I began writing my first book at the age of nine. It was an advice book for children. Because I had noticed that most of the advice given to children was given by adults... who, frankly, sucked at it.
In my experience, most of the advice handed out to kids was a) don’t get into cars with strangers, b) just say no to drugs, and c) stop drop and roll if you are ever on fire.
I am not saying these are not good pieces of advice. I am just saying that the grown ups in my life seriously overestimated strangers and drugs and fire. This skewed my expectations of the world in unhelpful ways.
In the end, all I got in return for my dedicated stop-drop-and-roll drilling was my mom complaining about how much work it is to scrub grass stains out of pants. Which is weird, because if she didn’t like laundry, why was she always doing it?
So I offered her advice about how she could just leave the stains in my pants. She said no, because what-would-people-think-about-her-as-a-mother. I answered people would think she was the kind of mother whose kids played in grass. She said that no, that was not what people would think. They would think that she didn’t do laundry. Which I thought would make them admire her for being so smart and not wasting her life. And it would allow her to spend time on things she really enjoyed, like baking...
She did not appreciate my helpful restructuring tips or my compliments about her skill as a baker.
Then my dad said something about clothes and arbitrary cultural norms and social hierarchy markers, and my mom told him that he should stop trying to help.
So I told her what I learned about peer pressure from school. She told me to go play outside. So I did. But then I accidentally rolled around a little bit, and there may have been some grass there. But that’s okay because even though I came in with more stained pants I also came in with yet another genius idea. I explained that if my mom went out and bought me all green pants, then I could roll around AND she wouldn’t have to do laundry because nobody would be able to see the stains.
Unfortunately, my mother was not an outside the box thinker. Instead of taking my advice, she just advised back at me that I should go practice stop-drop-and-roll in the basement. Which, frankly, was not nearly as fun as in the park on the big grassy hill. But mom never was very good at understanding about fun.
Really, this is to be expected from somebody who insists on spending so much time doing laundry.
So I came back upstairs and advised her that if she didn’t like laundry why did she have four children instead of two like most people. She began, frankly, to be quite rude with me. So I said I was going to write a book to reach people who DID appreciate my great advice. And she said that was a wonderful idea and gave me a pencil and told me to go back downstairs, and come back when I was done the first chapter.
And then when I got downstairs she yelled from the kitchen that by the way a good book chapter takes a full hour and I should be sure to give it the attention it deserves.
So I sat there and thought about how my advice book was going to be full of great advice for kids because who is more qualified to advise kids than someone who is nine years old themselves? Grown ups thought they were so good at advice, but for all their talking I had not needed to stop drop and roll or say no to drugs a single time in nine whole years.
Grown ups never advised about daily situations, unless you counted what they said about flossing and homework, but that was not good advice because it failed to take boredom into account. My book was going to offer the advice kids REALLY wanted.
I no longer have the book, but I remember the advice clearly. It was:
1) When you are putting sugar on your oatmeal, use white sugar not brown. Because even though brown sugar tastes better, it changes the colour of the milk so your parents will know how much sugar you put in and they will insist on scooping it themselves in the future.
2). When you are putting salt on your food, ask your mom to get you something, and THEN put the salt on your food while her back is turned.
After I wrote these first two tips, I paused in my draft to consider the implications. I knew that my work represented a bold and radical departure from the usual tropes of the children’s-advice-genre. I knew that it would be a best seller for sure.
But… I also knew that sugar and salt were bad for you, and so my book could cause a widespread health crisis. Was being a famous author worth sacrificing the health of thousands of nameless children? Should I try to write a book that would influence children to use less salt and sugar, even though the world contained way too many of those dumb books already and no kid wanted to read that? I became lost in the contemplation of what I owed my fans, and the moral implications of my decisions.
It is interesting that I grew up to enrol in seminary.
I went to Seminary to learn how to change the world. I came home bubbling with theology and wisdom, and effused all over my older sister about how Thoreau said that the majority of us lived lives of quiet desperation, and how people could be liberated by the realization of their own freedoms.
My sister was not impressed. She told me that Thoreau only had time to write that stuff because Emerson’s wife did his laundry, and how would Thoreau have felt if Emerson’s wife had chosen to become liberated by the realization of her freedoms. Then, he would have had to do his own laundry.
And maybe not all of the seminary books would be written by white guys.
At the time, this point seemed tangential, but lately it seems to me like that is actually the core issue.
Trevor Noah points out that in the whole “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” saying, we overestimate the importance of our own advice. We ignore the fact that the main problem isn’t people having unequal knowledge about fishing. The main problem is an unequal distribution of fishing rods.
Thoreau and nine-year-old-Liz penning endless treatises of advice, due to the fact that we can. Because somebody else is doing our laundry.
I have learned, in my quest to change the world, to start asking myself if what the situation really needs is my opinion. I ask myself: Fish, knowledge, or rods? Sometimes, tangible help is needed so people can have the space to think and solve their problems. Sometimes it is really information that's needed (although it's not necessarily information from me that's called for, since I am an expert in surprisingly few areas). Often, it's tangible power and resources to make a plan happen that's the real key.
My mother wasn’t scrubbing away at the stains on my pants because she wasn’t smart enough to stop doing laundry. It was not that she didn’t understand her options, it was that I didn’t understand her options. I didn’t understand that my mother was worried that her chronic illness might result in her kids being taken away, and that she needed us to appear well cared for. I didn’t understand her life growing up and what she was taught, and her context and fears.
I still don’t understand, because she didn’t pass those lessons on to me. I am so relaxed about clothes that Eric came home once day and announced that I had to teach him how to remove stains because “Alex from school says that it’s against the social norms of our culture to have blood stains on your clothing”. And I laughed, because my parenting context allows me not to worry about anyone taking my kids away form me.
Maybe my mom knew more than I gave her credit for.
Fortunately, I have improved a little in the advice department. As a mother myself, I have discovered the MAGICAL ADVICE GIVING WORDS that will get a kid to stop what they are doing and hang intently on every word of your wisdom.
Seriously. Magical sentence. Wanna hear it? Shall I advise you?
“I have some thoughts about this that might add some useful information. Do you mind if I share them?”.
Here is why it’s magical:
1) It’s a responding-sentence, not an initiating-sentence. You can’t say it unless you’ve been listening first. Which is good, because if you haven’t been listening before talking, your advice is probably junk and mostly about you.
2) These words lead to curiosity about what you’ll say. The curiosity causes the kid to say yes to hearing you out, and the yes causes them to actually listen while you are talking. Note: I have only had a kid say “no” twice, and both times they went on to tell me they knew what I was about to say already. And then they told me what I was about to say. And they nailed it verbatim.
3) These magic words put the control in the kid’s hands, and demonstrate respect for their power in their lives. This makes them want to be worthy of these things. Which makes them see themselves as you are treating them—as a responsible and thoughtful decision maker. This framing often makes for good decisions.
4) These magic words force you to give the right kind of advice, because you just said “I have some thoughts about this that might add some useful information”. You can’t really follow that up with “flossing is good”. That’s not new information, and you will look like an idiot. So you have to ask yourself “what is my actual information I have that this kid doesn’t” and then you think about how you ignored your mom telling you to floss, and maybe you shouldn't have. And pretty soon you’re telling a story about why you ignored that advice, and it’s an empathetic story that draws the kid in and that also ends with you describing the exact size and sensation of the root canal needle. In excruciating detail. Which is a heck of a lot more effective than “flossing is good” because if that advice actually worked it would have worked on you.
See? Magical advice giving words.
Note: Embracing this philosophy may result in questionable family fashion choices.
Other note: Yes, I know this post is four thousand zillion and eighty three words of advice about not dishing out so much advice.
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