When Parental Advice Causes Problems

With very few exceptions, all parents want their children to grow up safe and happy, and their advice is given to that end. Many, many parents leave their children a great legacy of sound and inspiring life lessons.

However, advice about how to live one’s life is inherently subjective and therefore has an element of randomness about it. What works for one person may not work for another; what works in one situation may not work in another. Adults are constantly telling children things and a lot of the time not even the adults are aware of the difference between fact and opinion. One of the challenges of growing up is to learn to distinguish objective truth from the opinions instilled by our early influences. As adults, we need to be questioning assumptions and encouraging children to do the same.

The more parents have struggled and suffered, the more vehement they may be in imparting the advice they credit with getting them through the dark times. This is natural and comes with the best intentions, but it can be horribly counter-productive.

In this article, a young woman describes how the death of his brother at the age of 40 led her father to exhort her to let go of the shoulds in life and focus on being happy and fulfilled. She has found this liberating and, in this case, parental advice has worked out well, though it’s clear the writer has also given the matter some careful thought herself.

My point is not that parents ought not to provide guidance; on the contrary, it’s a parent’s job to provide guidance. My point is that we all need to think for ourselves too, to weigh up advice and see if it feels right for us.

Lord Browne, John Browne who used to run BP, is a prime example of someone whose life might have been much easier if he had not followed parental advice so closely. He grew up believing homosexuality was wrong, which was part of the reason he kept his own gayness a secret. To compound this, though, his mother gave him two bits of very specific advice: “One was never tell anyone your secrets, because they will surely use them against you. The second was to remember that when the going gets tough the majority always hurts the minority.”

To put that advice in context, his mother was an Auschwitz survivor. It’s so easy to see how she believed she was protecting her son by telling him to be careful like this. Add the fact that as Lord Browne was growing up homosexuality was illegal and it’s equally easy to see why he accepted what she said. But this course ultimately led to a scandal that ended his BP career.

Half of being perfect, by my definition, is being happy as you are. As Lord Browne says here, “I realised life could change a lot if you’re comfortable with yourself. That was a very important, albeit late, lesson for me.”

Yes. That’s a lesson for us all.

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