There's no conversation starter like a newborn baby. Whether I'm taking my eight-week-old daughter to the grocery store or to a social gathering where I know almost no one, I suddenly find myself talking to strangers at every turn. The middle-aged woman re-stocking shelves at Walmart, the twentysomething body-builder in the parking lot, the couple sitting behind me at church—they all have something to say. Most commonly, it's "What a precious baby! How old is she?"
As often as not, though, it's some kind of advice. "It's windy out here, you need to cover that baby's face!" "She's too young to be out in public! You should keep her at home at this age!" And of course there's the line every parent has heard: "Put a hat on that baby!"
It's easy to get annoyed with this sort of thing. My daughter can survive a few seconds' exposure to a fall breeze, I grumble to myself, and she can survive a quick errand or two in public. Yet the particulars of the situation and advice are beside the point. Don't people think I know what's best for my own baby? How would they feel if I gave them random tips about, say, dieting?
But there's another way to think about unsolicited parenting advice, one that better preserves my sanity and appreciates strangers' good intentions: Now I take it as a sign of communal concern for children, a manifestation of the adage "it takes a village to raise a child." It's the last vestige of the time when kids were raised and looked after not just by their parents and relatives but also by their neighbors.
My husband and I, and our immediate circle of relatives and friends, aren't the only ones who care about our baby's well-being—so do perfect strangers. Everyone has a stake in the flourishing of the next generation, and everyone wants to share what they believe about how to promote it.
Of course, parents need not take every piece of advice they hear. Indeed, since it's often conflicting, they couldn't do so even if they wanted to. But it doesn't hurt to give well-intentioned strangers a respectful hearing.
All that said, I can't end this piece without a predictable caveat. There are cases when would-be advice-givers should bite their tongues—hence the less-than-enthusiastic title above. If you see a mom feeding her child from a bottle, for instance, resist the urge to tell her she should breastfeed instead. She's probably heard it before—and your innocent recommendation might leave her feeling forced to share very private details about her medical history. (No one wants to end up hectoring a breast cancer survivor about the benefits of breastfeeding!)
Within reason, however, go ahead: tell me how to raise my kid.