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How would you parent if no one was watching?

I had a mini parenting crisis two nights back.

We had a free trial for a fun coding game that my daughter enjoyed, and it was on its last day. She and I talked that morning about how this was our last day with the app, but we clearly both forgot. Sure enough, just as my husband and I had gotten the kids to bed and kicked up our feet to watch Schitt’s Creek, we hear her voice calling out: “I forgot to play the gaaaaaame!”

We looked at each other, sighed, grabbed the tablet, and let her play it in the next room while we finished our episode. Then she went back to bed. Everyone was happy.

A few minutes later, she called for us again, distraught. “Mommy, I showed you the wrong obby (obstacle course). I made one that was really hard and I only showed you the easy one.”

Now, my daughter is the stalling queen, so I shut it down quickly and said goodnight. But then, I heard her sobbing. Hard. For several minutes. Tears of real pain.

I climbed into her bunk bed, and she explained to me how upset she was with herself that she’d shown me the wrong obby, and that now she’d never have a chance to show me the harder one because the game – and her creation – would be gone.

I sat there silently for a moment. Everything in me wanted to stick to my word and say no. I mean, it was like 9:30 pm at this point. I had already let her stay up past her bedtime to play this game – surely another indulgence would move me from the “fun parent” category to “spoiling her rotten,” right?

But who is the keeper of those categories?

Deep down, I didn’t want to be judged

I knew deep within me that saying yes in this moment wasn’t “spoiling” her – it was showing her compassion in a genuine moment of difficult emotion. Or, in the words of @empowered.parenting, I was simply treating her as “a whole person, with a completely valid human experience.” Even still, I could literally feel the internal conflict making my chest tight.

Why such a tug-of-war? I quickly realized I wasn’t actually worried about spoiling her at all – I was worried about some mysterious audience watching and judging my parenting.

Somehow, I had let the standards of people I couldn’t even name creep into that top bunk where we were cuddling. And that’s a pretty poor reason to make a parenting decision.

“Yes, my love,” I told her. “You can show me the obby.”

Her whole demeanor immediately shifted: not the usual smug victory smiles that she displays when she’s won a dessert negotiation, just genuine relief and joy. She giggled gleefully as she watched me play her obby, and then she went to bed with a sweet, quiet sense of contentment.

Our true reasons

Sometimes the desire to do things “right” in parenting is so strong that I don’t stop to examine where my definition of “right” is even coming from. We are so inundated with information, advice, cultural norms, and societal attitudes that it can be hard to cut through the noise and actually access our own intuition, values, and spiritual truths.

At my core, I want my children to feel deeply affirmed for exactly who they are. I want them to feel respected and valued as humans deserving of dignity – small humans, growing humans, but still complete in themselves. I want them to know that their emotions and needs are valid, even when they inevitably need help learning how to express them in healthy ways. Put simply, I want to treat them the way I’d like to be treated.

Trust your parenting

Like my daughter, I also feel my emotions in a deep place, often in situations that others may deem inconsequential. I can become consumed with regret about a tiny missed opportunity, or unable to shake a certain emotion for hours on end. And I’m a reasonably healthy and well-regulated adult. If there’s something small I can do to calm an all-consuming storm in my child’s heart – a child who’s still trying to make sense of her internal world – then I’m committed to doing it. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me.

Each decision will look different, and another parent’s decisions will almost certainly look different than mine. What this night showed me has little to do with any one parenting philosophy, and everything to do with who and what we’re allowing to have the biggest say in our parenting decisions.

Societal pressure is real but you don’t need to follow it

If you asked me on an average day whether I care what others think about my parenting, I’d likely brush it off with, “of course not!” Intellectually, I know that societal pressure alone is rarely a valid reason to do something. But real life isn’t that simple. It’s impossible not to let the messaging and opinions around us seep into our decisions subconsciously.

That’s why growing in parenting mindfully has been crucial for me. If I’m able to pause and reflect, like I was that night, I can sift out the truth from the many voices trying to influence me. I can ground myself in the present moment and focus on what my child is experiencing in the here and now. I can take the time to acknowledge my own emotional state and weed out any factors having an unfair influence on my response. And I can evaluate whether my response is actually in alignment with my core values.

I don’t do this nearly as often as I’d like, but it feels so good when I do. I’m a work in progress, but I hope that both the parenting “wins” and “losses” will keep me humble and remind me to see my kids as I strive to see myself: far from perfect, in need of so much grace, and yet deeply worthy of unconditional love.

Ellie Hunja

Ellie is a writer, social worker, and mom of two who’s on a journey to cultivate a life of purpose, authenticity, and joy. She believes that empathy and vulnerability can change the world, and she writes about parenting, social justice, faith, mental health, embracing autism, and more at She loves to connect with other moms on Instagram at @elliehunja or Facebook @EllieHunjaWriter!

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