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Liz Ryan Headshot

5 Parenting Decisions to Make From Your Gut

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When I was pregnant with my first child (before I knew I had twins on the way), my friend Dorothy sent me a parenting advice book.

The book talked about something called the Family Bed. I got through two or three chapters before the twins arrived. After their birth, reading parenting books was the last thing on my mind. I've never finished the Family Bed book, but thanks to Dorothy and those first few chapters, I've also never spent three extra seconds worrying about whether my kid was sleeping in his own bed, my bed or somewhere else entirely, as long as the kid was safe. If I hadn't known there are tons of people who don't get worked up about where a kid sleeps, I'm not sure I would have had the confidence to not give a fig about it, myself.

It's hard to believe that there are still experts telling parents, "Don't let a kid sleep in your bed," notwithstanding the fact that pretty much every mammalian species demonstrates how to cuddle and snuggle a kid through the night. Kids like it. Parents like it. Who gets harmed, exactly, when a kid sleeps in his parents' bed? (Or his brother's bed, the couch, or the dog bed for that matter?)

Now that my five kids are half-to-full-grown (the twins are 19, the youngest is 10 and the other two are between them), I know something about parenting I didn't know in 1993. I know when to trust my gut as a parent, most of the time. Here are five parenting situations I wish I had handled differently -- five situations in which I wish I'd trusted my gut and not someone else's authority, or social norms or some other not-my-gut source of wisdom:

When to Push Back Against a Doctor's Instructions

When my second son was six days old, he stopped breathing and we called 911. An ambulance crew took him (and me) to the hospital where the baby stayed for three weeks, recovering from a respiratory virus he picked up in the nursery after birth. He stopped breathing six times the first night; it was a terrifying time. I had told the doctor and the nurse before we left the hospital after my son's birth that he didn't look healthy to me. I had to wake him to nurse him. He looked pale and his breaths were shallow. Four days later, he was in the ER. I should have been more forceful with the doctor when they told me my baby was ready to go home. I had already had two kids. I thought "This guy has been to medical school." Why didn't I think "I just gave birth to this baby. I know how active he is!"?

When to Address Another Adult's Interaction with Your Child

I had a weird/put-off feeling the first time I met one of our old neighbors. We were moving in and I knew there were kids close by, so I stopped at the kid-houses on the block to introduce our family. I had stopped at an old-timey candy shop to get a treat for our kids and bought some extra candies for the neighbor kids. I handed my neighbor the candies, and she said "Thanks." Her husband said "Our kids don't need that junk," turned on his heel and left the room. Hmm, I thought.

I should have paid attention to that antisocial reaction; as they say, when someone shows you who he is, believe him. A few months later, my 5-year-old was playing at the same neighbor's house. The grumpy dad grabbed my 5-year-old and threw him on the ground, scraping his knees and hands. Needless to say, the kids didn't play together after that. I should have gone with my initial reaction to the guy: intense, angry, weird dude.

How Long to Nurse

I loved nursing, and only stopped nursing my youngest two boys at age 3 because I thought people would think I was weird. (Even in Boulder, Colorado.) I stopped nursing them in public at age 2, but people would still ask me with both boys, "Have you weaned that 2-year-old yet? Isn't it about time?" At a wedding, a stranger came over to where I nursed my youngest in the corner, under a blanket, and said "That child is too old to nurse." There's no reason to wean a happy nursing kid at age 3, and I wish I had let the kids decide when to stop, instead of subjecting them to an arbitrary age-based cutoff. Nursing a 3-year-old... talk about a victimless crime!

When to Intervene at School

Schools are full of anti-bullying programs these days and I couldn't be happier. Sadly, my kids' bullying experiences at school have had more to do with bullying by teachers than anything the other kids did. A teacher had my son prepare a Student Council election speech, come to the front of the class, wait while the other children recited their speeches and then sit down, as she told him, "You're not fit to represent our class, because you go to Homework Club after school." I never wanted, and still don't want, to be the mom who makes a fuss at school, but this teacher was shaming a child outright.

The principal got involved and apologies were made... but I had had signs of this teacher's approach before. She wrote to me after the first week of school, admonishing me for some parental infraction or other in a tone I wouldn't use with anyone, much less another adult. I should have advocated for my son sooner; my brain said "Give the lady a chance, even with her hateful communication style," instead of "Be alert, now; your son may need your help with this lady."

When to Let Them Quit

I stopped taking piano lessons as a teenager, and like many adults, I have been known to say, "I wish I had kept up with piano lessons." All of our kids have studied piano at one time or another, and all of them play other instruments.

When my second-oldest son wanted to quit taking lessons in eighth grade, I was distraught and angry. I offered inducements for him to keep playing. Never mind that this kid always knows his mind and has great instincts. He wanted to play guitar, not keyboards. I pled and cajoled; one day I was done arguing and gave in, with dismay.

The kid plays guitar like a maniac now, and he's interested in keyboards again. He's playing our piano as I write this, and as I think about the adults who say "I wish my parents had made me keep taking lessons," I realize that what they're really saying is "I could take piano lessons right now, of course, but I don't make time for it, so it doesn't happen. I still blame my parents for something I could fix starting tomorrow morning."

Trust the kid, already! And, of course, trust your gut.