How To Give Advice
A guilty pleasure of mine is the reality show “Wife Swap”. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the basics are as simple as the name implies: two families swipe wives/mothers* for two weeks and television crews film the hijinks. And while it has all the trappings of most reality television crap, there also is something very worthwhile going on. Generally speaking, the family pairs up families of very different philosophies, philosophies which they tend to be very thoughtful and deliberate about. So it ends up being less “Let’s put the country bumpkin together with the country club WASP and watch how terrible everyone is” and more “Let’s pair up a family that believes in strict discipline so that children learn respect with a family that believes in radical unschooling to promote their children’s sense of self.”
And that is where it gets interesting, particularly so for this experienced teacher/new father.
As a teacher, I work to have collaborative relationships with the parents of my students. When this becomes difficult, when the parents and I do not see eye to eye, I often remind myself, “We both want the same thing. We just disagree on how to get there. But if we remember that first point, we should be able to find a common path.”
But the reality is, and I think “Wife Swap” demonstrates this perfectly, that that first point is often only true in the broadest sense possible. I don’t doubt that the parents and I all want what is best for their children. We assuredly agree on that. However, it is often the case that any attempt at winnowing down from there quickly exposes deep divisions between they and I. If I think it is “best” for children to be independent minded and to pursue their own goals and the parents think it is “best” for children to abide by certain external expectations and fulfill certain roles as they move through their life, it is essentially meaningless that we agree that we want what is “best” for them.
What does any of this have to do with “Wife Swap”? As I said above, the show typically does a good job of identifying families with clearly articulated visions of how they want to be, particularly with regards to how they raise their children**. These aren’t parents who are simply fumbling their way through it or are doing what their parents did for them. They all have a unique and particular philosophy of parenting and family outcome with specific outcomes they are attempting to achieve. And the show’s producers, doing what good reality show producers are paid to do, pair up families that are wildly opposed. In doing so, they create a situation that often parallels the conversations I have with parents: everyone agrees they want what is best, people vehemently disagree with what actually is best, and little progress or growth is achieved.
During a recent viewing (the aforementioned one with the strict disciplinarian and the radical unschooler), Zazzy asked me which approach I thought was right. I initially went to respond, confident that I knew which family was the “good one”. But I stopped. And I thought. I realized I didn’t really have an answer. Neither family was right. Neither family was wrong. They were seeking different ends. Comparing their means was useless. It is possible that both of their methodologies were right, or perhaps better described as effective, at least in terms of achieving their stated ends. The disciplinarian’s kids were well-behaved, did well in school, and were aptly armed with a variety of life skills. The unschooler’s kids were creative, fun loving, and seemed unfettered in pursuing their interests and passions. So, both sets of parents’ approaches worked.
Sort of. The disciplinarian’s kids felt emotionally distant from their parents, feared making even the smallest of mistakes, and had limited social experiences with their peers. The unschooler had an 11-year-old who could barely read and the lot of them seemed to have no qualms with lying to their “new mom”, pretending to go to bed without complaint and then immediately going back to the video game systems upon her departure. When these drawbacks to their methods were exposed to the parents, they were largely unfazed. And why would they be? The disciplinarian did not consider social time to be important and the unschooler figured the 11-year-old would learn to read if and when she was ready.
The best episodes of “Wife Swap” are those wherein the families actually do make some real growth. Where their exposure to another style of parenting and the benefits derived from it show that there are alternate ends and alternate means with real value. These episodes, such as one where a widowed-and-remarried father who mined landfills for sellable items with his teenage daughter had his eyes opened to the importance of her feeling pretty for prom by a “Barbie” mom, are what make “Wife Swap” different than most reality shows. There is a there there.
So what does any of this have to do with anything? Why did I title this post “How To Give Advice” instead of “A Critical Analysis of ‘Wife Swap'”? Because I think shows like “Wife Swap” and other opportunities to experience the reality of another, complete with disparate goals and consequentially with different paths to achieve those goals, demonstrate the difficulty in giving advice, even from the most well-intentioned sort. As a teacher who subscribes to a particular philosophy, it is often easy for me to dole out advice on what parents or schools or teachers should do. But that is only of value if they seek the same ends that I do. If you do not value creativity or open-ended thinking, do not ask my opinion on how to set up the art area of your classroom; my advice will be useless to you. Now, perhaps I might be able to convince you to value those things, but unless and until you do, advising you on how to achieve them just isn’t going to move your needle.
Now, please do not mistake this for saying that all goals are created equal. I have arrived at the goals I have for my children (both my students and my biological child) because I think they are best for them both now and for the adults they’ll one day become. I didn’t pick them out of a hat but have determined them through intense deliberation and reflection, often doubling back and reworking them as I go. I think they are the best goals out there, else I would have chosen other ones. But I cannot prove so empirically. Even if I could, even for areas of education or parenting where there exists evidence that a given tactic or outcome is most desirable, I cannot necessarily declare that all deviations from such are wrong or must be ceased. And of course, this all begs the question of whether or not the ends I seek are the ones we ought to be seeking. For example, I’m confident I can find research that Educational Method X leads to children eventually earning Y% more than peers who were exposed to Educational Method Z. But how valuable is this evidence to someone who doesn’t consider earning power to be a useful way of evaluating the fullness of life? Probably not all that much.
Ultimately, before we can offer advice or measure progress or review methods, we must first identify goals. Whether the topic at hand is disciplinary styles for 3-year-olds or how to develop tax policy, all we are going to do is spin our wheels if we don’t explicitly articulate our goals and judge ourselves according to those goals. So the next time you find yourself offering advice that people you previously thought of as intelligent just won’t accept, step back and ask yourself if your advice actually serves their interests. You just might avoid banging your head against the wall***.
* At least one swap involved a same-sex couple sending a husband/partner to an opposite-sex couple. I don’t know if the show ever went to air as the opposite-sex-couple objected and things went to hell.
** The show could probably be more accurately titled “Family Swap” as it is far more than the wife who is being examined. The show focused on the couple’s relationship with each other, each of their relationships with the children, the children’s relationships with each other, and whatever work roles all of the family members hold.
*** The irony of me offering advice in an essay tempering people on offering advice is not lost on me. Should you have no interest in the advice you offer being well-received and/or followed, I apologize for the 15 minutes I just stole from you.