We had a little get-together at my sister’s house this weekend so that the family could visit with two of my nieces who live out of town and their respective babies who are, of course, absolutely adorable. Listening to the chatter—and the opinionating by all—it was clear to me that sometimes you just need to know when to “shut up.”
I watched as another niece, Juliana Parker, a very talented up-and-coming singer/songwriter, was talking about her plans to move to New York with friends and her progress on launching her first songs.
“You should try a table instead of a nightstand.”
“Can you cook in the kitchen? What will you use for a table?”
“You should get drawers under your bed.”
“Are you sure you’ll be able to put together the IKEA furniture on your own? Maybe they should do it…maybe we should come and help…”
“You should re-record your video.”
“You should use the video anyway, even though it’s a year old and you could do better now. Artists always think they can do better.”
You should…you should…you should…
All of it was said out of pure love and the desire to help this young woman launch her new life and career. But as I watched her smile politely at every suggestion, I recognized that look all too well. It was the same look I get from my own kids when I offer too much “loving” yet unsolicited advice. Whether I’m just asking questions like, “Do you need me to come up the weekend before graduation to bring home a carload of stuff?” or providing my opinion when all they did was call to share something that happened that day.
Oftentimes we want to help a friend or family member avoid the challenges that we can foresee, but sometimes we forget that they haven’t asked for our opinions.
My niece went shopping with my sister-in-law for apartment furniture. She saw what she liked…has an idea of how she wants to set up her bedroom…and will work it out. She may make a mistake along the way. Then…she will learn and won’t make that mistake again. But she really doesn’t need every aunt, uncle, cousin and grandparent providing his/her opinion.
The same thing holds true for the oldsters.
My parents didn’t want advice from my siblings and me when it came to the choices they were making for my dad’s care after his stroke any more than my niece wanted feedback. One constant point of contention was my dad’s dietary choices—he wanted to eat hot dogs and chocolate. We encouraged him to make choices that would be better fuel for his healing and for his brain function. Guess what? He really didn’t care at that point. Hot dogs made him happy.
Then there was the time my post-stroke father drove himself for Chinese takeout. Somehow…some way…someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles thought that in spite of the fact that my father didn’t have much use of his left arm and couldn’t even close the car door himself, he was capable of driving. When Mom got home from work, she learned that he had taken himself out for a spin to pick up lunch. Seriously?!?!?! Not the choice we would have made, and she let him know it. But guess what—no one could tell my father what to do, and when he had his mind set on something, by golly, he did it. No opinions or advice or suggestions would have made any difference.
One more tale…
When another family member was ill last summer with a mysterious intestinal issue, I had a number of medical resources that could potentially help her. She was polite and listened to my suggestions—but truthfully, she had zero interest in my thoughts or contacts because she trusted and liked the doctors who were caring for her, even though it took them weeks to diagnose the problem. Her life. Her choice. My love, but not my decision. I had to respect her choices and step back.
It’s a funny thing to navigate. Knowing when to share and when to shhhhh. As I said above, it’s generally just because we care and want to help people avoid making mistakes or suffering.
Then again, who died and put us in charge of their lives and decisions? What is it that has us feel compelled to solve “their” problems? Some people are truly compulsive about offering unsolicited advice and suggestions at every turn. Do we really not trust others to do their own research and make their own decisions? Are we that compulsive that we can’t allow our family members to live their independent lives and our children to set up their homes differently from the ones they grew up in? Or is it simply easier to see and solve problems for others than it is to face our own decisions and challenges?
Either way, there is a time for help and a time to hush. The irony is that the older and wiser we get, the more we need to think before we speak. Ask questions rather than offer suggestions. Remind ourselves of how we feel when others invite themselves into our decisions. And remember that the reason we got so wise is because we had a lot of hard-learned lessons.
Don’t stop loving, and don’t stop caring. Just stop for a moment to check what’s really needed.