Help! How Can I Resist Parenting Peer Pressure & Be The Mom My Kid Needs?

"Be responsive, but not indulgent! Praise effort, not accomplishments! Plan for all possible scenarios, but also, for the love of god, BE PRESENT!"

The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.

Dear GEP,

I seem to automatically bend to social norms around other parents, like enforcing turn-taking in a public park or moving my toddler away from other children after she threw sand in the sandbox, even though I'd rather stand back and let the kids work it out themselves. Sometimes I worry that my internal people pleaser values other parents' judgments over my own kid’s needs, in a way. How do I get better at parenting from a place of my own style and beliefs, especially when other people are watching?

Dear Reader,

When my first child was a few weeks old, my mother visited. She had raised five children herself, been a family therapist for decades, and assisted in the bringing up of four grandchildren. But if you are lucky enough to have a mom, or an auntie, or a wise elder, you will understand that I had not an iota of interest in her advice about how to navigate my new role of mother. I was green, but I was out to prove myself! Plus, as an educational psychologist, I was trained to work with children, and, being devoted to the current parenting zeitgeist, I felt confident that the reams of information my generation of parents had accessible to us made me inherently more enlightened and set up for success than she had been.

My mother, in her infinite wisdom, sensed my distaste for her input and didn’t interfere. She let me take the lead with the terrifying lump that had just a few weeks prior tumbled out of my body and turned me into a maelstrom of anxiety, whirling around the house, subsisting on energy bars, self-doubt, and the years of researching and working with children that I thought might save me from failing my own.

A few days, while I nursed my son in a hand-me-down glider, my mother allowed herself one small, mostly non-judgmental observation. “In my day,” she remarked, “we didn’t have all of this information. We just had a few books, our friends, and, of course, our instincts.”

At the time, I interpreted this comment as a lamentation. To me, that sounded like all the necessary ingredients for a crappy childhood. I thought my mother yearned to be given another chance, five times over no less, to raise her children with the knowledge that I had. But now, years later, I see my mother’s nostalgia as a warning, a harbinger of the particular flavor of parenting pain that lay before me. There was no way, she knew, to make parenting easy. But she could already tell that the parenting culture I swam in, and freely, was going to make it harder than it had to be.

Sure enough, as my child grew, I had the audacity to give birth to another, and parenting became more complicated, I longed for instincts of my own. What I had, instead, was an endless stream of paradoxical noise that I assumed was gospel: Be responsive, but not indulgent! Praise effort, not accomplishments! Make your kids eat healthy, but let them have control over their bodies! Plan for all possible scenarios, but also, for the love of God, BE PRESENT!!!

I worry that our efforts to analyze and optimize parenting have given us the wrong impression about what this whole thing is about.

As I began to understand, through my own parenting, the endless variations in family contexts, parenting values and personalities, and inherent child tendencies, the popular parenting edicts became more suspect. They were based, I knew from my years of studying and conducting research involving children, on insubstantial evidence collected with homogenous populations. They rarely controlled for, or even collected information about, the many ingredients that made a child’s life better or worse, and could easily gum up a taken-for-granted correlation between, say, having family dinners three nights a week and avoiding teen pregnancy. We would do well by parents to comb the literature and insert the phrase “middle-class and white” in front of every reference to parents or children involved in research, and “in a vacuum, with little consideration to the many other factors that contribute to a child’s experience,” after any purported outcomes.

I was a child of the “benign neglect” generation, and I am not especially nostalgic for the parenting of the past. While I agree there’s a lot we could learn from parenting across cultures and from ancient approaches to raising children, it’s safe to say that there’s just as much wrong with any style of parenting as there is right. I’m glad we know that washing a child’s mouth out with soap is not the most effective way to curb foul language, that learning disabilities are not a death sentence, and that talking to kids about sex is a good thing. But sometimes I worry that what we’ve learned about parenting in 40 years is not enough to justify all of the anxiety we’ve added to the experience of raising children. I worry, too, that our efforts to analyze and optimize parenting have given us the wrong impression about what this whole thing is about.

The more you clear away the junk of other people’s ideas about how you should parent, the easier (easier, not easy!) it is to stay grounded when things get dicey.

And, to get back to you, Reader, what’s at stake in all of this is losing the very thing we need most on the rocky road of parenting life: our instincts. If all kids and parents are, in fact, different (facts), and parenting advice should be seen more as suggestions and opinions than absolutes (facts), then what we really need to be focusing on is what matters to us, what feels good and what feels bad, and which parenting approaches are worth our time and energy or should be gladly tossed aside as not for us.

The more you clear away the junk of other people’s ideas about how you should parent, the easier (easier, not easy!) it is to stay grounded when things get dicey.

On a family vacation last spring, my son had a balls-to-the-walls freakout at a hip art museum housed in an old monastery. The general scene was calm, civilized, and sanctified, even. Cool young folks and parents taking their children through modern installations and an outdoor cafe where many parents had the audacity to order themselves a drink. In the middle of it all, I attempted to hold my son in the most humane position that would keep him from hurting himself and others, while he flailed uncontrollably and told me how much he hated me. The placid spirits of the monks were likely scandalized. Families, with their generally obedient and neatly-dressed European children, sat feet away while I repeated the phrase “I can’t let you hurt me” and tried not to lose my shit. I was fully aware that people were judging us, but in that moment, I knew my only job was to keep my kid safe, to keep myself from bursting with rage and hurting him, and to try and defuse this situation with the least amount of damage. I moved as far away from the crowd as I could. When a father walked by with his child and picked up the baseball cap that had flown off of my child’s head and placed it on a nearby bench with no more than a slight glance our way, I was grateful. Maybe he thought “that lady needs to control her kid better” or “something is very wrong with that child,” but that was none of my business.

That moment was a turning point for me. As parents, over time and in heated situations, like a dispute with a stranger’s kid in a sandbox, we have to get good at saying, “Now this is happening. How do I want to handle it?” I had tried before to take in the expectations of other parents, based on their children, their values, and the noises in their heads. But all it had done was make me angrier at my child for being disruptive, and at myself for having a child who was disruptive. What I needed, and got slightly but significantly better at after the monastery meltdown, was to accept what was happening, tune out distractions, and lead from my own instincts and how my child and family worked best.

My friend, educator Christine Mirov, who is the mother to two children, including one with ADHD, reminded me that we can also choose to bow out of certain situations where there is too much judgment of us or our kids. She says, “I have to think about what settings and conditions I can handle and my kids can handle beforehand. If we’re going into a situation that will probably be hard for them, I have to be sure it’s not going to be hard for me too. I have to have the patience and the resources to handle whatever they throw at me plus dealing with other adults that might want to give me their feedback. If it’s going to be hard for me AND my kids, then it’s a setup… I have to say no to these situations, or keep the time short if I have to go.” Maybe the park by your house is full of one kind of parent, but the park across town is chiller. Maybe the nannies are better company, so visiting during work hours is more peaceful. Maybe, even just for now, other parents are too much for you, and you’d prefer to be in the backyard.

Christine also reminded me that, when the same conflicts in approaches to child behavior keep happening, or when they are in the context of important or long-term relationships, you might want to get brave and talk about them with the other parents. “If it’s really important to me, like someone judges my kid about something core to them or tries to let them do something that is going to make my life harder, then I set a limit or speak up for that,” she says. I have had some of these hard conversations with the consistent parents in my life — like my siblings or next-door neighbors — and they are never easy but always worth it.

So be gentle, curious, and clear about what’s essential to you and what you can let go.

Some people are dicks, it’s true. But most of the time, I think it comes down to different parents not only having different philosophies but also very few reference points for how children can be, other than their own. When I get all stirred up, I have to remind myself that they are just like me —confused, overwhelmed, wanting to do right by their kids and be perceived as good parents. So be gentle, curious, and clear about what’s essential to you and what you can let go.

When my kids were toddlers, this was all a lot harder. I thought I could please everyone, but no one was happy. I hadn’t yet realized that whatever parenting philosophy Kool-Aid parents were drinking was laced with our own self-destruction, and that instead of seeking approval from others, I had to choose myself, and my kid. I have to remind myself of this choice frequently.

On a recent trip to visit friends in Los Angeles, I spent time with three different families with different rules, values, approaches, and parent and child temperaments. Even just a year ago, I would have found this experience demoralizing — Why was my friend’s bedtime routine so much easier than mine?? Was it because they were doing it right and I was doing it wrong? Did they think I was a shitty parent because my kids needed me to brush their teeth? This time, though, I was able to approach it with a greater sense of curiosity. What was important to this family that wasn’t important to me? Was there something I was actually neglecting to acknowledge I cared about, and work on, that their example was reminding me to reconsider? Or were we just simply not the same people? I felt only 10% shame and embarrassment, which I consider a success!

What I'm trying to say is, it gets better. But it doesn’t go away. You can fight it by spending some time exploring what actually matters to you as a parent, accepting your kid’s personality and how it will be different from other kids, and giving some thought to which environments will encourage both. And you can try your best to be around different kinds of parents, kids, and families, which is always a powerful reminder for me of just how subjective all of this is. And I give you full permission to say “f*ck it,” listen to your instincts, and do the thing you want to do — you never know, you might just inspire another parent to be themselves.

Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at