I intended this week to write about something that has been coming up a lot in my work with parents and, inevitably, in my own parenting. Namely, how to discipline children without getting our emotions involved. This is much easier to do when the children are not our own: as a parenting educator, I can see the behavior for what it is, and know that it is not connected to who the parent is.
With my own children it is not so easy. I have expectations for how our relationship is supposed to work; I expect them to trust me and to know that what I am asking them to do is the best thing for them. When they do not seem to understand this, it is impossible to keep myself, and our relationship, out of the equation. I feel that their difficulty in meeting my expectations is personal: that I am, or the child is, failing to honor the connection that we have. And that is when as a parent I start to “lose it.”
Here is an example. I have written before about my challenges in getting my six year-old to sleep through the night. I used to be able to comfort her and simply sit with her until she went back to sleep. Having a book to read on the reading app on my phone kept me busy. But then it stopped working. She would wake again in distress as soon as I tried to sneak out of her room. And my emotions would take over. I got frustrated, she reacted to this, and a drawn-out struggle ensued. Sleep would now be a long way away for either of us.
For a while, my solution was to move her to the other bed, next to her mother, and sleep in hers (it is…shorter than I am). Or, when all the struggling woke the four year-old sister, to move her to the adult bed and sleep in her (even shorter) one. As long as I was in the room, the six year-old could sleep and so could I, after a fashion. But this, I finally realized, was not solving anything.
So I had to set the boundary: adults needed to sleep in their bed, and children needed to sleep in theirs. Since I could not wait her out, I told her that I would tuck her in, give her many hugs and kisses, and sit with her for five minutes before going back to my room. This was the only logical solution, but after so long accommodating her by working around the problem, this was very difficult for her. For a few nights she would simply have to be sad in her bed after I said goodnight. There was much crying and calling out of my name. Though I am sure this was much harder for her, there was no way I was going to sleep next door until she settled. But I persevered. If she came back out of her room, I could tuck her in again and say goodnight, but I would be going back to my bed.
And so it went. It got easier, eventually, when she (and I) realized that this was going to be the expectation every time. She simply would not believe that five minutes had gone by until I started setting a timer (for some reason she believes my timer). And it got easier. Some nights are easier than others. But through consistent repetition of the plan, she is now able to put herself to sleep.
What happened? All of those struggles we were having with our relation to one another—namely, that she thought she was losing me and I thought she was staying awake to torture us both—were replaced by the expectation itself, and by our willingness to work together to make it happen. I agreed to be available when she woke in the night, and she agreed to go back to her bed because she knew what would happen. It is no longer about us.
Looking back, it is easy for me to see that this plan is the one I should have gone with in the first place. But my guilt and uncertainty (am I doing this right?), and her fear and anxiety (how would I react this time?) kept the struggle going. Having the expectation and sticking to it was the only solution.
How will it go tonight? I have no idea. But finally we both know what to do. We are on this ship together.