5 things you never thought you'd do as a parent

Remember those things you swore you'd never do as a parent? It's OK to change your mind

Way back before kids, I was mighty judgmental of parents. I’d shoot dirty looks at the sweaty mom losing it on her tantruming toddler in the Gap and tsk-tsk aloud when my brother fed his daughter gummi worms. When it came to things I would never do when I had my own kids, I had a long list.

Things change. Now I’m the mom who has been known to turn purple before throwing her shrieking toddler over her shoulder and marching through the mall. And these days, my pantry is stocked with enough junk to feed the neighbourhood on Halloween.

I know I’m not alone. We polled parents to see what things they swore they’d never do when they had kids, then asked our expert to give us insight into this oh-so-common parenting about-face.

Sleep with me? Never!

Game changer: Reesa Cohen, mom to Evan,* 8, Surrey, BC

When Reesa Cohen was pregnant, she was horrified when the news reported a woman had accidentally smothered her baby in bed. It was a warning that stuck with Cohen — until her son turned one.  

“We moved Evan into his own room, and he started waking up crying at midnight and keeping me up to 4 a.m. every night,” Cohen says. The next thing she knew, she was delirious from exhaustion, and would try just about anything to send her child into la-la land, including the one tactic that she’d always thought was unsafe — co-sleeping.

For mother and son, the arrangement was pure love. “We would snuggle and, within seconds, Evan would be dreaming,” Cohen says, pointing out that her son sleeps better when he feels comforted. Now that Evan is eight, he still slips into her king-size bed when he’s scared, cold or just needs his mom. “And he knows I’m happy about it,” she says.

Why the 180? We all have ideas about how we’ll treat our kids, but parenting is on-the-job training — you don’t know what you’ll do until you’re faced with a dilemma, says Toronto parenting coach Kathy Thomas. Plus, she says, there is no way of knowing ahead of time what your child will be like.

Each child has different needs. While some fall asleep with just a kiss good night, some need a teddy bear or a night light — or you. “You can keep in mind what you saw on the news, read in books or heard from others but, ultimately, you have to determine what’s right for your child in the moment,” Thomas says.  

And don’t forget that kids’ needs change as they grow, so it’s important to stay flexible. Chances are your child will outgrow co-sleeping at some point, Thomas says, and if there are still problems at night, you’ll have to find a new approach.
Feed my kids processed food? Never!

Game changer:  Liz Nyman, mom to Lily, 9, and Lucas, 7, Flesherton, Ont.

Liz Nyman was 10 years old the first time she tasted Kraft Dinner at a friend’s house. It was nothing like the homemade macaroni baked with butter, flour, milk and cheese that Mommy made.

“I always thought I’d whip up meals made from scratch every night like my mother did,” Nyman says. But while she does love to cook, time is tight these days. And with her husband working evenings, the freelance graphic designer has her hands full with the two kids. So she reaches for packaged mac and cheese or other convenience foods, such as frozen chicken fingers and fries, about twice a week.

“I feel guilty, but the truth is my kids like kid food,” Nyman says. To balance her guilt, and the lack of nutrition, she adds fruits and veggies to their plates and has banned pop from the house. “We have a pretty healthy lifestyle,” she says. It also helps that many manufacturers now offer healthier versions of kid faves.

Why the 180? Your preconceived notions of parenting are often based on how you were parented, Thomas says. “It’s like water running over rock for hundreds of millions of years, and creating a groove,” she says. Once you’ve developed habits in an unconscious way, breaking them is tough.

“After growing up watching a mom dedicated to home cooking, you are likely to hear a voice screaming as you veer from tradition: Don’t boil the water! Don’t put in the KD!” Thomas says. But forging your own path is key to creating a lifestyle that works for your family. What’s important is to understand why your choices work for you, rather than giving in to the guilt.

“If serving fast food twice a week gives Mom a chance to sit and chat with her kids rather than slaving in the kitchen, then she is offering her kids more than a nutritious meal. She is offering a happier, more attentive mom,” Thomas says.
Use the TV as a babysitter? Never!

Game changer: Rich Patterson, dad to Sophie, 4, Vancouver

Rich Patterson and his wife, Shannon, shook on it early: “When we have kids, no TV babysitter!” But the Vancouver parents broke their pact when their daughter, Sophie, was just two years old. “On a plane to France, we brought along cartoons on a portable DVD player to keep her entertained,” Patterson recalls. A few hours later, Sophie was hooked.

Back at home, the TV remote started getting a workout right away. So the Pattersons limited their daughter’s screen time to one hour a day.

Sophie, now four, watches her television shows during what Patterson calls the “morning stretch” (when breakfast needs making, dishes need clearing and bags need packing) and also during the “home stretch” (right before bed). The idiot box is not all bad, Patterson says.  “When I heard Sophie shouting Adagio! while watching the Disney Channel, I thought, well, if she’s learning musical terms, maybe there’s an upside here.”

Why the 180? “While it’s fun to play with your kids, no one can do it 24-7, and you may not realize that until you’re beat,” Thomas says. The fact is running a household means taking a break from your kids now and then. And guess what? They need time to chill too.

Focus on setting clear limits on indulgences such as screen time, Thomas says. By doing so, you teach your kids a valuable lesson about the importance of boundaries. You are saying: There is a time and a place for everything, including enjoying a TV show.

But don’t let the TV babysit all the time, Thomas says. When you can find time, get in on the fun too. “Connecting with your child through media — whether chatting about what’s happening on Dora the Explorer or checking out your child’s Game Boy score — is wonderful. It shows that you want to be part of her experience.”
Quote my mother? Never!

Game changer: Lindsey Taylor McKee, mom to Max, 14, and Samantha, 9, Ajax, Ont.

The youngest of six kids, Lindsey Taylor McKee grew up puzzled by some of her mother’s expressions, many of which now roll off her own tongue. “Mom would say, ‘Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!’” Taylor McKee recalls. “Mom meant that there was no time to be a crybaby in our busy household, but I didn’t get that when I was young.”

Her mom also used to insist she had eyes in the back of her head. It was an odd image to picture, but now Taylor McKee says it too, and proves it. She’ll give her kids an answer they don’t like, wait a beat, then tell them not to roll their eyes, all while she is facing the other way.

“By now, they’ve figured out I don’t actually have eyes back there, but they know that I have an instinct for their reactions,” Taylor McKee says.

Another favourite Mom-ism:  “The worst anyone can say is no.” Taylor McKee says it all the time so that her kids will speak up and ask for what they want in life. “Somewhere along the line I realized Mom wasn’t just an old crack,” she says. “There’s lots of wisdom in her words.”

Why the 180? “Often, it’s only once we have kids that we can appreciate what our parents did that worked, and what didn’t,” Thomas says.

The real challenge is being aware of what you are passing down to the next generation. “You can bet that if wisdom is coming through you, so is the stuff that you’d rather not express in the way your parents did,” Thomas says. She suggests acknowledging aloud where the quotes you’re repeating came from. That way, you can give your mom kudos for her wisdom, and when a phrase you never liked escapes your lips, you can catch it and redirect, she says. “That’s when you laugh and say, ‘Wow, that was me channelling Grandma. Now it’s time to say what I mean my way!”
Lose my cool? Never!

Game changer: Katrina Myles,* mom to Zoe, 11, Taylor, 9, and Mitchell, 5, Toronto
Katrina Myles and her husband, Len, vowed never to parent the way Len’s sister did. “She would yell empty threats at her daughter, then give her chances to comply. We thought it was terrible parenting,” Myles says.

But mornings frazzle Myles’ nerves. “It’s so busy that when the kids don’t listen, I fly off the handle,” she says. “Having to repeat myself makes me very frustrated, very fast.”

When Mitchell dawdles, Myles can’t help but leap to those empty threats. “I tell him, ‘Brush your teeth or no playdate after school,’” she says. “I’ll keep threatening, louder and louder, even though we both know he is going to that playdate.”

Next stop: Daughter Zoe’s room. Because the 11-year-old goes to bed too late, waking her is a nightmare, Myles says. “Every five minutes, I shout again, ‘Breakfast time! Get dressed! Get up!’ Every morning starts like the movie Groundhog Day and ends with me shouting.”

Why the 180? “It’s easy to judge other parents because when it’s not your kid, you can step back and analyze the situation,” Thomas says. But when you’re trying to make your child listen, emotions cloud your judgment.
Even though you know that false threats and screaming don’t work to change your child’s behaviour, they are like a freight train. Once they get going, it’s hard to stop them.

Thomas’s advice: “Instead of trying to control your kids, focus on controlling yourself.” That means pretending for a moment that your child belongs to someone else, not you. Then step back and consider what action would be most effective — whether that’s suggesting your son bring his toothbrush in the car or your daughter set her own alarm. “There are lots of solutions,” Thomas says. “But you can’t find them if you’re stuck in Groundhog Day.”

*Names changed by request.