My wife and I have a wonderful marriage. One cause of our bliss is that we have both learned to avoid giving the other person unwanted advice. I remember one early step in that learning process for me. We were coming home from a movie, and my wife was driving. I noticed that she was keeping the car in second gear when she clearly should have shifted to third, maybe even to fourth. Stupidly, I told her so. She didn’t say anything, but her curt manner of shifting and the silence I heard for the next few minutes spoke volumes. It said, among other things: “Look, buddy, I’ve been driving for years; I don’t need you to micromanage my driving. Did you really have to interrupt our conversation about the movie, right now, to tell me how to drive!” All that, just from my polite, “Sweetie, I think you should be in a higher gear here; you’d get better gas mileage that way and it would be easier on the engine.” I had to admit, as I thought about it, that if she had given similar advice to me, my unspoken reaction would have been about the same.
My wife and I are not the only people who generally dislike unsolicited advice. As part of my preparation to write this essay, I Googled “unsolicited advice” and found an Internet poll with this question: Do you generally like unsolicited advice? followed by three response choices: Yes, No, and Only if the right person gives it. When I last checked the poll, 847 people had responded, with 6% saying “Yes” (all of whom, I assume, came from another planet), 56% saying “No,” and 38% saying, “Only if the right person gives it.” Personally, I don’t think it’s just a matter of the right person; it’s also a matter of the right time and the right way. Advice from friends, lovers, relatives, bosses, subordinates, experts, novices, and strangers can all be equally odious, depending on when it is given and how.
Diabetics, in particular, are at risk for unsolicited advice. Any person with diabetes has heard versions of the question, Should you be eating that? You’ve probably been told, Don’t eat this because it has sugar. Or maybe, when your blood sugar is dropping, and you are sweating, shaking and about to pass out, your loved one has said (sympathetically) You’re taking too much insulin.
When my son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of nine, my late wife and I were already very familiar with the disease. My wife had type 1 diabetes, too. We decided together, with our son, that only he could control his diabetes. Right from the beginning he assumed full responsibility for it–testing, self-injections, figuring out his own food portions, modifying insulin doses, etc. He did a marvelous job of controlling, and I think that is partly because there was no pretense that anyone but he was in charge. We were glad to help, and we were supportive in whatever ways we could be, but the director of it all was him, not us. He’s now 42 and in good health.
In the case of an immediately, truly dangerous situation, related to diabetes or not, unsolicited advice may be welcome. If I’m stepping into the ocean, for example, and someone, anyone, comes over and advises me not to swim there because sharks were spotted there a few minutes age, I’m grateful. I hear this not so much as advice, but as useful, potentially life-saving information, which I didn’t know before. I’d feel even more grateful, though, without even the slightest tinge of annoyance, if the Good Samaritan had entirely omitted the advice part of the message (to not swim there) and just given me the information part (about the sharks). Then I’d feel that a decision to stay out of the water was entirely my own, based on my own capacity to think rationally, and was not in any way coerced. I wouldn’t, then, have even the slightest temptation to continue into the water just to prove that “I’ll do whatever I blankety blank well choose to do, thank you!
Why do we react this way to unsolicited advice? Why don’t we just accept it for what it often is–the other person’s genuine concern and desire to help? Others who have written on this question have suggested a number of reasonable answers. They suggest that the advice, justifiably or not, comes across to us as one-upmanship, or assertion of dominance, or criticism, or distrust, or failure to consider our own unique goals and priorities. I agree with all that, but I would add that the main, underlying answer has to do with our desire to protect our own freedom.
For good evolutionary reasons we human beings naturally crave freedom. We resist control from other people. We do this regardless of our age and regardless of whom it is who wants to control us. Married people resist control from their spouses; old people resist control from their middle-aged children; children of all ages resist control from their parents. And, of course, students resist control from their teachers, which is one reason why schools as we generally know them produce such poor results.
Unsolicited advice from loved ones can be especially threatening, because of our strong desire to please those persons. It’s hard to ignore advice from loved ones, because we implicitly fear that failure to follow it will signal lack of love or respect. At the same time, we don’t want to follow the advice, because we want to retain our autonomy. In fact, we especially don’t want to follow the advice of a loved one because, each time we do so, it feels like a step toward changing the relationship from one between equals to one of unbalanced power. By complying, we may be signaling our future willingness to subordinate ourselves to the other person’s will. “Yes, my dear, you are much smarter and more knowledgeable than I, so I’ll always do as you say.” Every act of compliance seems to tighten an imagined noose that the other has around our neck. The conflict between complying (to show our love) and not complying (to assert our freedom) creates frustration, and frustration leads to anger. And so, we feel more anger when a loved one tells us how to improve our driving–or our blood sugar levels, our diet, or whatever–than we do when a perfect stranger gives us such advice.
It’s easier for most people to understand the nature of this conflict when thinking about husband and wife than when thinking about parent and young child. The parent and child are in some ways obviously unequal. The parent is bigger, stronger, more knowledgeable about many aspects of the world, and has control of more resources. But yet, in another sense, the parent and child are equals. They are equally valuable as individuals. They are equally privy to their own strongly felt drives, needs, and goals. And children, although in many ways not as knowledgeable as adults, are a lot smarter than most adults give them credit for. Children recognize their dependence on adults, but at the same time experience a powerful drive to assert their independence. From an evolutionary perspective, this drive is no accident; it is what motivates children always toward taking those risks that they must take to grow up, to find their own paths, to take charge of their own lives.
And so, my unsolicited advice to you is that you should be as cautious about giving unsolicited advice to your children as you are about giving it to your spouse. The more you refrain from giving unsolicited advice, the more likely it will be that your children will ask you for advice when they need it and will follow that advice if it is reasonable. This may be especially true for children growing up with diabetes. In the end, the best manager of any chronic medical condition is the person who has that condition. Children who are allowed and trusted to manage their own diabetes are enlarged, not belittled, by their medical condition.
Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology; published articles on innovative teaching methods and alternative approaches to education; and is author of Psychology (Worth Publishers), an introductory college textbook now in its 6th edition. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current writing focuses primarily on the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long distance bicycling, kayaking, and back-woods skiing. Peter writes the blog Freedom to Learn, on Psychology Today, where a version of this essay originally appeared.
*The opinions expressed in this essay are the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions of ASweetLife.