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12 Parenting Rules You Can Break

  • by Charlotte Latvala

    The rule: Don't worry about housework when you have a baby around.

    The reality: Falling into total chaos does not help a new mom's stress level.

    Tara Feaster, mom of 4-year-old Cassie and 2-year-old Robert in the Bronx, New York, says that managing even a small task like getting laundry done gives her a sense of accomplishment and control. "With two small kids, our house is a disaster area," she says. "I somehow find peace in putting all their toys away, and when things are neat, it actually helps me relax." For those who lean to the anal-retentive side, doing even one minor chore per day (sorting out a closet, organizing a bookshelf, throwing away old food from the fridge or pantry) can help them feel closer to normalcy.

  • The rule: Nap when the baby naps.

    The reality: If you can manage this, more power to you.

    Dual siestas always sounded great to me; before my first due date, I used to picture myself cuddling up in the middle of the afternoon with my newborn baby. But the reality is, I have never, ever been able to sleep much during the daytime—my body clock just doesn't work that way—and that didn't change after my daughter Mathilda was born. No matter how sleep-deprived I got, I just couldn't doze off. But because everyone told me to "nap when she naps," I drove myself crazy for months, lying down and feeling frustrated because I couldn't fall asleep. And that only made me more tense and exhausted than if I had sat down to read a book or listen to some music. Give yourself a break: You're a grown-up, and you know the best way to spend your time. (But just forget napping altogether if you have two kids: No way is a toddler or preschooler going to let you off the hook when the baby finally doesn't need your attention.)

  • The rule: Limit your kids to one extracurricular activity at a time.

    The reality: This is practically impossible, unless you actively discourage your children from pursuing their interests and hanging out with their friends.

    I'll be honest: Before my kids hit kindergarten, I looked at parents frantically driving from one scheduled activity to the next and thought, "No way." Now, deep into piano lessons, Scout meetings, soccer practice, ballet (I could go on), guess what? My kids are thriving and happy. We just reserve a few nights a week for quiet family time so the kids don't feel too pressured.

    "Whatever happened to kids just going outside to play?" asked my sister on a recent visit, while we reminisced about our own more laid-back childhoods. Whether we like it or not, I pointed out, it's a fact of 21st-century life that if you send your kid out to play, there's no one there to play with. They're all doing after-school activities.

  • The rule: Invite only as many birthday-party guests as your child's age.

    The reality: Just try explaining that one to your preschooler.

    She has 20 new best friends who all love Dora the Explorer equally. I always found it easier to include everyone, rather than agonize, wedding-planner style, over who makes the cut and who doesn't. If these events are a total horror to you, you can always do what a friend of mine does: Hold big-blowout birthday parties every other year, and smaller (but still fun) family parties in between. If you start when they're 4 and end when they hit their teens, you really don't have to suffer too often. But if you need great party games in the meantime, visit Birthday Parties.

  • The rule: Breastfeed for one year.

    The reality: It doesn't always work that way.

    If it does, fantastic. If not, you shouldn't obsess about whether you fed your child the best possible way or worry that every time he has a sniffle, it's because he didn't get enough breast milk to ward off disease. You need to find what works best for you and your situation—breast, bottle or some combination—and then trust your own instincts and decisions.

  • The rule: Be consistent with potty training.

    The reality: Your kid will give up the diapers, no matter how haphazard you are about it.

    Abby Carr of New York City was feeling guilty that her son Stephen wasn't toilet trained; at almost 3 1/2, he showed zero interest. "Everyone kept telling me that consistency was the key. You have to put them in underpants and let them get wet or dirty, and at a certain point they just get it," says Carr. "To be honest, we didn't have the heart or patience to stick with it. Something always happened to interrupt the schedule—he got sick, or we had to spend a day out of the house, or we just forgot—and he would be back in diapers again." Despite her hit-or-miss approach, Carr reports that Stephen recently made the jump to big-kid underwear and has stayed dry for weeks, joining the thousands of kids who have ditched the diapers in unconventional ways. If you need some help figuring out what to try next, check out Potty Training Strategies.

  • The rule: Stick to your guns.

    The reality: I have yet to meet a mom who has never budged.

    So no more feeling guilty for being "bad" and caving. I recently reneged on my strict "no video games during the week" rule when my son A.J. was home sick from school for two days. We both would have gone stir-crazy otherwise. You don't want to be a total flip-flopper, but sometimes it's in everyone's best interest to compromise. With a social, sports-minded son at home, Sue Reddy of Plantation, Florida, has finally softened on her "no ball in the house" rule. "It was just too difficult to enforce when Kalen's friends came over," she says. "So we got one of those Nerf basketball sets. Then the rule was no playing ball near any breakables." The advantages to bending a bit are multiple, says Reddy. "Not only can the boys have fun in bad weather, but I get to watch how they play and interact." Another bonus: Compromising is also cooperating—a very nice thing to be teaching.

  • The rule: Keep pets away from the baby.

    The reality: What, and banish your "first child" to the garage?

    Before she had her first baby, Jen Kissel of Pittsburgh had Marcel, a terrier-Chihuahua mix. When Kissel got pregnant, acquaintances asked her everything from "What if the dog licks the baby?" to "What if the dog pees on her?" "It had never occurred to me to worry," she says. "But with so many people bugging me, I quizzed my pediatrician. He reassured me that human visitors pose a bigger health threat than the dog, even if he slobbers on her." Marcel has since licked each of Kissel's four babies in welcome. "And guess what? We have yet to see a case of heartworm," she says. Of course, never leave a little one alone with an animal, but with normal safety precautions, she'll be fine.

  • The rule: Don't let him quit music/ballet/karate lessons in the middle of the year.

    The reality: Sticking with it can be torture for everyone involved.

    Naturally, you want to instill a sense of perseverance in your kids, and encourage them to finish what they start. But we all make errors in judgment. When 11-year-old Zachary Schofield took up the French horn, mom Janet rethought her policy. "He loved the sound of the instrument, but it was just too difficult," says the Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, mom of three. "After a couple of months, we realized it was a mistake." So Schofield opted for a compromise: a switch to the clarinet, a much easier instrument to learn. "We did it with the understanding that he wasn't going to keep changing instruments every few months or so, and so far he's doing great. We're all much happier."

    When faced with the quitting dilemma, ask yourself: Is this a pattern? Has he asked to quit things in the past? If so, am I choosing activities that are too advanced? Before you make a commitment, do some homework to figure out if you're both prepared to make the necessary sacrifices (like getting to the figure-skating arena at 6 A.M. or devoting several hours a week to teaching your preschooler the piano via the Suzuki method).

  • The rule: No dessert unless they eat veggies.

    The reality: The food pyramid will still be there tomorrow.

    Yes, you want to dish out lots of fruits and veggies. Yes, too many sugary snacks are bad for kids. But once in a while, give yourself permission to have pancakes and sausage for dinner, with nary a green bean to be found. Or serve monthly "backward dinners"—dessert first, then the main course. Kids love the special-event quality of these meals, and you can get back to pushing broccoli the next day.

  • The rule: No more than one hour of TV per day.

    The reality: Electronic entertainment in moderation is not evil incarnate—and there are times when it can be downright handy.

    "On days when my daughter, Cadi, is sick or school is closed, I will let her spend a few hours a day watching her DVDs or PBS," says Nanci Schwartz of Fruitland Park, Florida. "It's critical when I have to take business calls, because it's hard to have professional conversations when a little voice is asking for more peanut butter and jelly." Despite those occasional TV days, Cadi is still an active, social little girl who loves to play outside and dig in her vegetable garden. "I haven't seen any dire consequences to her watching TV," says Schwartz.

  • The rule: Stay inside with a newborn.

    The reality: A little fresh air isn't going to hurt anybody.

    If you have older relatives, you've been warned: Don't take the baby out of the house! My oldest, Mathilda, was born in January, and I don't think she breathed outdoor air until mid-March. But by the time we had our third baby, Mary Elena, I realized she wouldn't succumb to the elements if we ventured outside; by the two-week mark, she had already attended a county fair, a back-to-school picnic, and an outdoor church service. If you're feeling stir-crazy, bundle up that baby (in one more layer than you're wearing) and go. Jen Kissel was so excited about showing off her first child that she stopped at the grocery store the day she left the hospital after a c-section. "We took each new baby for a walk down the street to meet the neighbors within the first two days home," she says. They were fine, it was fun, and no one got in trouble for breaking some silly old rule.

    Charlotte Latvala never knew she was such a rebel until she wrote this article.