It happened again the other night: I was at a meeting, minding my own business, when a casual acquaintance leaped over the normal barriers of privacy and offered yet another dose of unsolicited advice about child rearing.
Unsolicited, heck; as soon as the first words left her pursed lips, I gave her my most forbidding scowl, trying to forestall her pearls of parental wisdom. But to no avail. One minute later, the deed done, I was left to struggle with one more reminder that I am possibly the most inadequate parent in the whole history of the human race.
So let me pose the question flat out: Why is it that people who normally observe basic, common-sense rules of privacy and politeness, totally abandon these principles when it comes to parceling out advice on parenting?
I'm not talking here about close friends or relatives, who, after all, have a vested interest in whether or not little Adorabella grows up to dye her hair purple and wear safety pins through her earlobes.
No, I'm talking about the kindly faced women in shopping malls who approach you and ask in sweet little voices if you are freezing your child intentionally, or if you are just too poor to buy adequate clothing.
I'm talking about the earnest parents of older children who latch on to you in public places and discuss Burton White's theories of child development and point out how your child is lagging behind the developmental norm. And I'm talking about the people who accost you at the bus stop with the inevitable question of whether your child sleeps through the night yet. They always manage to imply that their children accomplished this feat shortly after their emergence from the womb. One can easily get the impression that everyone else's baby lies comotose for at least 14 hours every night.
I'm talking about the acquaintances who begin hinting -- with all the subtlety of religious revivalists at the front door -- that you are guaranteeing moral ruination by refusing to hold your 2-month-old to a minute-by-minute schedule. You know, wake at 8, play till 10, eat, nap, play at 3, nap at 5, watch the evening news, cry a little and go down at precisely 8:30, a magical time that apparently innoculates a child against a future of deliquency and degeneracy.
I'm talking about the car-pool members who interrogate you about your attitudes on Dr. Spock, then proceed to either demolish the good doctor's theories, or give nominating speeches for his canonization. It seems that nobody is allowed to be neutral on the earthshaking question of Dr. Spock, or to accept some of his ideas and reject others.
The issue of spoiling a child seems to generate more unsolicited advice than any other topic. Some people apparently see parenting as a kind of personal Hundred Years War, as a battle of wills from the moment of birth to the moment of death -- yours or your progeny's, whichever comes first. A parent's primary job, if you listen to these people, is to break a child's spirit; anything less constitutes spoiling.
One thing seems constant: At least 89.5 percent of the people you encounter will have definite feelings about your parenting habits, and not a scintilla of reluctance to lay these feelings out for you in detail.
Does my refusal to allow little Nina to watch TV really constitute psychological abuse, I wonder? Will my callous failure to buy her a Fisher-Price activity center, or one of those baffling Johnson and Johnson toys that come with 18-page instruction manuals, warp her for life?
When those matronly looking women who stop in front of the stroller on a crowded street, squat down in front of Nina and coo, "poor thing," I begin to look at my hapless child with a certain amount of pity for her bad luck in landing me as a father. It happens all the time, this constant recitation of the awfulness of being a baby -- of being my baby.
Don't get me wrong. I've tried to be a modern, enlightened parent, and I don't mind feedback, which is what modern, enlightened people call vicious criticism. I've read libraries full of books on raising good, healthy, happy children. During my wife's pregnancy, I felt I was halfway along the road to becoming an obstetrician; now, I suspect I could do a credible masters thesis on early childhood development.
We've thrashed out the issues of when to respond and when to let the baby cry, and how to reinforce and how to punish, and I can't help but wonder how people raised children in the dark days before every parenting action required a course at the local adult education center.
Lord knows, it's not that I'm against input. There are people I still call regularly for advice about rashes and crying fits and the manifold mysteries of the infant digestive tract.
It's the unsolicited advice that gets to me: the volume of unsolicited advice, the contradictory nature of most of it and the guilt that people pass around like herpes.
Is it done out of genuine concern for children? Or is it because people recognize the special vulnerability of new parents, and cannot pass up the opportunity, a kind of generalized vengeance for their own hurts?
But I'm getting cosmic here. The fact is: This unsolicited advice is unhelpful and irritating, and it doesn't contribute a whit to my ability to raise a terrific child.
So lay off.