Gracefully handle unwanted parenting advice

The LeBlancs from left Heidi, 9; Russ; Adam, 10; Rena; Morgan, 14; Miller, 2; Ian, 12; and Kate, 13; hand out at their home in New Freedom. (Photo by Kate Penn)

By BETH VRABEL
for Smart

Rena LeBlanc of New Freedom knows the drill when a stranger sits near her and her family in a doctor’s waiting room or stands behind them in line at a store.

Inevitably, one of two questions will bubble up: “Are all these children yours?” or “Shouldn’t they be in school?”

LeBlanc is the mother of six children, ranging from 2 to 14 years old. She homeschools all of them, except Morgan, 14, who entered public school this year, and Miller, 2, who is too young.

Unwanted advice seems to go hand-in-hand with parenting.

What parent hasn’t heard: “Where is her hat?” from a neighbor while taking a baby for a stroll?

We’ve all been on the receiving end of some variant of “shouldn’t you give the baby cereal?” “when are you going to stop breast-feeding?” or “why don’t you spank him when he throws a fit?”

For new moms, this unwanted advice can be crippling. For parents of special needs children, it can be heartbreaking.

Here are some tips from mamas who’ve been there, and who now manage unasked-for tips from strangers, family and friends with grace and skill — and sometimes, justified anger.

Explain instead of defend

LeBlanc has her response to inquiring strangers down pat: “They’re a blessing. They’re so much fun to have around, and I’ve had very good results from having them at home.”

“I don’t really defend as much as I try to explain,” she said.

Stacy Kunkel of Manchester Township can relate. Kunkel’s two sons, ages 16 and 12, are on the autism spectrum. She is president of Autism York, a support group of parents and professionals for families dealing with autism.

In the nine years since her sons were diagnosed, Kunkel has gotten stares and questions from strangers about her sons, especially when her youngest copes with odd vocalizations or flopping arms. Family and friends judged her for “labeling” her sons.

It hurt. Sometimes, it still does.

But, like LeBlanc, she now sees these times as opportunities to enlighten. “I feel like education in any amount possible in the given situation is the best remedy.” She has a small brochure with an overview on autism that she shares with family, encouraging them to come to her with questions.

She visits her sons’ classrooms to let teachers and classmates know the reason behind the behavior. She responds to strangers quickly.

“People will stare or say, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I generally will say very kindly that he has autism and this situation is difficult for him,” Kunkel said. “I would much rather have someone ask nicely than to walk away and form some opinion in their own head that’s incorrect.”

Being confident and kind is key for LeBlanc, as well.

“The biggest thing for my husband and I is that we believe wholeheartedly in what we are doing,” said LeBlanc, adding that family especially questioned their choice to continue having children and, at times, taking in families who needed help. “We were so OK with it that we said, ‘We are fine, and in time, you’ll see that we’re fine.’”

Responding to strangers

Family members might deserve education or explanation. But what about strangers? Why should parents take the time to respond politely to questions that are intrusive or rude?

Because the response is more for the children than the stranger, both LeBlanc and Kunkel say.

“First of all, I don’t think strangers have ill intentions. I think they’re more intrigued than against it (homeschooling or having a large family),” LeBlanc said. “My children are watching and listening. I don’t want my children to ever feel like they’re a burden to me.”

So LeBlanc stays positive. The question is an opportunity to open other people’s minds and, even more importantly, a chance to affirm her decisions to her children.

For both moms, this approach has translated to children who grow to advocate for themselves with the same confidence and grace.

“We’ve always been very open to (our sons) with their diagnosis and what it means,” Kunkel said. “They have differences and challenges, but so does everyone else.” Kunkel’s oldest son, who has Asperger’s, has written stories for school about his autism.

LeBlanc’s oldest daughter, who entered public school, fields questions from classmates about her many siblings by saying she enjoys being with them.

Ignorant inquiries

That isn’t to say that sometimes others’ ignorance isn’t too much to bear. Kunkel said she’ll never forget a time when she took her oldest son, then 11, to the grocery store. Because of Asperger’s, he tends to not have good body awareness. He doesn’t realize how close he is to others, Kunkel said. In a wide open aisle, her son bumped into a man.

Immediately, Kunkel apologized.

Even so, the man yelled at her son.

“Then my mother-hen instinct took over,” she said. While she says she would never use autism as an excuse, she did correct her son’s behavior right away and the man yelled regardless. She yelled back, “He has autism. What’s your excuse for being rude?”

The confrontation didn’t end there. The man continued to be defensive, yelling at them both. But Kunkel doesn’t regret standing up for her son.

It’s sort of like her approach for dealing with autism’s surprises.

Work small, step by step, symptom by symptom.

“You can’t fix everything at once,” she said.

Facebook fans weigh in

Our readers responded to this question: “Mamas (and Papas): How do you handle unwanted advice from friends and family? What about advice or criticism from strangers?”

“Depends on if I like them or not. It’s either a nod and a smile, or mind your business. From strangers? I definitely use the ‘f’ word more than I should with them.”

— Jasmine Knaub

“I listen and then I say nicely, ‘Well, I have my way and this is what I will be doing.’ If they have something good, then I would try it. But most of the time it’s MY WAY.”

— Debbie Doughty

“I have learned to let it roll off my shoulders. Our son has Lyme disease that has affected him neurologically and behaviorally. He looks like a normal 9-year-old boy on the outside but at times doesn’t behave that way. Most people have no concept of what he’s dealing with and wouldn’t understand even if I tried to explain it. At first, it was hard because people (including our pediatrician) would tell us if we were just more strict or consistent then he would change. Now I know that that is simply not true. I have gained more confidence in my parenting skills and really just don’t care what others think.”

– Amy Watkins

We then asked: What’s harder to deal with: Strangers giving “free” advice, or family members? Here’s what you had to say:

“Strangers for sure. It’s kind of expected from family, but strangers definitely need to mind their business.”

— Jasmine Knaub

“Family members are worse. They know what you’re dealing with yet still feel the need to lecture you or act like they know better.”

— Amy Watkins

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