10 Practical Pieces of Advice for First-Time Parents
"Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do and the one for which we are least prepared."
I became a parent two months ago.
It’s surreal, but no one’s asking me about how surreal it is that there is a new full-blown human here now. Instead, this is the burning question they want me to answer: “So ... do you still have time to write?” It’s a polite form of the clichéd question new moms get all the time: “How do you balance it all?”
As much as you try to prepare for the first few weeks, it’s impossible. You find yourself bleary-eyed in a seemingly endless tunnel of sleep deprivation. When I don’t get enough sleep, it’s not writing I think about — it’s sleep.
But here’s the shocking answer to the question above: I do have time to write because I make time to write. I work in 2- to 3-hour spurts and write one-handed on my phone in the middle of the night as I feed the baby. (Fun fact: This exact paragraph was written at 3:18 a.m.)
Katherine Boyle, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, recently said that motherhood has made her more productive — not less. “It made me more creative, better with time management,” she writes. “It gave me the superpower of saying ‘no’ to the priorities of others. It made me speak up for the things I believed in when I would have been more polite before.”
So, dear reader, here I am writing to you not out of obligation but out of fulfillment. There’s no “balance,” but rather, a shifting of priorities. Luckily, The Profile is my livelihood, my priority, and my joy. It’s not easy to focus on writing while tending to the needs of a newborn, but it’s worth it.
After asking Profile readers to share their best parenting advice, I learned this very important thing: As challenging as it may seem in the moment, one day you’ll refer to the life you’re living today as “the good old days,” and you’ll miss them tremendously.
Thanks to the dozens of readers who weighed in, I have crowdsourced the ultimate guide to parenthood below. Whether you’re a parent, an older sibling, or a mentor, I guarantee you’ll learn something.
1. Remember that everything is temporary
Everything — the good, the bad, and the painful — is fleeting. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s human nature to think that the challenging moments will last forever.
But reader S.A. reminds us that life is just a series of phases. “A baby waking up every two hours is temporary,” she writes. “A kid who will only eat chips is temporary. A temper tantrum — temporary.”
I remember reading an edition of this fantastic newsletter, which explained that our belief that things will last is the root of our unhappiness. It says:
There's a Jewish folktale about King Solomon asking a counselor for an adage that would make the happy man sad, and the sad man happy. The counselor, perplexed, asked a jeweler in the bazaar for advice. The jeweler inscribed on a ring: 'This too shall pass.' Call it obvious, but it’s taken me my entire life to half-master this axiom.
2. Encourage kids to jump in muddy puddles
How can you nudge your child to become, say, an astrophysicist? Well, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has the answer: Encourage their curiosity.
When Tyson was walking around Central Park, he noticed a woman walking with her six-year-old child. The boy had on a raincoat and boots, and he spotted a big, juicy puddle on the path. Right as he was preparing to jump in the muddy puddle, his mom pulled him around the side of it.
Tyson says the child lost out on the opportunity to conduct a valuable experiment.
“What happens if I jump two feet into a puddle? This is an experiment in how you make craters,” he says. “How do you think craters on the moon happen? Not by kids jumping in puddles, but something hits and it splashes and it makes a crater rim. But she did not want to clean dirty boots. That should not be your mindset when you’re raising children.”
Exploration sometimes looks like a total mess. It looks like spilling juice all over the counter, drawing on the walls, and jumping in a muddy puddle.
“Your job is not: How do you stimulate interest in science? It’s: How do you make sure that interest doesn’t go away. How do you do that? Embrace the mess,” Tyson says.
Children are born curious. It’s our job to cultivate their interests, encourage their curiosities, and help them answer big questions.
3. Ask more than you tell
Reader F.M says the biggest lesson she’s learned from her daughter over the last 21 years has been this: It’s important to ask her more than you tell her.
When her daughter was 7 or 8 years old, she came home from school and asked whether F.M. was aware that some religions "don't like gay people."
“I told her that yes, I was aware of that,” F.M. says. “I was then a bit stumped as to what to say next, so I asked her what she thought of that. Without skipping a beat, she said: ‘That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. God made gay people. He wouldn't make something he doesn't like.’”
Her daughter said it far better than F.M. could have, and it taught her that kids are wiser than we give them credit for. “And, in addition to teaching me, it has bolstered her confidence and brought us closer,” F.M. says.
4. Time is the best gift you can give your child
Here’s the crazy thing about any relationship in life: It’s the mundane moments that determine its health and longevity.
Reader C.J. says that the most important “thing” you can give your child is the gift of time. “I would tell myself to sit, read, play, create, laugh, cry, and talk with my child more with a great deal more presence while letting go of all the ‘have tos’ I thought were important,” she says.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are pretty boring — riding a bike with my dad, laying in bed with my mom watching TV, and playing board games with my grandparents. But all of those memories have one thing in common — it was quality time spent with people I love.
Reader N.H. reminds us that each phase goes by very fast, and you only get to parent your child one time. “Be bored with your child. Keep the phone away during those slow moments and really focus on her and on the relationship,” he says. “Sometimes, in those moments, magic happens. And those are the memories that will stay with you as everything else falls away.”
5. Let go of the myth that kids are fragile creatures
Reader M.K. says people often wrongly look at babies as fragile creatures that must be protected from the world. In fact, kids are much more resilient than we think. Keeping them in a protective bubble of sorts can actually do more damage than good.
“I've seen parents use disinfecting wipes on every surface their kid might touch, and I've seen my daughter chew on tables and chairs in coffee shops while teething,” he says. ”Other than specific dangerous allergies like some kids have to nuts or bee stings, I generally figure it's pretty OK to let kids roam around and get into things.”
As someone who was recently thrown into the baby world, I am amazed at how many different types of wipes, disinfectants, and cleaning products you can buy. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea of creating a pristine environment for your child, but getting dirty and germ-y is a natural part of development and exploration.
J.R, a father of four and a recent grandfather of one, offers us an important reality check.
“We have survived as a race for millennia. Babies have lived and thrived in dirt-floored huts, been raised in crowded and noisy tenements, slept with their siblings from birth in makeshift beds made of animal hides, and traveled in caravans across scorching deserts,” he says. “They will survive a night with diaper rash.”
6. Prioritize your relationship with your partner
You may have heard this quote before: “The best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother.” At first, it gave me pause because I thought: “I mean, it’s nice if the parents love each other, but isn’t the child always the top focus and priority?”
But I now understand the point. Without the love that trickles down from the parents, it’s hard for the child to feel secure. If there’s constant arguing, disrespect, and tension in the home, it ultimately harms the little human the most.
Reader C.B. is a mom to a 15-month-old, and she says she’s had to come to terms with the fact that it’s simply impossible to get everything right.
“If you try to do everything right, you’ll lose your mind,” she says. “More often than not, this has resulted in tension between me and my husband. The last thing we want to do is argue in front of our son, but it happens. So my advice to you is also advice to myself, which is to prioritize the relationship with your partner above all else.”
C.B. says she and her husband had put their relationship on the back-burner to focus on the baby and their careers. “But while we fully supported each other’s ambitions and endeavors, we put our own love and connection on hold,” she says. “And that lack of intimacy affected us and how we parented our son.”
Once they recognized that they weren’t prioritizing each other, they righted the ship with more movie-watching, foot-rubbing, and meaningful, deep conversations. “We love our new roles as Mama and Papa, but never want it to take away from our commitment as husband and wife,” she says.
(For more on the importance of nourishing your relationships, check out my article, ‘100 Couples Share Their Secrets to a Successful Relationship’)
7. Resist ‘punitive parenting’
When you’re exhausted, sleep-deprived, and upset, it’s easy to jump to harsh punishment for your child. Or yelling. Or stonewalling.
Those are never the answer, but reader C.T. says that we often fall into a cycle of punitive parenting when we’re all out of ideas on how to handle the situation. “You'll parent imperfectly. Kids are tough and will survive your imperfection,” she says. “Be kind to yourself when you don't parent like you want to because self-forgiveness needs to be modeled too.”
Her best advice? Assume the child is doing the best she can. And if she’s not doing what you expect or want, assume there’s a reason and try to find out what it is.
Anger, humiliation, and shame are not tools that work well to motivate adults, let alone kids who are still trying to figure out how the world works. “Great leaders,” C.T. says, “lead through clarity of expectations, coaching, development, adapting the work and the request to meet the abilities of the people they're leading and prioritizing.”
For example, C.T. used to put a toy or device in time out, not her child. “The toy is not working well for the child right now, she's not ready at this moment to use it in a way that's safe or okay for her (or her parents), whatever the reason is,” she says. “But the child is not the problem — how she's using the toy is.”
By giving the toy a time-out, you can sympathize with your child’s unhappy feelings about losing the toy, explain why the toy is temporarily unavailable, and use the situation as an opportunity to teach a lesson. Empathy is a far greater tool than punishment.
“If I had to do it all over again I would never yell at my kids,” says reader G.S. “It doesn’t help. People shut down when they are yelled at. But being calm (challenging!), forceful yet quiet — it gets their attention.”
8. Create a time capsule of special moments
When I was 2 years old, my mom recorded us talking on a cassette tape. The conversation is amazing and hilarious because it perfectly encapsulates the thought process of a toddler. The topics I chose to talk about were all over the place — from what my friends in pre-K were doing to why I was upset that I went to time-out a few days prior. It’s a very regular conversation, but it’s one I absolutely cherish today.
“Find a digital way to write down special days or moments,” reader M.L. says. “My kids ask me all the time, and I don't have specifics.”
Whether it’s writing letters to your children or creating a scrapbook they can enjoy when they’re older, find a way to record the special moments.
As Jim O’Shaughnessy says, “We could be living through one of the most interesting periods of human history, and you have a chance to narrate it for yourself and your children. I’ve long advocated writing continuous letters to your kids, but given all the changes we’re living through, it might give you an extra special opportunity to let your kids see it all unfold.”
9. Throw out the parenting books
If you’ve read this far, you’re not going to believe what I’m about to say next: When it comes to parenting your child, there is no gold standard. Even the most well-meaning advice — like the one in this article — is only a nice suggestion rather than absolute truth.
Reader M.M, a pediatric nurse practitioner, makes a fantastic point: You can’t be a “one-size-fits-all” type of parent.
“I chuckled when I read your request for advice on parenting. In my experience, new parents get too much advice and are overwhelmed. Although well-meaning, you will need to filter it,” she says. “Every baby is unique, as well as every family, so what works for one doesn't always work for another. I always told parents that babies don't read books, so they don't always do what the books say they should.”
The point is: There is no silver bullet to perfect parenting. It’s all trial and error, but in the end, you’ll figure it out on your own.
Reader R.J. received very sage advice following the birth of his first child 30 years ago: ”A very wise woman told me, ‘Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do and the one for which we are least prepared.’ She was right on. You’ll be taxed and rewarded beyond your most expansive comprehension and ... you’ll do fine,” he says.
10. Remember there is no substitute for unconditional love
The one piece of advice readers shared time and time again was a simple one: Tell your kids you love them. And don’t just tell them — show them too.
E.R. idolized his mom, who raised him as a single parent often working multiple jobs to provide for him and make sure he had his needs met. When he asked her for parenting advice, she said without hesitation: "Whatever you do, just love that child with all your heart, and you'll be fine."
It’s so simple but so powerful.
“It hit me immediately how profound that was,” E.R. says. “I was looking for specific pointers and guidance, but she gave me a principle that I can use in any situation at any time and get the best answer/decision. Just love that child with all your heart. That was her secret parental advice and the advice I want to share with you (and hopefully your readers).”
It’s that simple. After reading the hundreds of emails filled with advice, I’ve learned that the secret to great parenting is this:
Perfection is futile — things will go wrong, we’ll make mistakes, and sometimes we’ll say things we don’t mean. It’s the unconditional love, care, kindness, and support that are instrumental in shaping our kids into wonderful, responsible adults.
As reader D.Z. reminds us, “When you raise your children, you’re really raising your children’s children.”
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