One of the most common questions parents ask me is, “When should I bite my tongue, and when should I speak up?”
One school of thought says that parents should always keep their mouths shut. After all, though your children are still your children, they are adults and entitled to live life as they please. This approach sounds fine in theory, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense in practice. Why shouldn’t you give your kid your honest opinion? What sort of people stand idly by while someone they care about makes a terrible decision?
The other extreme is the belief that you should always tell your child when you disagree with them. The logic behind this stance is that, as a parent, you’re not only entitled to express your opinions, you’re obliged to. Part of your role is to protect your children from harm—this is always how you’ve behaved, and you see no reason to change course now. You’re older, wiser, and more experienced than they are. The problem here is that speaking your mind whenever you like directly clashes with the young person’s need for autonomy, a collision that will often make your child defensive and perhaps distant. Regardless of how well-meaning, your criticism can trigger your child’s self-doubt, inadequacy, or embarrassment.
Each of these extreme positions falls short because it applies a rigid rule. Blindly following a set doctrine is certainly easy, because it saves you the hassle of having to think about the right response to each situation. But your goal as a parent shouldn’t be keeping things simple. Just accept that you must make tough, careful decisions about whether or not to bite your tongue. Being a good parent was hard work when your child was younger and still is.
Let this principle guide you when you seek to navigate between those dangerous extremes: Speak up when you must, but unless your child specifically asks for your opinion, keep it to yourself.
Allowing children to make a mistake that won’t have dire consequences is more important than your being correct. If you follow this maxim consistently, you’ll likely find your child asking for your opinion more and more over time.
Consider three factors when deciding whether speaking up is a “must”:
- Is your child about to do something that could have harmful and perhaps long-term consequences, such as marrying someone with a history of domestic violence, investing money earmarked for a down payment in a speculative “sure thing,” or quitting a job impulsively without adequate savings or a new job lined up. Explain yourself without lecturing or implying that your child is foolish or too young to know better.
- Recognize your disagreement could be one of opinion rather than substance. Your child may have a different approach to parenting than you did, for instance, or prefer the apartment building with more amenities while you’d choose the roomier unit. Save your opinions for issues that really matter. That way, when you do speak up, your child will be more likely to pay attention.
- If you’re wavering between giving or withholding advice, I’d lean toward speaking up in areas where you have special expertise. Maybe your professional knowledge can help forestall a disastrous home purchase, save your child money, or help your grandchild develop important skills.
Before you express a difference of opinion on something consequential, think about the best way to express yourself. Try to avoid directives, comments that could exacerbate conflict between your child and their partner, or framing issues in catastrophic terms.
It’s far better to frame your opinion in the form of a question designed to help your children think through the matter more rigorously (“I understand why you like this car, but have you thought about whether taking out a large auto loan right now might make you lose sleep about money?”) or as a request for information (“I don’t know much about induction cooktops other than that they’re quite expensive. Can you explain why people think they’re better than gas ones?”). Gentle prodding to think about or explain their reasoning may end up changing their opinion, or yours—either of which will temper any dispute without hurting anyone’s feelings.
Once you’ve decided whether to bite your tongue or speak out, and successfully done so, you may feel guilty or irritated. These are just two of many uncomfortable emotions this stage of parenting may evoke. Uncomfortable feelings don’t necessarily mean you’ve done something wrong. Many times, they’re just a signal that you’re doing things differently. Unfamiliar behavior can be uncomfortable. The challenge now is figuring out how best to ease your own discomfort.
Excerpted from AARP’s You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times (April 18, 2023, by Simon & Schuster)
Laurence Steinberg, one of the world's leading experts on adolescence, is a Distinguished University Professor and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Temple University.
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