Hack Your Way Though The Parenting Jungle

Asha Dornfest_Credit Karen Walrond
Asha Dornfest; photo by Karen Walrond

At this very moment, in countries all around the globe, frustrated mothers and fathers are facing problems with their children—whether it is a crying baby who keeps losing her pacifier while she sleeps, an exhausted mother having to tie and retie a toddler’s shoes every five minutes, or a messy car from hauling three kids to and from school every day. For years, traditional advice categories and nuggets of wisdom from friends and family could be somewhat limited and “inside the box” (or “inside the crib,” if you will).

Now, there is a community of parents that trade insider parenting secrets. The mother of the crying baby learns to leave extra pacifiers in the corners of the crib to grab in the middle of the night, the toddler’s shoelaces are pulled out and replaced with elastic tape for comfortable slip-ons and the father driving the messy car organizes it with cupcake liners in the cup holders for easy storage and disposal of food, dirt and other debris kids inevitably bring home with them.

This community was created, and is now overseen, by Asha Dornfest, from Portland, OR. She has run her blog, parenthacks.com, for over 10 years—time spent accumulating all sorts of tips and tricks from other parents around the world. Dornfest has two children of her own, and they motivated her to start the blog.

“It was inspired by my experience as a new parent. This was in the days before Facebook when you could compare notes with other parents,” she says. “I wanted to create a way for parents to share tips.”

Parents aren’t the only contributors to the blog and book. Dornfest believes the best hacks come from people whose experience is outside the mainstream, and they have to try unconventional methods to solve problems. “Grandmas, preschool teachers and special-ed teachers are the most amazing source of parent hacks, because they are just incredibly creative,” she notes.

Dornfest was a web publishing writer in the 90s, but when she started the blog in 2005, she was happy to see it take off almost immediately. Parents flocked to the site to gain relief from the day-to-day stresses of parenting in the 21st Century. After over 4,000 posts, and over 35,000 comments, Dornfest has watched the conversation move from the blog itself to social media, where she uses Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook to communicate with her followers. The hashtag #ParentHacks lets Twitter users follow the conversation in real time, with other parents from all over the world. Some of Dornfest’s online followers have been long-term commenters, which she believes is the real value of the blog.

“I have readers that have been with me for all of these years, and our kids have grown up together. Parent Hacks is less an encyclopedic source of knowledge, and more an organic conversation between real people.”

On April 5, Dornfest will release her second parenting book, Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life With Kids. A collection of hacks from the blog, it follows her first parenting book, Minimalist Parenting, co-written with her friend Christine Koh, which had the related theme of parent encouragement.

Parent Hacks_high res__“The most important thing you can do as a parent is to trust yourself. That is a message I don’t think I heard enough as a new parent, especially from the various expert parenting books I was reading,” Dornfest says. She believes that new parents are often understandably overwhelmed by their bundle of joy, and get caught in a cacophony of advice from others. “Between Google, and what they’re hearing from other people…it’s so hard to trust yourself when frankly half the time you don’t know what you’re doing anyway.”

Koh and Dornfest also collaborate on a weekly podcast, called “Edit Your Life,” where the two discuss issues that parents often face, such as dealing with financial troubles, the importance of saying “no,” and why embracing and modeling imperfection is a vital part of raising a child.

Of course, as is the way with internet sensations, there have been some controversial hacks. One parent had a stroller that left her sleepy toddler’s legs unsupported, so on a spur-of-the-moment decision blew up a small balloon to prop them up and it solved the issue. Other parents chimed in to say that balloons are unsafe around young children, with their tendency to pop violently. “What works for one family will not work another, and vice versa,” Dornfest says. “Nobody ever claims that ‘this is going to work for everyone!’”

Despite occasional disagreement amongst commenters, Dornfest is happy that parenthacks.com has remained largely an agreeable and welcoming place. “The thing I am really proud of, both on the blog and on social media, is that the conversation is really smart and generous,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of people batting other people down. [It] is civil, it’s warm, it comes from a place of generosity, and it’s amazing what happens when parents really support each other…it’s something I work hard to maintain.”

Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life With Kids has tips which vary greatly in topic and age of child—from DIY pregnancy pillows so the mom-to-be can sleep comfortably, to organizing systems for a dresser full of clothes for a growing toddler, to subtle reminders to the Tooth Fairy that she owes a little boy a dollar. “What’s really nice about the book is that you open it up, you flip through it, you giggle and you laugh, but then you realize ‘this is legitimately useful,’” Dornfest explains, noting that one of her  favorite multi-purpose items is a hanging shoe organizer that goes on the back of a door. “You can use them to store anything. You can store toys, you can story snacks, you can store all of your electronic cables.”

The true purpose of the book is less to promote the blog, and more to applaud all the parents and people who have contributed. Dornfest credits them for where the blog is today. “The book is a way for me to honor the conversation I have been having with parents for ten years, and to really shine a spotlight on how smart they are,” she says.

For more information on Asha Dornfest, her new book (including upcoming promotions and events) and Parent Hacks, check out parenthacks.com!