get to know what drives their parenting

When it comes to giving parenting advice, our first impressions are not enough to go on: there is a big difference between a bad week and bad parenting! It’s only as we spend time with someone that we can begin to understand why they relate to their children in a particular way. It’s good to ask questions, rather than assume you know the whole picture.

For example, I once knew a mum who found it really hard to let her pre-schooler experience any disappointment or discomfort—she was always quick to step in and fix things. But as I got to know her, she explained why: her son had been born very premature, and she still tended to see him as fragile and in need of protection. My friend knew that her parenting was not ideal, but it was shaped by some strong—and very understandable—emotional forces.

4. Help them clarify their vision and values

Most parenting problems arise because we let our immediate needs and desires override our long-term goals. We want some peace and quiet, so we just give in to the whining. We need to get something done, so we just turn on the flashing screen again. We need to hurry, so we don’t stop to teach our children how to do things themselves. We want our kids to like us, so we don’t set any boundaries. We need to get everyone to bed, so we skip over prayer and Bible reading again.

When we notice bad habits forming (in our own family or someone else’s), it can help to stop and clarify our vision. We can ask questions like: What kind of values do you want to characterise your family? What kind of adults are you seeking to raise? What are the most important lessons and skills you want your children to learn?

As Christians, our answers will be shaped by God’s vision for families. According to the Bible, parents bear the primary responsibility for helping their children to reach physical and moral maturity—to become people who honour God, live well in his creation and love others, as they were created to do. 

At a time when we were struggling as parents, a wise friend suggested that we discuss and write down our family’s values. Looking back, I’m sure she could see the ‘rookie errors’ we were making. But rather than simply telling us what to do, she gently empowered us to come to those conclusions ourselves.

5. Make observations with empathy

When we are in the thick of raising children, it can be hard to see our situation objectively. Often we are just dragging ourselves through to bedtime each day. So it can be helpful when someone outside the family gives us some honest feedback.

Often, the gentlest way to make these observations is by empathising with your friend’s dilemma. Most parents already know where their parenting is falling short of their ideals. When we empathise, we make room for an honest conversation; when we judge, the other person raises their defences.

For example, we could say things like: ‘It breaks your heart to see them unhappy, doesn’t it?’ ‘It’s hard to be consistent when you’re tired, isn’t it?’ Or ‘It takes a lot of effort to teach kids to do chores, doesn’t it?’ Or ‘It’s hard when sport clashes with church, isn’t it?’

At this point, we can help our friend to see where their day-to-day parenting decisions are undermining their long-term vision, without acting as if we’re above those kind of mistakes ourselves.

6. Help them make a plan

Next, we can help our friend to decide on some concrete steps for realigning their parenting with their vision and values. We can make some suggestions based on our own experiences and observations. We can share how we have responded when faced with a similar predicament.

When someone points out our parenting flaws—what we shouldn’t be doing—it can be disheartening. But when someone offers us a positive alternative—what we could be doing instead—it can be inspiring.

A non-threatening way of making these suggestions is by asking the question, ‘Would you consider trying …?’ or ‘What do you think would happen if you …’

7. Encourage them with the gospel

We all come to parenthood with ideals—we have a mental image of the kind of parents we want to be. As soon as we fall short, we can slide into despair, thinking that we are the worst parents in the world and our children will never recover.

As we give and receive parenting advice, let’s encourage each other with these truths from God’s word:

  • All human children have human parents. But God still entrusts them into our care.
  • We have a gracious heavenly Father who forgives us and fills us with his Spirit.
  • We have a powerful heavenly Father who uses all things, even our parenting mistakes, for good.
  • Our children can learn from our imperfections: they learn how to be honest about sin, how to ask for forgiveness, and how to persevere in God’s strength.
  • Our children can learn from an imperfect childhood: they learn to be resilient, patient and compassionate, they learn to forgive others.
  • It’s never too late to make a fresh start.

In the community of faith, we have the blessing of walking alongside others as we follow Jesus together. Through humble and loving conversations about parenting, we can spur one another on to keep leading our children on the narrow road.

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