Friday, February 21, 2020

Support vs. Advice

This Times article argues that when teenagers come to their parent to talk about problems, the last thing they want is advice:
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.

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. . . .
And what might that be?
Adolescents, just like adults, may find the best relief from simply articulating their worries and concerns. . . .

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.
We've all encountered these ideas before; it is a clich├ęd 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.

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.


David said...

FWIW, here are a few reactions:

The scene where a person gets advice is a kind of trope in medieval literature and chronicles; documentary records also indicate people did things like that in real life. But such scenes are really rather formalized, lines of superiority and inferiority are clear, and the questions asked are almost always practical. "My neighbor is grazing his sheep in a field that is my family's by right--what do I do?" is not the same as "I thought someone was flirting with me, I asked them out, and they said no." Medieval advice scenes, in my experience, are more like consulting a lawyer or a doctor in our world--also a much more formalized scene than complaining to a friend or parent.

Parent-child relationships in the modern world were quite different than those in the medieval. I don't agree with the Aries thesis that children were little adults and "they had no concept of childhood." Saints' lives are full of the idea that children play and act like children, which is what makes the toddler saint who prefers church special. But a child who came complaining to his parent about romantic rejection or a harsh schoolmaster was likely to get a beating, and to be told to toughen up (if male) or stay home and don't talk to anyone (if female).

Yes, I think there is some idea about personal uniqueness; but if that applied across the board, in all situations, our bookstore shelves wouldn't groan with books of advice.

I think part of the issue is we do encourage tenderness in parent-child relations in a way past western societies did not. I think that's a good thing.

Between teens and parents, however, there are also complex issues of status that are not unlike those that medieval people found challenging. Feuds could start over where people sat in church, and a king could declare one of his lords a contumacious rebel if they left his court without taking leave. Moderns often look at these situations and snicker, or try to figure out what the conflicts were "really" about. But negotiating status and behavior between near-equals is a problem, IMHO, in all human societies.

JustPeachy said...

This resonates. One of the joys of getting older has been the realization-- and the comfort it brings-- that I am not important, that I will never be able to play the social hierarchy game, and that the things that've happened to me are far from unique. I no longer feel like I have to hide things that are embarrassing. I've learned instead to mine them for humorous anecdotes. Life is so much easier if I start from the premise that I am so ridiculous a figure that pretending to have any dignity or social status at all would be like a duck wearing stilts. Claim the fart loudly (even if it wasn't yours)! It takes the pressure off everyone else.

David said...


Lol. I've long tried to adopt the same approach, but, to my shame, I'm still quite sensitive to slights, especially subtle ones. I'm sure this reflects my deep insecurity and so forth, but I like to think it also comes from growing up in the South, which schooled me in the ways of southern white women, who are very good at sly digs along the lines of "Well, bless your heart!"

John said...

@David - It's true that most of what we know about advice giving in the past concerns formal scenes. But there is still stuff like Castiglione cautioning people to have a friend read their poetry before they publish. In the Hagakure there is something about clothes, like, a Samurai should never wear trendy clothes to court without consulting his friends to make sure they are appropriate.

And I can't remember anyone before 1750 giving advice along the lines of "Just be yourself! to hell with what the world thinks!"

David said...

My experience is that the import of a lot of religious tracts was precisely "to hell with what the world thinks!" Of course, they had a very specific idea of the self they wanted to be "yourself." Neverthless, the schtick of a lot of both Christian and Islamic hagiography was defiance of family, social convention, and propriety.

Occasionally one can find this outside religious contexts as well. I'm thinking of the chivalric biography of a German knight who jousted around Europe wearing women's clothing. Never read it, though.

That Castiglione advice sounds very conventional and formal to me, as does the passage in Hagakure. One finds similar things in the Gulistan and other medieval Persian books of advice: dress cautiously, don't speak up lest you be made fun of, etc., etc. And, to repeat more or less what I said before, today there's no shortage of dress for success books, how to be interviewed books, and so on.

My point was that rejecting or accepting advice is first and foremost about status as it relates to social interaction. I'm sure all our pre-modern authors would be very aware of status when giving or seeking advice. I doubt Castiglione would ask his servant, or his parents, what they thought of his poetry.

John said...

It occurs to me now that Rumi said "just be yourself" in a hundred different ways.

G. Verloren said...

Good discussion here, but there's a particular point that hasn't been raised yet:

There's a difference between someone talking about their problems, and someone asking for advice, and very often that gets missed.

This isn't just a parent / child issue - it happens between friends, spouses, and all other sorts. If someone comes to you with a problem that clearly has them very upset, but they don't specifically ask for your advice, don't give advice.

Let them unburden themselves, actively listen to what they are saying, commiserate with them, show that you understand and sympathise with them and will be there for them if they need - but don't try to fix the problem unless they want help.

Once you've done all that, once they've vented their frustrations and been reassured that you've heard them and care about them and sympathize with their problems, you could - if you feel compelled - ask them if they want advice. But they need to feel like they have the option to decline your offer, and you need to drop the subject and leave it alone if they say no.

I feel this is the heart of the issue. Kids go to their parents looking for reassurance and validation, not advice. Giving them advice instead of reassurance and validation is just going to make them feel like you don't understand them or their problems, even if your advice is good. It's irrational, but that's life.

Wait for them to ask for advice, or at the very least ask if they want it after their more immediate emotional needs have been tended to. And if they say no, drop it and leave it alone. They can always comes back later and ask for advice then.

David said...


Well said.