Has your child ever fallen down on the playground while you were busy sending a text, so that another parent had to inform you that, yes, it’s your child who is sobbing over there? Have you ever attempted to leave for work while your child clung to your neck, begging you to stay? Have you lied to a friend that you put your 10-year-old to bed in her own room, when in fact you let her sleep next to you in your king-size? Don’t bother beating yourself up for your “poor” parenting choices—you may actually be making the smartest and best decisions for you and your kids.
Despite what parenting books, blogs, and headlines tell you, there are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to raising kids. Usually the most trustworthy guide is not a bestseller or even the advice of an expert, but your own intuition. You know best, whether it’s deciding if your kids can handle a tougher class, need extra cuddle time, or should quit a demanding sport rather than stay and tough it out.
Rest easy if your actions don’t always measure up to what you think is the standard. You might be picking some great alternatives—on purpose or by accident—that are perfect for your family and your kids. Here are some supposed goof-ups which, despite the side-eye you might get from other parents around you, really aren’t mistakes at all.
1. Letting Kids Take Risks
These days, beds have rails to keep kids from falling out, playgrounds have soft surfaces to keep them from injuring their heads, and a child walking alone on his or her own street can be reported to the police. But if all of the dangers are removed from their lives, what are the consequences?
When kids perform activities that need strategy and dexterity, such as balancing on a fence or climbing high up a tree, they develop a host of secondary skills, including independent thinking, risk analysis tools, and the confidence to face and overcome a fear. Many recent researchers and writers also contend that never confronting risks leads to depression and anxiety in children. Norway’s Ellen Sandseter published a 2011 paper on how children need danger and excitement, such as using complicated tools and playing near fire. By becoming more resourceful in these situations, they learn to master their environment and have less fear of new and challenging situations.
So if you decide to let your child play in the backyard without supervision, for instance, or to cook when he or she is only 6, don’t worry about other people’s perceptions. Society’s rules for parenting are fairly arbitrary anyway. Today, it’s considered horrifying to let your kids skateboard without what amounts to full body armor, but 30 years ago, kids managed without. Perhaps your instincts, even when they go against current trends, know what’s really best for your kids—climbing that old oak, perhaps, without a safety net.
2. Letting Things Occasionally Slip
Yes, we’d like to be on top of everything, all the time. And maybe that mythical perfect parent never lets his or her child skip the vegetable course or watch too much television. But letting something go—even if it’s out of your own sheer laziness that day—can be much healthier for your child than catching every mistake.
Consistency is good in parenting, but too much consistency morphs from being predictability (which gives your child security) into nagging (which your child will quickly tune out). We need enough flexibility and creativity in our parenting to make life spicy. So if you do the exact same schedule every night before bedtime—which every sleep book will tell you is of utmost importance—and one night you come home late, skip story time, and put the kids to bed without brushing their teeth, don’t worry. Call it a “toothbrush vacation” and delight your kids with your devil-may-care coolness.
3. Putting Your Relationship First Sometimes
Our kids are always supposed to be the top priority, right? We sacrifice everything and anything for them? Not when it comes to our marriages. Experts note that when we give kids precedence over a spouse, we not only hurt the marriage but the kids, too. After all, their stability relies on ours, and when the parents are fighting, angry, or numbed out, the kids feel it too.
I know many parents who proudly declare that they’ve never left their children with a sitter, and sometimes never even with a family member. While this shows a real devotion to parenting, it also lets me know that the marriage isn’t getting the attention it needs to thrive. Scheduling a date or even a vacation with a no-kids-allowed policy might feel selfish, but in the end you’re doing your kids a real favor—and modeling what a healthy, connected, adult relationship looks like.
4. Having Something Else in Your Life
An adjunct to putting your marriage first is to also have other things in your life that you value. Not that you should be out “taking care of you” 24/7, but being dedicated to your work or your softball team is just as crucial to your development as flute lessons are to your children. Why are we always harping on them about the importance of extracurricular activities if we have none of our own?
Someday, whether it’s 10 or two years in the future, our kids are going to leave our homes. Having a full, vital life apart from them is good for us, and a great way to set an example of self-sufficiency.
5. Letting Your Kids Sleep in Your Bed
As with so many things in parenting, sleep issues divide neatly into two categories: what we know is right and what we actually do. So many people I work with in therapy admit something close to shame that their teens still crawl into bed with them some nights, or their toddlers have never slept in their own “big boy” beds.
Yes, a separate sleep environment is healthier for parent and child because each gets more uninterrupted sleep and the child learns to self-soothe. But this is one of those “mistakes” that can translate into some very sweet, very loving time for parent and child.
So go ahead and screw up from time to time. Kids need variety in their lives, and parents need to allow themselves to pick whatever decision feels right in the moment, even if it doesn’t add up to conventional rules and regulations. Trusting your instincts and going with the flow will create more fun, more loving chaos, and more wonderful memories than a strict regimen ever could.