When Lindsay Powers first came up with the idea for her new and excellent book, “You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting,” (Atria Books), out now, she wanted parents to give themselves a break. There was so much stress surrounding parenting. Everyone was sweating every little issue, convincing themselves if they didn’t do X, Y or Z, their children would be doomed.
These days, there’s even more stress at home, as parents attempt to juggle work and online schooling and family time during a global pandemic. But there’s good news, says Powers, who started the popular #shamefreeparenting social-media movement when she was the editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Parenting. As she recently told me in a phone interview, maintaining a happy, sane household in the midst of all this chaos isn’t as impossible as it might sound. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)
ME: Describe the situation in your house right now, as a parent.
POWERS: I’m at home with my 4-year-old and 6-year-old and husband in Brooklyn. We are lucky to have space — two floors, which is key because I can go to our bedroom where I have a desk and close the door. My husband is working in the kitchen. I’m an editorial consultant at Verizon, and I’m more slammed than ever before. My husband works in financial technology, and he’s slammed, too. My 6-year-old does two Google Classroom sessions; my 4-year-old has been joining in, too, despite hating his own Google Classroom sessions and refusing to do them. We’re all on Wi-Fi all day long, so we’re all getting kicked out of our sessions. But the real eye-opener of this pandemic is that parents feel more freedom to leave kids to their own devices. Boredom is not a bad thing. It’s a good muscle to develop. I can’t have a color-coded schedule where I’m doing math worksheets with them. That’s not happening.
Some more literal-minded people might look at the title of your book and say, “But you CAN f–k up your kids!” What do you actually mean?
Obviously you can f–k up your kids if you neglect, abuse, starve them, don’t vaccinate them, or smoke during pregnancy. But the book itself is research-backed, and it calls for a saner take on parenting. We are not effing up our kids because we didn’t breastfeed them for two years, feed them organic food, or use infant flashcards. I wanted to reassure parents that if they didn’t follow all the rules, their kids would still be fine.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned over the course of your reporting?
I’ve always known that spending time together for a meal is more important than what we put on the table. But talking to doctors and nutritionists about the division of responsibilities was amazing to me. The basic premise is, you serve things family-style in bowls on the table. Try to have one of them be something you know your kids will like, like sliced-up apples. The parent determines what time we eat and what’s available. We let the kids serve themselves. It gives some control to them. Eating this way makes dinner less of a struggle. If they want to eat bread and apple slices? Cool.
What are the top three things parents get most worried about?
The biggest is screen time. We think, “How can we protect our kids against screens when we order toilet paper through Amazon?” But when you look at the research, there are tons of benefits to screen time: connection, education. The key to parenting, as with everything, is moderation. Parents have to be easy on themselves. There’s no way we’re going to look back at this time 10 years from now and think, “I wish my kids hadn’t watched so much ‘Paw Patrol’ during the pandemic.” My kids have Amazon Fire Kindle tablets, and we give them one hour a day with a timer because otherwise they turn into maniacs. A second one is food. People stress way too much about whether it’s organic and that type of thing. Food has become a really judgmental discourse. And finally, breastfeeding. It’s great if you want to do it. But if you don’t want to, it’s fine, and your kids will be fine. People act like you have to do all or nothing, rather than meeting in the middle.
A lot of parents I know are going wild worrying about whether their kids will get behind at school. What do you think?
I think parents need to keep in mind that even when kids are in school, it’s not like they’re having seven hours of uninterrupted daily learning! Teachers spend a lot of time lining kids up, getting them to function as a group. Also, we should lean into life skills right now. For instance, when you teach your kids about cooking, you’re also teaching them math.
What do you think is the most important thing parents can do during this time?
Give extra cuddles and hugs and moments of calm. There’s so much pressure to be productive — and sometimes the best thing we can do is nothing. And give grace to ourselves and our partners — space and grace. It’s fine if we talk to our kids about being sad or disappointed, or not knowing what is next, but we can also talk to them about ways we can help in our community. If we’re constantly talking about the news or the death numbers around our kids, that’s too much. There’s no way we can shield our kids from everything, but we have to shield them from the worst of it.
Have you started any new family traditions?
Yes! We like to make pizza from scratch. It’s something we used to do every once in a while, but now it’s every Friday night. Brad will start making the dough in the afternoon, and then we go out to the yard and we grill the pizza and have a pizza picnic. One week we ran out of yeast and I spent $20 for some on Amazon, because I figured this was important. Hopefully we’ll carry on this tradition after this time ends.
Everyone’s work and family life is kind of hodgepodge right now; the same boundaries no longer exist. Are there any opportunities in all this chaos?
Yes. For one, it’s a great way to show your kids what you do at work! But this time also destroys the whole myth of “having it all.” I used to block off bits of time and say that I wasn’t available for a meeting, but not offer an explanation. As I’ve become more senior, I feel like it’s my responsibility to be really open about family life and being a multifaceted person — whether you have a family or outside hobbies. I hope we’re forced into awkward conversations about the expectations on parents. It’s terrible that it took a global pandemic to do that. But I hope we’ll have a little more understanding of people’s lives and how they exist outside of work.