9 Parenting Hacks and Habits Not to Feel Guilty About

Experts share nine so-called "bad" parenting decisions, from bathing habits to screen time, that aren't that big a deal—and may even benefit your kids!

Mom with Kids Roughhousing Priscilla Gragg

So you served  up a pretty unhealthy breakfast or yelled at your munchkin because he refused to put on his shoes. Don’t beat yourself up! The truth is, lots of things can fall by the wayside and you’ll still raise fantastic kiddos. Here, experts share nine so-called “bad parenting decisions”—from bathing habits to screen time—that are not that big a deal and may even benefit your kids.

1. You pop a pacifier back into your 7-month old’s mouth after it falls on the floor.

As long as his Binky didn’t fall into a big pile of dog poop, it’s probably a whole lot cleaner than your phone, says Beth Tarini, M.D., division director of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, in Iowa City. Next time, if you’re near a sink, rinse it under running water. (Use dish soap for bonus points!) If not, use a baby wipe to give it a once-over, clean it off on your pants—or, just go with your usual tactic of popping it into your mouth. One small study found that exposing your kids to your own oral bacteria via sucking their pacifier can help lower their risk of developing allergies. Since the American Dental Association warns that this could also transfer cavity-causing germs into your baby’s mouth, you might not want to do it on a regular basis—especially once his first teeth have erupted. But, in general, a little dirt is not going to hurt either one of you.

2. You let your kids roughhouse (hey, it’s easier than breaking them up).

 If it looks like someone’s going to careen into the corner of the coffee table or burst into tears, by all means, interfere. But in most cases, wrestling is fine. In fact, research suggests that rough-and-tumble play in kids ages 4 to 11 can strengthen neural networks in the brain that control memory, attention, and impulse control, and also improve social skills, says Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., a researcher in the department of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, Canada. This “play” involves forms of rule-following, turn-taking, and decision-making that structured sports lack. 

3. You leave your kid with a babysitter or at child care while you’re at work.

“When parents work, they can bring a plethora of opportunities to their child,” says Dr. Tarini. For one, moms who work outside the home may be more likely to raise daughters who grow up to take on a leadership role at work and sons who take on caregiver responsibilities, Harvard research has found. Plus, if you feel guilty about spending the day away from your kids, you may be more lax in disciplining them when you are at home. That can lead to behavioral problems as they grow up.

4. You serve up store-bought baby food.

The DIY kind isn’t necessarily a healthier option. Research shows that the majority of store-bought baby food contains more veggies, and the homemade kind has more than the recommended amount of calories and fat. (We’re not talking straight-up vegetable and fruit purees.) Besides, anything you do out of obligation will create extra stress. That’s something you don’t need right now. 

5. You skip a nightly bath.

Before about age 8, kids don’t have well-developed sweat and oil glands, so they perspire without the stink. And if they’re not mobile yet, they’re probably not getting too dirty. Skipping a night or two is fine and even healthy for young kids, says Scott Norton, M.D., division chief of dermatology at Children’s National Health System. Overusing soap, especially if your child has sensitive skin or a condition like eczema, can exacerbate dryness and irritation. Get your baby in the tub a few times per week or on days when he had a diaper blowout or was too enthusiastic with the spaghetti sauce.

6. You stop breastfeeding before the one-year mark. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continuing it along with solid foods until your child’s first birthday or longer. But for many moms, breastfeeding is difficult, especially in the early stages. Maybe it’s draining to have a newborn attached to your boobs 24/7 and painful or upsetting to deal with latch problems, raw nipples, and the like. Or maybe when you go back to work, pumping is near impossible and unmanageably timeconsuming. “I suggest that new moms give breastfeeding a try for at least one month—it tends to get better as babies get older,” says Valerie Flaherman, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the UCSF School of Medicine. But if that doesn’t work for you or you need to stop sooner, it’s okay. “You shouldn’t feel guilty for making the decision that’s in the best interest of your family—whatever that may be,” she says. And remember: Any length of time spent breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby.

7. You don’t buy the expensive organic diapers.

Friends may tell you that organic brands are better for your baby because they’re made with fewer toxins, but studies show conventional diapers are safe and contain only trace amounts of chemicals. “If you buy regular ones, you’re not changing the course of your child’s life,” says Joseph Gigante, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in Nashville.

8. You tell your kids you’re not their short-order cook.

It’s the parents’ job to get some kind of dinner on the table. Whether your child eats it is beyond your control, says Sarah Bauer, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. In fact, as long as your child is growing and developing typically, it’s A-OK to say “no mac and cheese tonight” and let her tummy growl. After a few nights of going to bed hungry, most kids will start to dig into whatever you’re serving. Can’t handle an empty belly? Offer up a boring standby alternative every night, like a cheese stick or whole-grain bread. 

9. You allow your kids to play on a tablet at restaurants.

Nearly 50 percent of parents say that regulating screen time is a constant battle in their household, according to a new survey by the American Psychological Association. But since your local Italian joint and favorite sushi spot aren’t in your house, feel free to call them neutral territory some of the time. (If you always do it, when will you teach your kid how to play hangman and tic-tac-toe on a place mat?!) Just be sure to bring along headphones for them so they can play without making noise. Because too much screen time can impair social-skills development, Dr. Gigante advises parents to limit it to one or two hours a day. It’s also a good idea to ban the tablet from the dinner table at home, since that’s prime time for family bonding and conversation.