Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mom's Advice

Two books I’ve read this past year (First Mothers by Bonnie Angelo and Posterity: Letters of Great Americans To Their Children by Dorie McCullough Lawson ***) have me thinking about the advice we give our children, so I decided to make a list of what my husband and I have shared with our three kids so far. I filled a notebook page in less than 15 minutes, and: 
-- Of the 30 comments I listed, 11 were directed to my kids when they were under age seven or eight, 11 during their elementary to pre-teen years, and eight during their teenage years.
-- Much of my advice was given in short sentences of six to eight words and, because of this, comes across as more a command or a directive.
At first, I was appalled at the commanding tone much of my “advice” seemed to take, but then realized it made sense. When my kids were young, I spent my days directing their actions in an effort to protect them and to teach them how to make good choices. As they grow older, they look to their peers and to society for direction as much as they look to me and my husband. They take more responsibility for their choices, yet they don’t want to make mistakes. But unsolicited advice?  Doesn’t work -- they respond best to our advice when they ask for it.

And there’s the rub. Waiting to be asked for advice is not easy. I jump in too quickly, I direct, I try to make everything “right.” Too often, my good intentions turn into arguments. But when I wait to be asked, the benefits are many: my tone turns softer, my comments include questions, my directives become conversations.

The process also seems to go more smoothly when I remember the advice my mom shared with me throughout high school and college:  “Just do the best that you can.”

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My Advice: From Directives to Conversations

Sing the ABCs while you brush.
Take a nap now, so you can stay up late tonight.
Stay in the backyard.
Keep your face in the water.
Put on clean underwear every day.

Look me in the eye.
No metal in the microwave.
Shake hands like you mean it.
You only get better if you practice.
Point the arrow away from your sister.

XYZ doesn’t have to be your favorite friend, but you have to be friendly to XYZ.
Whites with whites. Darks with darks.
Look left, right, and left again.
Nothing good happens after midnight.
There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness.

Sounds like you have several options.
That’s a decision you’ll have to make.
What did you decide to do?

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*** Book Notes

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans To Their Children is a compilation of correspondence written by 68 notable Americans including Sam Houston, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eleanor Roosevelt, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Lawson introduces each letter with a brief biography of its author and the purpose behind the correspondence. Many were written to children who were entering their teenager years or preparing to leave home for the first time.

First Mothers explores the lives of the 11 mothers who gave birth to America’s twentieth-century presidents (Sara Delano Roosevelt to Virginia Clinton Kelley). I referenced it, with examples of advice each shared with her son before or during his presidency, in my Mother’s Day journaling prompt for Literary Mama and encouraged readers to think about what advice they’d give their child if he/she were elected president of the United States. (My favorite: “Tell the truth, work hard, and don’t you dare be late for dinner.” Dorothy Ford.)