Parents of adolescents are often confronted by a puzzling sequence of events. First, teenagers bring us their problems; second, we earnestly offer suggestions and solutions; and third, teenagers dismiss our ideas as irritating, irrelevant or both.And what might that be?
These moments feel ripe for connection. Why do they so often turn sour? Almost always, it’s because we’re not giving teenagers what they’re really looking for. . . .
Adolescents, just like adults, may find the best relief from simply articulating their worries and concerns. . . .We've all encountered these ideas before; it is a clichéd piece of advice for men on how to relate to women. Sometimes the idea is that giving advice is a male way to offer support, but I'm not sure contemporary men are much on being given advice, either. All of us seem to find advice, most of the time, at best useless and at worst cruelly undermining of our autonomy and competence.
Much of what bothers teenagers cannot be solved. We can’t fix their broken hearts, prevent their social dramas, or do anything about the fact that they have three huge tests scheduled for the same day. But having a problem is not nearly so bad as feeling utterly alone with it. . . .
As hard as it is for parents to stop ourselves, rushing in with suggestions carries the risk that you’ll be communicating the idea, “You can’t fix this, but I can.” This might strike our teenagers as a vote of no confidence when they are mainly seeking our reassurance that they can handle whatever life throws at them. . . .
More often than not, offering our teenagers an ear, empathy and encouragement gives them what they came for.
This interests me because it is so contrary to what I have read about past societies. In every advice book I have ever read from medieval or Renaissance Europe, pre-Meiji Japan, or imperial China, the writer says, "when confronted with a problem, gather your friends and relations around you and ask for their advice." For a particularly delicate matter – say, whether your poems are too embarrassing to publish – you should consult only a few close friends. But you should never make any decision without soliciting advice.
These books were of course written for wealthy, prominent people who led large households or whole communities (or people who hoped to end up in such positions) and what such people decided might affect many lives. Obviously a great lord should seek advice from his councillors before making a retaliatory raid on an enemy, or in arranging a political marriage. But I do not have the impression that people of lower status acted any differently. Everywhere you encounter the basic rule: don't make decisions on your own. Ask for advice, and follow it.
I have the impression that this is a significant difference between us and our ancestors. But how significant?
Is it just a difference in the style of interactions, that is, medieval people supported each other by offering advice, while we offer "active listening," and the underlying psychological process is the same?
Maybe, but I think it is deeper than that. I think we see ourselves as much more unique, and our lives as more unique, than past people did. Moderns seem to respond to advice with "You don't understand me! No one else can possibly understand what I'm going through!" Whereas past people seemed to believe that our lives are similar enough that in fact others can understand our situations and therefore offer helpful advice.
This may be related to rapid technological and social change; my advice on how to find dates on Tinder would hardly be of any use to the young people in my house. Our world is more diverse, with more different kinds of people and interactions, so your situation may in fact be highly unusual.
But I think it is fundamentally about how we construct our egos. We are very into being unique. ("Everyone is special in their own way.") It is important to us that we navigate our own paths, rather than those marked out for us by "society." Advice feels to us like an attack on the autonomy we strive for.
Personally I think we are wrong in this, and most people would do better soliciting some advice before they act. Most of our lives are not really unique, and most of what we do has been done by millions of others. Other people do understand. It seems to be the modern condition that it hurts to acknowledge this, and thus that needing advice is a painful sort of failure.