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Keep Calm and Parent On

A Guilt-Free Approach to Raising Children by Asking More from Them and Doing Less

Foreword by Debra Messing

About The Book

From a modern-day Mary Poppins and the former star of TLC’s Take Home Nanny comes a holistic and guilt-free approach to parenting children ages seven and under.

Emma Jenner lives, teaches, and nannies by this philosophy: if parents are in control, they can enjoy their children more. And what could be more enjoyable than well- behaved, respectful, healthy, thriving kids?

Keep Calm and Parent On effectively places parenting expert Emma Jenner on your shoulder, helping you see your child’s behavior from an objective standpoint that puts you firmly in charge. Each chapter opens with a checklist of questions to ask yourself when you run into a specific problem, whether it’s sleeping, nutrition, communication, manners, consequences, or self-esteem. Jenner then breaks down each checklist, explaining how bad behavior is really just a habit that needs to be corrected. By connecting the dots in all areas of your child’s life, you can understand why he or she is acting out—and how to fix it. For example, the best discipline techniques in the world won’t work if a child is sleep-deprived, and a child will not demonstrate good manners if communication is faulty and he doesn’t understand what’s expected of him. Each chapter also features handy sidebars, as well as instructive and memorable quizzes. A strong proponent of raising our expectations, Jenner shows how parents can do more by doing less for their children.

With an interactive format and straightforward solutions, this invaluable guide is designed to give parents bite-size takeaways they can use immediately with their children. Jenner’s blend of British and American parenting styles is more than advice; it is proof that all children are capable of behaving—and that you have the keys to unlocking their potential.


Keep Calm and Parent On INTRODUCTION

Fairy Dust
“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”


I’VE WORKED WITH nannies and parents around the globe, and I’ve noticed a growing crisis in how children are raised.

Consider this example: An adult enters a room where there is one seat, occupied by a child. Does the child stand and let the adult take the seat? Or if the adult is seated and the child enters, does the adult stand? When I was growing up in Britain in the 1980s, it was unfathomable for a child to sit while an adult stood. And now? It’s the opposite. Parents are so eager to make their children comfortable, or to avoid the sounds of their whining, that they sacrifice themselves.

I recently overheard a mum asking a dad if he’d gone to the store to pick up bread with their son. “He didn’t want to go,” said the dad. He didn’t want to go? My eyes just about popped out of my head. Who was the parent, and who was the child? If this dad could have only heard himself, perhaps it would have been a wake-up call that it was time to regain some control.

Modern parenting is in trouble, and we must understand how we got here before we can make any sense of it. I see four primary causes for our brewing crisis:

1. We’ve dropped our expectations.

Imagine a raised bar, like a high bar from an Olympics gymnastics competition. We expect our children to surmount this bar. When we were children ourselves, that bar reached our chest level, and to get over it took some effort and discipline, but get over it we did. Gradually, that bar has inched downward. With each passing year we expect less and less of our children. They must merely place a relaxed fingertip on a bar that barely reaches their knee, and we jump for joy. “Daren did the dishes with me tonight!” we say proudly. “What a great kid!” The slippage has been greater in certain countries (sorry, America . . . though in truth, the UK isn’t far behind you), but I’ve yet to see a country or culture beyond reproach.

I once watched while a toddler pulled his father’s hair. The dad smiled and removed his son’s grip, and the little boy immediately grabbed for a chunk of hair again. The situation was repeated several times. Never did Dad use a stern voice and reprimand him or stop playing with him as a consequence of the rough play. Both the dad and the mum felt their son was too young to behave differently. As another example, I frequently hear parents claim that they can’t take their child to a restaurant. “Why not?” I ask. “Because he won’t behave. I’m embarrassed and don’t want to deal with it.” To that I say “Nonsense. He will behave if you expect him to and teach him how.” At the end of the day, you have to put in the work, and though it takes time, effort, and patience, it’s worth it. I can take an eighteen-month-old, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old into a posh restaurant and know they will behave. How do I know? Because I won’t tolerate anything less!

Parents are frequently standing way too close to see their children’s capabilities. There’s a fairly sentimental car commercial that shows a dad instructing his daughter the ins and outs of driving on a journey she’s about to take. When the camera spans to the daughter, she’s no more than six—not even capable of reaching the gas pedal. In another shot, she’s shown to actually be a teenager, but the point is clear: Parents are inclined to see their children through a special lens, one in which they are always smaller and less capable than they actually are. We are so accustomed to them relying on us for everything, that as that reliance goes away little by little, we are sometimes slow to adjust. On the flip side, we must also set up our children for success and not set the bar unreasonably high. You must understand your child and meet her where she is.

With all of this in mind, I am here to raise the bar. If you take nothing else away from this book, let it be this: Expect more from your children, and they will rise to it. Expect less, and they will sink.

2. We’ve abandoned the village.

Parents do not support one another like they used to; they’re too busy competing about whose kids can do better. They don’t talk to one another about the struggles they’re having—a lost opportunity to get much-needed empathy and perhaps some advice—because they don’t want to admit to others when their child misbehaves. Instead of working as a team with other parents and teachers, they’re working against one another.

It takes a village to raise a child, and we’ve lost that village. Though my mum did most of the child rearing in my family, my nana, teachers, the local shopkeeper, and my parents’ friends all played a part. In the United States, in contrast, one’s parenting style is up for critique by everyone. I would even go so far as to say that most parents are scared to set boundaries in public, for fear someone will judge them.

My friend Abby just told me about an incident at her son’s daycare where the teachers were having a difficult time getting her son to eat his yogurt properly without tossing it all about. Abby responded by saying, “Okay, what should I do? Let’s fix it.” The daycare teachers were shocked that she was so receptive.

Most parents, Abby later learned, would reject any criticism of their child. In contrast, once when I was very young and stole a few penny-sweets from a shop, my mum marched me back and made me apologize to the shopkeeper. If that happened today, in the United States or the UK, the parent might chastise the child, but they’d likely be too embarrassed to admit their child’s transgression. My mum was embarrassed, too, no doubt, but it was worth it to teach me a lesson. The bottom line is, without a healthy sense of support and community, parents are on their own trying to do a task that is so much better suited for a village.

3. We take too many shortcuts.

The third problem we face is that parents are harried to such an extent that many take shortcuts wherever they are able. The availability of shortcuts is indeed a blessing in this crazy world, but only if used with care.

The shortcuts I am most opposed to are video games and the TV shows. It will not be news to anyone reading this that our children are too plugged in. Many experts talk about the costs of technology in terms of our children’s attention deficit problems, and I agree with this, but the overuse of media causes problems in many areas of children’s lives. Among other repercussions, it affects their sleep, it affects their schedule, and it affects the rate at which they learn to behave properly. For instance, if you want to attend a baby shower and bring your child, once she acts out, you can plug her into the iPad you brought along instead of doing the harder work of teaching her to conduct herself well in a new setting. It’s much easier to ignore poor behavior and give in than it is to teach. But we must resist the easy way and take the longer view!

Another shortcut is food. Perhaps you eat your food on the go, in the car on your way from one engagement to another. Though it is certainly wonderful that such meals are available, the shortcut means that you are losing the opportunity to spend quality time with your children over dinner and to model proper eating habits and table manners.

Shortcuts can be as significant as letting your child watch hours of television, but they can also be as basic as picking up a one-year-old when he falls lightly on his bum (you are in a hurry, and you hate for him to cry) instead of waiting for him to pick himself up. Going for the quick fix saves time and aggravation in the short term, but makes life so much harder in the long term. Think of it as an energy equation. Suppose you want your kindergartner to clean up his room at the end of the day. You could expend twenty minutes and ten units of energy coaxing him to do it or you could clean it yourself in half the time and expend half the energy. True. But you will expend that same energy the next day, and the next. If, instead of cleaning his room for him, you take the extra time and energy to help him do it, in time you will be able to step away completely. And what’s more, you’ll have created a more responsible human being in the process! If you were running your home like a business, you would never clean the room for him. Though this is a very mathematical way to think of a task, it’s extraordinarily helpful when you need to summon those ten units of energy you just don’t have.

4. We’ve lost our sense of proportion.

The fourth and final problem is that we’ve lost our common sense about moderation in parenting. We have a tendency to overthink parenting, with so many experts and “new” methods and medications, that basic common sense can be elusive. Parents want a quick fix; they want a prescription for how to solve their child’s problems, whether it be poor sleep or trouble focusing. But there is no quick fix; there is no new amazing parenting technique that will change your world. There is, however, good old common sense. Balance is key and is a huge part of my philosophy. I neither encourage a strict British upbringing nor approve of the overly permissive American style. The solution falls in the middle. Nothing done to an extreme is good, whether it’s an all-carrot diet or an all-attachment style of parenting. We are taught that everything in moderation is best, so why should parenting be any different? Yet many parents pick the “latest and greatest” parenting theory, then use it to an extreme with their children.

To use an obvious example, consider the firestorm over breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly feel that breast is usually best. But not always. There are some mums for whom it is torture, there are some babies for whom it just won’t work, and there are some mums who want—no, need—the option of supplementing with formula on occasion so that they can sleep for a longer stretch or go out with a friend. In our culture’s zeal to promote breastfeeding, we’ve left moderation completely out of the picture. Many breastfeeding advocates are so fearful that women will see how easy it is to supplement with formula, that they strongly discourage them from ever doing it. Well, guess what? It’s not like smoking, where if you have and enjoy a cigarette or two, you have a physical addiction. Let’s not be alarmist; let’s just arm families with nonbiased information and let them decide what they want to do. Instead of being extreme, let’s just use common sense.

A similar exaggeration happens in the language we use with our children. A recent parenting trend has been to avoid the word “no” or any negative-tinged language at all costs, lest it hamper creativity or a child’s sense of freedom. Please! Of course, children hear you and do respond better to more positively couched language, so there is a degree to which I’m on board with the philosophy. But sometimes you must say what you mean, and it needs to be something a two-year-old can understand. That word is a simple “no.” Getting into psychobabble about feelings will not do you or your child any good.

These four items reveal my fundamental parenting philosophy. You will see echoes of them all over this book. But they are the big-picture canvas, and it is in the details that the real fun begins. To that end, I introduce my checklist.

The Checklist

Each chapter in this book is based around a cornerstone of parenting. I’ve lived and worked with children in England, Germany, and the United States, with children from their first weeks through their teen years, and with children from the most privileged households in Beverly Hills to those from impoverished communities. Using this background—particularly my international perspective—as a basis, I explain the philosophies undergirding each topic. Then I address questions from a checklist that pertains to that topic.

Most parents know the basics of what they’re supposed to do: feed their kids healthy meals, make sure they get enough sleep, show love, and set boundaries. And yet so many still struggle. Their children are disrespectful, badly behaved, perpetually tired, out of control, or demand more energy than parents have. Parents are trying their best, but they’re getting stuck. They’re simply standing too close to see where.

I have gone into literally hundreds of homes around the world over the years, observed parents with their children, and, by making a few tweaks, have been able to make a significant difference in these families’ lives. Parents are shocked how quickly it’s possible to improve their children’s behavior and the dynamic of their household—as quickly as three days. Bad behavior is a habit that can be broken. A child they may have felt was “difficult” or even beyond hope can come around and show respect, manners, and self-control in a way parents never thought possible. (And I always say it can fall apart just as quickly, but more on that later.) I share all of this not to boast, but rather because I feel so strongly about the information in this book, and know there are countless families who could be happier than they are.

The parents I’ve worked with frequently ask me if I’m sprinkling fairy dust around their children, as if my Britishness means I have Tinker Bell on speed dial. I hate to disappoint them, but no, no fairy dust. (And I won’t fly away with my umbrella on the next windy day, either.) Rather, I have my checklist. The checklist brings objectivity back into focus, by asking a series of questions.

When I go into a home, I run through this checklist while I observe the family: How well mannered are the children? What are their eating habits? Where and how does everyone sleep? What kind of schedule is in place? How do the parents handle consequences? Are the adults in the household present and available? These may seem like basic questions, but the more you break them down—and I do—the more you can see how easy the basics are to miss. For example, parents know it’s important to give their child consequences when the child misbehaves, but they can lose the energy or the will to be consistent in enforcing those consequences. Parents know unconditional love is crucial, so they may wipe their child’s tears while they’re disciplining, which sends a mixed message. Parents put a well-balanced meal on the table, but their child sees Mum or Dad fill up on potato chips, or the parent offers cereal when the chicken and peas are rejected. One parent, a teacher, was utterly perplexed that she could control her classroom of twenty-five students, but her four daughters were running her ragged. I have a good friend who was a nanny for years—a much stricter nanny than I am, by the way—and yet all of her rules went out the window once she had her own children.

This blindness by proximity has affected me, too, at times. One little boy I worked with had me stymied as to why he’d been acting out so much lately. Only when I returned from some time away was I able to see the problem: his mum had been really busy meeting a deadline and hadn’t been able to spend the quality time with him she usually did. He and I had spent a lot of time together, of course, but he didn’t want my attention—he wanted his mum’s. Once I saw the problem, it was fairly easy to address. However, because not everyone can leave their charges for a couple of weeks to get a fresh perspective, my checklists can help illuminate the holes.

Parenting is much more like baking a cake than cooking a stew. When you bake a cake, it doesn’t matter if you use the highest quality butter when you’ve forgotten to add the eggs. In the same way, you could read 400 pages about how to handle tantrums and consider yourself a veritable expert yet miss the target completely because in reality, your child isn’t getting enough sleep. Or you could read a treatise on nutrition and spend endless effort preparing balanced meals, only for your child to refuse to sit down and eat because you have trouble setting—and sticking to—boundaries. You must see the whole picture together, all the ingredients at once, and the checklist helps you do so.

My checklists will help you get the distance you need to see how you’re doing the right things the wrong way, and will help you get back on the right track.

How to Use the Checklists

Use the checklists as a way to imagine me perched on your shoulder watching over you. If your child is having a difficult day, run through the main headings in the table of contents: Sleep? Check. Nutrition? Check. Consistent limits? Check. Quality time? Check. And so on. Chances are excellent that just in looking at this “list,” you’ll see that one box is missing its check. It’s imperative that you be honest in your answers. You can keep them as private as you like.

You may run through this list daily or even several times a day. While things such as sleep and nutrition are probably in your mind already, my hope is that facets such as quality time and self-esteem will come to be just as natural for you to consider.

If at first glance you can check off every item, then you need to dig deeper. Use the checklists at the beginning of each chapter to help you determine where to focus. For instance, you may get stuck at the “sleep” check mark. You know your child isn’t sleeping well, but can’t figure out why. You can then go through the entire checklist at the start of the sleep chapter and see where you’re being held up.

Finally, the book includes blank checklists in the back. Feel free to pull these out and photocopy. I find it useful to physically mark something off—it gives me a great sense of accomplishment, and it can help visually guide me to where I’m getting stuck.

I’ve also highlighted tips throughout each chapter. These are practical actions I’ve found invaluable in my years as a nanny, and I’ve also included advice from parents. These tips are meant to remind you that you are a part of a community, and it’s wonderful and valuable to listen to what’s worked for others. They are offered in the spirit of support, not competition.

Though the checklists are simple and meant to be easy to follow, they also represent a deeper philosophy I hope parents will embrace—a reorientation that encourages parents to be in control again, and to thus enjoy their children more. I can’t spend three days in every family’s home. But with my checklists, you won’t need me to. You’ll be able to see for yourself where the holes lie, how to fill them, and how to keep them filled.

Parenting is both harder and easier than we think. The checklists in this book will take the guilt and some of the angst out of parenting by putting daily struggles and common problems in objective, systematic terms. Parenting is more art than science, it’s true, but there is a science to it. And science, in all of its concreteness, is comforting. Sometimes science is just what you need on the days when you are at your wit’s end and are outnumbered by your darling children who have somehow turned into little monsters. Take a step back, put on your scientist’s hat, pull out the appropriate checklist, and investigate.

Keep Calm and Parent On CHAPTER ONE

The Dignified Parent For Mum and Dad
“Sacrificing everything for your children isn’t selfless, it’s ridiculous.”



• Are you getting enough sleep?

• Are you making time to care for yourself?

• Are you making time to care for your relationship with your partner?

• Do you greet your spouse first?

• Mums: Are you having sex with your partner?

• Dads: Are you taking care of Mum?

• If there are two parents at home, are you modeling a good relationship to your children in how you treat each other?

• Is there joy in the house? Is there a lot of laughter and fun?

• Do you enjoy being a parent?

• Do you feel confident you can handle your child’s behavior?

• Are you calm?

• Do you ensure that everything does not revolve around the children?

• Are you forgiving of yourself when things don’t go well?

• Are you willing to ask for help?

THERE’S A REASON I chose to make the chapter about taking care of Mum and Dad the first chapter in this book. There’s a saying that goes, a family is only as happy as its unhappiest member, and with many families, that member is one of the parents. Parents so rarely put themselves first, and that needs to change for the sake of the whole family.

Parents today are sidelining their own needs in favor of their children’s. I know mothers who stop planning girls’ nights out once they have a baby and other women who refuse to buy themselves new clothes or splurge on a decent haircut because they want to give everything to their kids. Mums and dads don’t expend effort caring for their relationship with each other, and in many households, once the kids come along, they even stop sharing a bed. Their commitment to parenthood is admirable, and yet taking care of themselves, not their children, is the first priority to proper parenting. So, Mum and Dad, here you are, front and center.

There are very tactical reasons this chapter comes first. If you are exhausted, if you are not caring for your own needs, then it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to follow through on the checklists in this book. Parenting takes energy—and lots of it. And while I am certain it will take less energy by the time you are done with this book, parenting using my guidelines will take more energy to start with. Find that energy reserve, and find it by making time for yourself.

I know many parents will read that directive and think, “Sure. Would you like to take a look at my schedule and figure out where the space is?” Many parents might even feel that taking care of themselves is a burden and something else that I’ve added to their crushing to-do lists.

I have two responses:

1. What I’m offering is a more efficient way of operating. You will be more effective if you are rested, you will waste less time, and you will make life easier for yourself—it’s just that simple!

2. Though finding time for yourself is in part about prioritizing, it’s also about how you do the things you are already doing. It’s a question of emphasis. For instance, when your family gathers for dinner, you may currently be the last one to sit down, and then you may be up out of your chair several times to refill a glass of milk or get your child a second serving of pasta. Why send your family the message that it is less important for you to eat a hot meal than for them? In fact, it’s more important. In British households I’m familiar with, no one gets seconds until everyone is done eating. Your family can wait. The same is true for moments you just need a break and some peace and quiet. If your children are old enough, simply say, “Mummy needs some time for herself right now. Please go play upstairs and I’ll be with you shortly.”

Before I launch into the checklist, it’s worth looking at how we’ve come to this place where we are ready to pop up and accommodate every need of our child’s at every moment. I think there are several culprits.

The first is that we are immersed in a culture of guilt. As more and more families have two parents working, those parents feel they must go home and lock on to everything their child says and does. Since I get so little time with you, they reason, I must be sure you’re happy. So what can I do to make you so? I am a strong proponent of spending quality time with your children, and in fact have devoted an entire chapter in this book to it. But quality time does not mean meeting your child’s every need every moment he has one. Make life easier for yourself, tell him he must wait, and teach him a lesson in patience in the process.

Adding to our anxiety is the number of parenting experts out there who are serving up guilt like heaping mounds of porridge. Just as the evening news teasers try to get you to tune in by playing on your fears (“Is your home at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning? Tune in at eleven to find out.”), experts try to get you to pay attention to their advice by playing on your insecurity. They send message after message about what your kids need to be healthy and happy and balanced, when really a huge part of what your kids need is for you to be happy.

A second reason we got here is that we are in the habit of believing our children must be constantly entertained—in part because we ourselves have to be constantly entertained. It starts with the bouncy chairs we put newborns into the first days and weeks of their lives. The chairs vibrate, play music, and offer all manner of shiny objects to amuse the infant. But imagine if you were popped into a chair where you couldn’t move, and were forced to vibrate like a Sonicare and listen to tinny music while lights flashed in your face. It sounds like torture! And yet we program our little ones to want such stimulation. Or when they’re older, when we pile into the car with our children even for very short trips, we make sure we have snacks and drinks and kid-friendly music. If all else fails, we play games with them. Whatever happened to kids looking out the window and entertaining themselves? We need to teach children to be okay without being entertained at every moment. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us. It means we can listen to our favorite radio station sometimes, not just theirs. It means we can sit and have a cup of coffee while they play with Lego.

The final factor contributing to our subjugation of self is ourselves. I’ve seen parent after parent fall into codependent relationships with their children. When a parent says something to me like “I can’t leave for the weekend because my toddler needs me,” I think, “No—you can’t leave because you need your toddler.” It’s healthy for your toddler to learn to be without you. And it’s healthy for you to learn to be without her. Half the time when I see parents leaving their children at daycare, the mums and dads draw it out. It’s not uncommon for the child to fuss a bit right when his parent goes, but as any daycare teacher will tell you, it lasts for merely a moment, and the best thing to do is to say good-bye to the child quickly with a “Have a fun day, and I’ll be back to pick you up later!” But Mum and Dad linger, making it worse for everyone. It’s not helpful for the child, so why do they do it?

So let’s be aware of and fight these cultural inclinations together. Let’s do the work we need to do in order to be happy.

It’s fairly easy for someone on the outside (i.e., me) to tell whether a parent is happy or not. It can be harder to see traces of unhappiness in yourself. To that end, honestly answer the following questions:

• Are you getting enough sleep?

Everyone needs sleep. Everyone. At the minimum, you need seven or eight hours of sleep per night. If you are not reaching that minimum, consider it the first priority of this book. If you have a newborn, the hours of sleep will not be possible, but do what you must to get rest during the day, and try to get at least a four-hour stretch at night (meaning: wake up your partner if you have one! It’s his turn, for heaven’s sake).

• Are you making time to care for yourself?

You need to take care of yourself. You need nourishing meals, exercise, and time for yourself, even if it’s just to relax in a warm bath. You also need friends and people who will support you. When it comes to parenting, nothing else makes sense if the answer to this question is “no,” so no excuses.

• Are you making time to care for your relationship with your partner?

It’s not news to anyone that marriage satisfaction often declines once children enter the picture. Parents don’t take time for each other, and often put the kids first. Mum and Dad may be away from their kids so much that they don’t want to go out together without them. They may be too exhausted to add one more thing to the calendar, even if it is something enjoyable like a movie or a dinner out. They may not be able to find babysitters easily, or they may not be able to afford them. But if you have a partner, caring for that relationship is a building block for everything else. The more you communicate with each other, the more smoothly your home will run. (More on this in Chapter Two.) The more fun you have together, the lighter everyone’s mood will be. Feed the partnership, even if it seems like there’s no time. Spend time talking over a cup of tea once the children have gone to bed, or steal off during lunch to spend some time together. Commit to making time together a priority, and notice what a difference it makes.


Parents often will trade off babysitting duties with a family in their neighborhood. One week they watch your kids while you go out, and the next week you return the favor. Some families I know even have three families in the rotation, and while one of the couples goes out, the other two families and everyone’s kids have a lovely evening together at home. If you’re not already part of such a babysitting circle, start one!

• Do you greet your spouse first?

If you have a spouse, an excellent way to discern how you prioritize that relationship is by how you greet him. If you’re not kissing your spouse hello before you kiss your kids, you should. It will not hurt your children’s feelings—it merely lets them know that you value Daddy a lot, too, and that that relationship is important. The child’s existence likely started with the union between the two of you, so really the whole family should honor its importance.

• Mums: Are you having sex with your partner?

I once led a seminar for a group of new moms. There were eleven altogether, and their babies were between six months and eighteen months. Out of the group of eleven, only one was having regular sex with her spouse. Shocking! If you are not having sex, it’s a telltale indication that your union is not being tended to properly.

I understand the aversion. You’re tired. If you’re nursing, sex might be painful because you’ll likely be much drier than usual. You feel like you’re taking care of everyone else’s needs all the time—you don’t want or need sex right now, and if your husband does, too bad for him.

So why do I think you should still do it? Well, first off, understand that I am not suggesting you have sex all the time, or even once a week. And when you’re recovering from childbirth, there’s a time when you shouldn’t be having sex at all. But the women in my seminar hadn’t had sex with their partners in months. Months. And I know this is a familiar story. It’s as though once a baby enters the picture, your own needs and your partner’s needs are sidelined, and sex just goes away. I’m not a couples counselor or a sex therapist, but it doesn’t take one to know that sex is a way you show your partner love and tenderness. Couples need intimacy, and they need to say through touch, “Hey, you’re important to me. Our relationship is important to me.” Having a child is going to test you both in so many other ways, you need to make sure your marriage is strong. It’s foundational.


Sex was the furthest thing from my mind after my daughter was born, and when my husband and I did have sex, it was pretty painful for a time. But two things helped: (1) K-Y Jelly, and lots of it! And (2) I made sure that I wasn’t feeling too run down before a “sex date.” I found that the more my husband could help nurture me in other ways (giving the baby a bottle so I could skip a feeding or making me a nice dinner), the more energy I had for him and for our sex life. Believe me, he was more than happy to comply!

If you’re not having sex, it may be a strong indication that the little one’s needs are overwhelming your needs and those of your spouse. Many mums choose to sleep with their babies (more on this in Chapter Three), but if that’s the reason you and your spouse aren’t having sex, it’s a problem. It’s difficult to prioritize intimacy when there’s another body in the bed—or even worse, when Mum is sleeping with baby and Dad’s in the guest room for nights and nights on end. Sadly, this is a rather permanent situation in many households.

I have an English friend Hannah who was very taken with the notion of attachment parenting, a philosophy that encourages cosleeping, baby-wearing, and feeding on demand. But if taken to an extreme, such a philosophy negates the parents’ needs. For example, Hannah slept with her baby girl and nursed her through the night for the entire first year of her baby’s life, as well as the entire second year. Hannah’s husband, Peter, sometimes joined them, but mostly he slept in the guest room. When Hannah’s good friend in America told her she was traveling to Paris and would love to see Hannah and Peter for a weekend there, Hannah said she didn’t think she could leave her daughter overnight because she was still nursing. Hannah’s friend was worried about her, and gave Hannah a talking-to about how important it was for Hannah and Peter to go out and have fun alone, to have sex, whether it was in Paris or not.

Hannah discussed the possibility of the trip with Peter, who was over the moon about the idea. Seeing how excited he was about it, Hannah agreed they’d go. For the next several weeks, Peter gleefully joked about how he was going to get laid, and referred to it as their “F**k trip to Paris.”

• Dads: Are you taking care of Mum?

Chances are excellent that even soon after you’ve welcomed a new baby, your sex drive is still, well, driving. And yet when you suggest it to your wife or partner, she looks or acts put out, maybe incredulous, possibly even offended. Don’t give up, but do try a different approach. She is tired, and may feel like she’s meeting everyone’s needs all day—physical and otherwise—and isn’t particularly keen to bother with yours. The best way to meet this reaction is to anticipate it. Make sure her needs are taken care of—ensure she’s getting proper sleep, some time to herself, and healthy meals that she hasn’t necessarily made herself. The more you nurture her, the more room she will have to feel like being sexual again, and the more energy she will have for sex.


For parents struggling to find time to spend alone together, often the problem is the sleep habits of their children. Children need to sleep more than their parents, so there ought to be time in the evenings for Mum and Dad to be alone together. This is one of the many benefits of getting children in their own beds and on a schedule. Often parents feel lost at first when they realize they have an entire evening to themselves. But fear not—I’m sure you can find a way to fill the time if you put your mind to it.


My husband and I have a date night every week, no matter what, even though sometimes we’re tired. We also have a 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. happy hour, which is my son’s “witching” hour. He gets to run around and play on his own a bit while we catch up on the day. The glass of wine helps with that last push toward bed!

• If there are two parents at home, are you modeling a good relationship to your children in how you treat each other?

I first came to America with a family called the Martins, and though their children are nearly grown now, the family is still a wonderful part of my life. The parents, Wendy and Graham, have an incredible relationship. They are very respectful and present for each other. And their children mimic this, not just in the way they treat their parents but also in the way they treat their significant others. I see the flip side of this role modeling all the time, where the dad might be disrespectful to the mum, or vice versa. The children in turn feel it’s acceptable to be disrespectful to their parent, or other people they care about. When Mum and Dad aren’t nice to each other, typically the entire vibe of the household is hostile. It is hard for anyone—parents or children—to be happy in such an environment.

• Is there joy in the house? Is there a lot of laughter and fun?

For some parents, it’s easy to be playful. Others—probably the majority, really—are so focused on their to-do list or cleaning up messes or getting on with their evening that they forget to treasure the moments, to remember that the days may be long but the years are short. You must get into the habit of putting aside tasks and chores, putting on music, and dancing. You must allow your children to be silly and make faces and laugh and be utterly free. And you must do it, too. It makes your children feel secure when they see you feeling happy, and when they are allowed to be happy as well.

• Do you enjoy being a parent?

You will not always be happy, and that’s okay. There are times when you feel overwhelmed, and that’s okay, too—you’re human! But how often do you feel this way? More than occasionally? More often than you don’t? I see many mums, in particular, who are depressed. It may be because they’ve buried their own needs so deeply that they don’t even realize how long it’s been since they’ve laughed. It may be lingering postpartum depression. It may be a long-standing physiological problem that they are not tending to. Here’s how I spot a depressed mum or dad: They don’t touch their kids. They don’t smile. They slouch. Their eating habits are odd—either they eat too much or too little. There is no bounce or energy to their movements. Their tone is short and snappy and they just generally seem pissed off at the world.

If you think you might be depressed, you owe it to yourself and to your family to address the issue. If the depression is serious, it may involve visiting your doctor. If you’re just feeling a bit down, you may be able to pull yourself out of it by going for a walk by yourself, giving yourself some relief. You may be surprised at how quickly the picture will change. Think about it from the child’s perspective. If his mum never laughs with him or smiles or tickles him, how does that feel? If each time he asks a question, his parent snaps at him, how must that feel? How must that affect his own behavior? When you consider it this way, it’s clear how your own well-being is critical to a harmonious home.

• Do you feel confident you can handle your child’s behavior?

If you feel confident you can handle your child in any situation, you will not fear her or her behavior, and you will embrace your days with far less stress. There is a surefire way I can determine whether a parent is confident or afraid. I call it the Sippy Cup Test. Imagine this familiar scenario: It’s breakfast time, and little Miranda has asked for some milk. You pour it into a blue sippy cup, and Miranda’s eyes widen. “Noooo!” she cries, “I want the pink sippy cup!” Do you

a. tense up and scramble for the pink sippy cup so that you can avoid a Miranda meltdown before you’ve even had coffee, or

b. calmly say, “I’ve already poured your milk into the blue sippy cup this morning, but if you remind me at lunchtime, you can have your milk in the pink cup then.”

If you answered b, congratulations! You passed. It is true that at first, the child may melt down, and we will go into this more in Chapter Seven when we talk about boundaries and consequences. But the confident parent does not fear meltdowns. The confident parent knows that it’s silly to make more work for herself; who wants to wash two sippy cups instead of one? Don’t let your child rule the roost or stop you from doing something. Know that you can handle whatever she throws your way because you are the parent, and she is the child. When you know this, it gives you a great sense of control. There’s nothing worse than feeling powerless and at the mercy of your child and your child’s meltdowns.

• Are you calm?

This can be a magical fix. One parent I know was at the end of her rope after the whole family had been ill. She’d had no time for self-care or rest. When her preschooler became too difficult, the mum jumped into the bathroom to collect herself. When she opened the bathroom door a few minutes later, she smiled brightly and spoke in a calm voice (even though she was not yet feeling exactly that way). Almost like magic, the preschooler settled down. In reality it wasn’t magic at all, but a voice that was just less edgy than it was before, and a smile instead of a knotted forehead. Being calm shows children that you’re in control and everything’s okay. Kids feel anxiety, and it in turn makes them anxious. For all these reasons, it’s appropriate to give yourself a time-out when you need a break from parenting!


Learn to recognize signs that your child’s behavior is affecting you. Are you rattled? Are you tight? Is your voice harsh? Make sure your child is safe, and walk into another room or just outside the door. Who cares if she’s having a tantrum? Let her behavior affect her, not you. Take ten deep breaths of air. Stretch. Perhaps call a friend to vent if that helps you. It’s liberating when you recognize that disengaging from a stressful moment, even if just for a moment, can change the tenor of your evening, as well as your child’s.

• Do you ensure that everything does not revolve around the children?

A friend recently asked me for advice about caring for her newborn and her toddler. “What do I do if they’re both crying at the same time?” she asked. The answer is obvious: one has to wait. But what is much more interesting to me about this question is that she asked it in the first place. This friend had recently joined a support group for second-time mums, and nearly everyone in the group had this same question. The question reveals how much our parenting mind-set has shifted—we cannot bear to let our children be uncomfortable. But we cannot possibly make them comfortable all of the time. With a single child, it may be manageable (although I would argue too much work and unnecessary!), but with two, it certainly is not. Most important, it’s not good for children to get whatever they want whenever they want it.

It drives me mad when I hear new mums talk about how they can’t even take a shower. Of course they can take a shower! They need to! If no one is around to care for the baby, pop him in a bouncy chair in the bathroom with you. You can still sing to him and talk to him from the shower. If he cries for a moment or two, he will be fine. In fact, it’s important for him to cry. As we’ll discuss in Chapter Three, hearing your child cry is an important part of learning your child’s cry.

This distress about our children’s comfort starts when they’re newborns, and carries on until they’re much, much older. When they’re four and you’re at the zoo and they want something to drink, you drop everything in order to get them some juice immediately, lest they be thirsty. When they’re ten and they refuse to eat their dinner, you let them eat a snack at nine o’clock, lest they be hungry. We must learn to let our children be uncomfortable sometimes. Imagine a twenty-five-year-old job candidate who has never had to wait or experience discomfort. Does he really have the skills to succeed? Does he fully understand the world is not oriented around him? If that’s not enough incentive to be a little more self-focused, just think of the undue pressure you are putting on yourself each time your children say “Jump” and you ask “Okay, how high?”

• Are you forgiving of yourself when things don’t go well?

Part of taking care of yourself means being kind to yourself. Parenting is hard. You will always feel like there’s a way you could be doing it better, just as there’s always one more load of laundry you could toss in or one more house project to do. I’ve cried in frustration in front of children I’ve been caring for. And though it’s true I’ve taught many children to behave well, I’ve failed completely when it comes to teaching my dog! I let my little six-pound fluffball of a pooch run circles around me! It all goes to show that it’s just so much harder to manage when the problems are so close to you.

If you are one of those parents who takes every setback deeply to heart and stays up at night thinking of ways you could have done it differently, do yourself and your children a favor and relax. It’s okay for them to know you’re human. It’s actually a wonderful thing for them to see.

Now, imagine this scenario: You’ve had a hellish day and the kids are spiraling out of control. Your spouse has just called to say he has to work late, so it looks like you’re on duty for another several hours, and you’re exhausted. Do you

a. go through your routine as normal, making a home-cooked dinner and insisting on bath time, or

b. cut yourself some slack? Mac and cheese will do just fine tonight, and the kids can bathe tomorrow.

The correct answer is b. Part of being kind to yourself means letting go of your high standards when you need to. You need a break—give yourself one.


When I’m at my limit, I pour myself a sparkling water with a lime or lemon, which feels like a mini-vacation.

• Are you willing to ask for help?

We have gotten way too absorbed in what other people think of our parenting. We give a child a lolly to keep him from making a scene, because we just know the checkout clerk will think our child is a terror and we are a horrible parent if we allow him to tantrum. We are too restrained about saying to other mums and dads, “This is really hard,” because we don’t want them to think we can’t handle it, or that our child is less than great. It used to be that parents supported one another, and communities pitched in to help mums and dads when they felt in over their head. Now we’re all parenting in isolation and putting on our rosiest public faces for one another. This must stop.

Learn to ask for help. Start by being honest with your friends about your tough spots, and encourage them to be honest with you. Find the ones who are the most open about the difficulties and build on those relationships. And if you see a mum struggling with a tantruming toddler, give her a reassuring smile and tell her you’ve been there and that you understand. She is actually a better parent for letting her child cry than for filling his mouth with a lolly. Self-care and strong parenting starts with supportive communities, and we can all play a part to make our communities more honest and less judgmental.

A Few Words About Baby Shaking

We rarely address what’s known as baby shaking unless people are huddled around sordid related newspaper headlines. The subject is taboo. But I want to change that. People need to talk about their frustrations with their babies. Particularly for new mums, it’s not socially acceptable for them to discuss any feelings of ambivalence about motherhood, but they need to. Having a solid support network that does not judge anything they say can go such a long way toward helping mums feel better.

We need to be more honest about how hard parenting is. Nobody ever prepares you for how rough it can be. In part that’s because it can be tricky to explain, and people are prone to amnesia about those early weeks. And in part it’s because there’s a national dialogue that celebrates birth and babies as simply wonderful, and leaves no room for the parts that aren’t so wonderful. Instead, it’s a competition about who’s happiest, who’s most content. We need to make it okay for parents to call up one another and say, “This is really hard. In fact, it sucks right now.” We need to make it okay for mums to say, “I know I will be a great mum, but I’m not that excited about infants.” We need to be honest with each other.

I also think people need to feel empowered to let their babies cry. I am not suggesting you neglect your newborn; comforting him regularly is very important to his sense of security and attachment. But when you are alone with your baby, and he has been crying for what feels like hours on end, and you have tried everything and are at your wit’s end, put him down. Leave the room. Take deep breaths. Call someone. Remember that it’s only human to be frazzled sometimes by a baby. Don’t be so afraid of letting him cry alone that you subject yourself to madness.

This is not a socioeconomic or cultural issue. A friend of mine who was herself a nanny for years and years confided in me that though she knows she wouldn’t shake her baby, now that she’s been in the situation of trying to console a screaming infant, she can see how it happens. Another parent of three, though her children are all grown, still vividly remembers feeling like a failure when her babies cried. She was frightened by how she was spiraling out of control. How could it be possible that she was having these terrible thoughts and all she wanted from the babies she so deeply loved was for them to shut up? Having these feelings did not make her a failure. When you are that exhausted and frustrated, it doesn’t take much to send you over the edge. In other words, baby shaking can easily happen to the best of us, and we are especially vulnerable to it as a society if we keep quiet about the issues that lead to it.

We also need to remind parents that some infants are particularly tough, but that does not mean they are “bad” babies. There’s too much judgment in that label. There are too many mums who look wistfully at other babies who seem to coo and cuddle nicely, while their baby seems to do nothing but scream. The reality is, some babies have colic or gas or a variety of other issues that make them fussy. And so do some toddlers, and so do some grade-schoolers, and so do some preteens, and on and on. Every child goes through a difficult spell. But they will grow out of it. Remind yourself to take the long view.

About The Author

Photograph by Charles Jacob

Emma Jenner grew up in England and has studied and worked with children for seventeen years. In 2008 she starred in TLC’s Take Home Nanny, and in 2010 she founded Emma’s Children, a consulting service to help educate parents. She is frequently interviewed as a childcare expert and is a parenting columnist for LA Parent Magazine and Huffington Post.

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Raves and Reviews

“There is so much useful information in this book. By page four I started taking notes, and I didn’t stop there. I photocopied Emma’s lists and put them up on the fridge for my four children to look at. I underlined passages and shared them with other parents. If everyone read this book and taught their children her very kind and balanced approach to parenting, I think the world would be a finer place."

– Maria T. Lennon, Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child

"As parents you get inundated with conflicting information about raising kids which often makes you feel as if you're doing everything wrong. Keep Calm and Parent On provides common sense advice that is enormously reassuring because it actually works!”

– Lucy and Larry Page, co-founder of Google

“Emma Jenner provides mothers and fathers with the perfect antidote to the culture of guilt that surrounds American parenting. Every page of this book is filled with practical advice. Her wisdom about the nature of children will strengthen your trust in your own parenting instincts—and we all need that.”

– Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Raising Cain

"A Mom Must-Read"

– Parents Magazine

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