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My Kid’s Grown. Will I Ever Learn To Keep My Opinions To Myself?

He’s 18, and I need to learn that when he wants my advice, he’ll ask for it.

Originally Published: 
A mother and son are sitting at home and talking, helping her son solve his teenage problems
Milan Markovic/E+/Getty Images

My youngest child has always had big ideas. He self-published a book on Amazon Kindle about his favorite stuffed animal, Sweetie Bear, when he was six. He got up at two in the morning on a school night to turn himself into Zombie Hitchcock with a bald cap and layers and layers of stage makeup. He raised over $1,000 to support Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS by live-streaming himself reading through the works of Shakespeare.

Was I supportive? Yes... but not really. I was a little skeptical about all these ideas, and I didn’t keep my mouth shut, either. I lugged our card table down the driveway so he could set up his Buy-Sell DVD business on the sidewalk, but the whole time I made unhelpful observations like, “You don’t have any DVDs to sell and no money to buy,” and offered suggestions that made more sense to me. “People like lemonade stands.”

But he knew what he wanted.

In all these endeavors, I doubted their viability and his ability, and discouraged the projects from the offset, despite the fact that time and again, my son accomplished what he set out to, often with shout-out success. Now all these years later, he’s legally an adult, yet I’m still struggling to learn when to keep my mouth shut.

Being a mom has been harder than I thought it would be, and I know I’ve expended a lot of effort in trying to exert control wherever I can. When I’m exhausted, I’ll take care of things myself instead of letting the kids learn in their own time. This was true with teaching them basic household skills (I’d rather load the dishwasher the right way the first time), and also true with their projects. I’m embarrassed to admit this.

As the kids got older, I also did my best to make sure they wouldn’t get hurt, physically and emotionally. But preventing pain also prevents growth. I know that, but it’s hard for me to take the backseat.

My youngest graduates from high school in a few short months. His next big idea is to make a feature-length film. That’ll mean hiring actors and crew (most of them still minors as I write this), housing and feeding the group for several weeks, transporting everyone from Pennsylvania to California to film scenes across states, and much, much more. It’s not a total pipe dream, either; he’s been working as an actor professionally since he was seven, on stage and in commercials. He’s been saving paychecks for this project, wrote the first draft of the script more than a year ago, has reached out to connections that he’s developed himself in Ohio and Los Angeles. This kid does not do things lightly, or haphazardly.

But still, to me, every detail sounds fraught with risk, expensive as hell, and unnecessarily complicated. My son has made it clear that unsolicited advice is unwelcome, but I struggle every day to hold it back.

And I should know better. My dad is the king of unsolicited advice, and he recently visited us from Poland. Since he lives so far away, it feels like he sees his visits as once-a-year opportunities to fill us with every bit of his self-proclaimed wisdom.

Topics covered during this latest visit: over-the-counter vitamins I should be taking, how to double knot my shoelaces so they don’t come undone; the merits of Global Entry; basketball as the best form of exercise (I’ve never seen my dad even remotely near a basketball court), but if not basketball then rowing machines (this advice comes year after year, despite my telling my dad how nauseous I get on rowers); doctoring any recipe I’ve chosen for dinner based on something he saw from Anthony Bourdain.

I love my dad, but his relentless advice drives me crazy. I like to think I’ve learned from this dynamic to do better with my own kids, but if I’m being brutally honest, I’ve got a long way to go.

For my son’s film, I’ve refrained from asking too many details because I don’t want to shut down the conversation. I worry, though, about kids dropping out at the last minute, and what it means for my son’s self-financed shoestring budget. I also worry that he might get taken advantage of, but this is the kind of obscure, shadowy worry without any actual backbone.

But I have actually spoken up about the logistics and practicality of spending four days on a Greyhound bus to the West Coast. “That’s a long time on a bus,” I pointed out, thinking about the discomfort, the lack of sleep and real meals, his friends starting to hate him. “Why don’t you fly both ways?” The ticket cost on a budget airline is almost the same. He gave me a terrible look.

Later that night, he was angry.

“You are not allowed to give me unsolicited advice on my film,” he said. I tried to protest and he cut me off. “No,” he said. I fumed, upset by how he talked to me, how he interrupted when I tried to make my case. Finally I told him I have to speak up if it’s a safety issue; I won’t stay silent if I see untenable risks.

When I woke the next day, however, I thought about my bus comment. Four days is a long time on a Greyhound. I wouldn’t choose it. But while I’ve heard some nutsy accounts of cross-country bus travel, it’s not really a safety issue. My dad telling me which vitamins to take, how I should tie my shoelace — those aren’t safety issues, either, but they’re coming from a place of wanting to protect me. I’m not asking for that protection, though. And neither is my son.

I apologized to my youngest. Privately, I vowed to do better.

That DVD stand he started from our sidewalk so many years ago without a single piece of inventory, and that I doubted and tried to steer him away? He earned $50 that afternoon. More than the money, he created a community event: neighbors running home to pick up unwanted movies, passersby delighted at finding an unexpected treasure.

My son’s shown me over and over that my concerns aren’t necessary for his dreaming. That’s advice I didn’t ask for; I just needed to experience it for myself.

Milena Nigam is a Pittsburgh-based writer who would love to teach everyone how to pronounce her first name. Hint, it sounds like sienna. She's raised two kids who can find their names on magnets at any gift shop or rest stop in the United States and Europe. You can find her writing — which has been featured in Scary Mommy, and Off Assignment — at

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