top of page
  • Karman Wittry Hotchkiss

Taming the Advice Monster

A mother giving her adult son some advice while outside

During the recent NCAA basketball tournament, interspersed with some awe-inspiring ball playing, one particular TV advertisement really hit home for me. In it, a young man (perhaps in his late 20s) appears to be visiting his dad and helping with some chores around the house. We see him serving his father breakfast, pulling the start cord for the lawnmower, and hanging a bird feeder. In each scenario, the dad stands by passively, letting his son do all the work. But Dad can’t resist adding his advice to the son’s efforts. “Pull fast, not hard,” Dad says in the lawnmower clip, for example. “You know, if you preheat the pan, the eggs won’t stick.”  


In the final scene, the two are resting on the porch, and the son says, “Hey, Dad, can I ask you about some financial stuff?” The older man shakes his head regretfully, “I’d love to help you son, but you know I hate giving out advice.”     


Ha! We all know the truth: Parents LOVE giving advice. Especially us parents of adult children.  


Last week my husband and I visited our son, who had moved to the other side of the country for his first post-college job last summer. It was our first visit since the tear-jerker day when we dropped him off and drove away. And, boy, was I ready with advice!  


“You need to change the oil in your car every 5,000 miles.” “Hand me a penny so I can check the tread on your tires. You might need to replace them.” “Here, let me buy you a bottle of the cleaner that works really well on cooktops.” “The experts say you should have two litter boxes for your cat.”  


My inner dialog was dishing up value-added tips faster than Caitlin Clark racking up 3-pointers in the basketball tournament.  


And how many of these insightful tidbits did my son appreciate? None. Because I didn’t voice any of them. I resisted!  


Why did I practically bite a hole in my tongue rather than share my wisdom? A few reasons, actually.  


Competence breeds confidence — and resiliency. 

My friend Jill and I have joked over the years that we fear we haven’t taught our children good “trench skills.” We are moms who (perhaps inspired by the guilt of working too many hours away from home) probably made our kids’ lives too easy.

Older man talking to and leaning toward a younger man while both are seated on a couch


I hesitate to assign myself the label “helicopter parent.” To me, that term describes the parent who’s running interference on all their kids’ relationships with adults — bosses, coaches, teachers, etc. That wasn’t my MO. But I cooked practically every dinner, shielded my kids from the harsh reality of cell phone bills and car insurance payments, happily did most of their laundry, and prepped their tax returns for them through most of college.  


The Mother Hen in me finds it hard to regret doing these things for my kids. But I’ve come to recognize that my caretaking tendencies are also a form of control. And kids can’t develop their own confidence if Mom or Dad is always there to pick up the ball. They don’t learn that they CAN do hard things. 


Why do I know how to change a flat tire? Because in my early adulthood I drove crappy cars with crappy tires and changed a lot of flats. Why does my daughter know how to sew her own clothes? Because she experimented and tried again and got better with every garment. Why does my son know how to furnish his own apartment? Because he made that first trip to IKEA and learned how to assemble furniture single-handedly.   


I keep thinking about advice I’ve gotten from my mom. 

When I started “adulting” after college, long-distance phone calls were a luxury. No texting, no email. So, I talked to my parents … maybe … once every couple of weeks? I lived a few hours away and didn’t visit them very often either. (See above reference to crappy car.) My life seemed very separate from theirs. I was making my own decisions, paying my own bills, and (as we’re genetically programmed to do, I suppose) just didn’t feel like I needed my folks that much.

Young man with folded arms while mom and dad stand behind him

So. when my mom needed to feel needed (a feeling I now understand), her advice to me seemed … irrelevant. Oblivious even. Or rooted in her own experiences that were so very different from my own. The things she warned me about weren’t my worries. The recommendations she made didn’t fit my life.  


I don’t look back at that time and think that my mom was clueless. (Moms get smarter the older we get.) But I do look back to recall how little I really wanted my mom’s advice. And I try to remember THAT when I’m tempted to tell my kids how they should do something.  


I don’t want to be a pushy, nosey mom who’s inserting herself into her kids’ lives. Hard as it is, I mostly let them decide when they want to see me, hear from me, or ask for my advice.  


Having all the answers (or thinking I do) isn’t very good for me.  

When I was in grade school, I was mostly an outsider. And then one day, the most popular girl in the class pulled me aside in the bathroom and asked me for advice. Voila! Like Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon, hanging up her “Psychiatric Help 5¢” sign, I was suddenly an expert. And the other girls started coming to me for my opinion about how to manage 4th grade relationships.

Young girl talking within a group of seated children


In case it’s not already clear, let me assure you: I was in no way qualified to offer advice about what Annette should say to Penny after Penny hurt Annette’s feelings. But that didn’t stop me from having Advice. And Ideas. And Suggestions. This role gave me purpose. 


And it fed into my self-perception that I was supposed to have all the Answers. About 4th graders. About language arts class. About where my brother should or should not ride his bike. About where my teenage friends were spending their Saturday nights. About what my college roommate should say to the biology professor who was failing her. About whether my coworkers’ project updates were detailed enough. About whether my husband should … Well, you get the picture.


As the oldest daughter in a family of nine kids, I was used to bossing people around. And being the Person With All the Answers was a rewarding role relished outside of my sibling relationships, too.


Until it wasn’t. Until I realized that nobody really likes a know-it-all. Until I realized that I was fooling myself.  


Today, I’m a career coach. My clients are people who want more from their jobs and aren’t sure how to navigate that. You’d think that means I’m still in the advice business. But I’ve learned the opposite is what’s called for. These days, being truly helpful to people means I ask questions that make my clients think. To help them come to conclusions that are right for them, not necessarily right for me. 


Having all the answers isn’t just something I need to avoid with my kids. It’s also a mindset that I need to avoid with my clients. And my friends. And my siblings.  


Being curious builds relationships.  

The final reason I resisted giving advice to my grownup son this weekend? I’ve been reading a really good book called “The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious, and Change the Way You Lead Forever.” It’s a follow-up to “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier.  


Stanier writes mostly about mentorship and coaching in the workplace context. But a friend pointed out that his ideas about advice-giving work really well with adult children, too.  


Early in “The Advice Trap,” Stanier writes … “As soon as someone starts talking … our Advice Monster looms out of our subconscious, rubbing its hands and declaring, ‘I’m about to add some value to THIS conversation! Yes. I. Am!’”  


It’s like he was in my head! I always thought my tendency to give advice was to benefit the other person! “Let me add some value with my keen insights!” But this author’s point of view has helped me realize that my need to share the answers has been about ME, not the advice recipient. Humbling.  


One of the many strategies Stanier suggests is that when someone asks for your opinion/advice, you ask in return “What have you tried already?” Imagine it with your adult kid: “I’m having trouble with my boss,” your child says. And your usual approach would be to jump in with “Here’s what you should do …” followed by a three-paragraph lecture from you about what to say and do, and how and when to do it.

Older woman listens while a younger woman speaks

Imagine instead that your answer was, “What have you tried?” And then you shut up. And wait for your kid to tell you more. You might learn that they’ve already done the thing you wanted to suggest. You might learn that they thought about that very action but decided it wasn’t prudent for X and X and X reason. You might learn that they’ve been paralyzed and haven’t done ANYTHING about this yet.  


Besides preventing you from wasting time suggesting things that aren’t right for the situation, by shutting up you also learn more about your child. You give them a chance to explain their thought process. To tell you more about their relationship with their boss or coworkers.  


Instead of being a deliverer of answers, you build a deeper relationship with your child. Pretty cool.  


This is just one of the helpful ideas I’m taking from “The Advice Trap.” Concepts that can work at the office or at home.  


In fact, I’ll be hosting a discussion of this book on April 30! Anyone is welcome — even if you haven’t read the book. Just come and chat about our tendency to jump in with advice, what’s hard about learning new habits, and what we might gain from the process.  


You can register for the discussion here. It’s free! Let us know you’d like to participate, and we’ll send you a Zoom link to join the conversation, which will be at 4 p.m. Central time on April 30.  


If you come, you’ll recognize me right away. I’ll be the one with holes in her tongue, because I’ve been biting it as I resist the urge to give advice.  


Portrait of a woman

Karman Wittry Hotchkiss is the founder of Level Up With Karman, where she uses her decades of corporate experience to coach others who are ready for more in their career and life. Karman has let go of: worrying about layoffs, Sunday night homework, and her big purse. She’s still holding on for dear life to: too many blazers, her hair coloring regimen, and a trunk full of her kids’ elementary school artwork.


Recent Posts

See All

2 comentarios

27 abr

Thanks for the excellent reminders from a fellow mother hen who is really trying (NOT always successfully) to practice the gift of just heartfelt listening. And 8 siblings?! Holy cow! / Jan

Me gusta
Heather McDorman
Heather McDorman
28 abr
Contestando a

Wish you could meet Karman, Jan! You two would really hit it off. Geez, I have great friends. ☺️ 🍀 / Heather

Me gusta
bottom of page