Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Striving for Balance

Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned Alfie Kohn-inspired parent needs something more than just talking it out with the kids.

Let me explain: Kohn's right on when he says we've got to give our kids information, instead of just punishing them or expecting them to 'be good'. Trying to reason with them is good, really. But when, as parents, do we decide that we've had enough conversation and now, it's time help our kids do what needs to be done?

I struggled with this one. I like Kohn, and he has a lot of great principals, but what does unconditional parenting look like in action? Especially when some things in life are non-negotiable? What about when we just don't have all day--or all night--to explain things enough to make our kids feel good about them? Especially when they've dug their heels in and don't want to feel good about them?

Going to bed is one of those times in our house that I wish I wore a wig, because it really makes me want to tear my hair out. A few weeks ago, Kiddo fell into a habit of becoming a big, uncooperative goofball around changing into his pajamas. Now, before you start asking me if I've asked him how he felt about his pajamas, let me reassure you: he has no problem with pajamas. In fact, some mornings, he's in his pjs forever. It's just that when bedtime comes around, he's reluctant to change clothes, period. And he plays hard all day, so I'm not letting him go to sleep in dirty clothes. But this habit of taking 20 minutes to change (throwing pjs while laughing gleefully, sticking his legs into the armholes of his pajama top, sticking both legs into one of the leg holes...you name it)... well, we'd decided enough was enough.

What was important in this picture? I asked myself this and decided that on two things. First, we are adherents to a seven o'clock bedtime for Kiddo. He needs the sleep, and we don't jerk him around on this, even for our own convenience. Special occasions, certainly we're flexible, but by and large, and most especially on those nights before preschool, 7pm is our target. Second, Joe and I need to have the downtime in the evening. To decompress, to reconnect with each other. It's important for parents to have some face time, and I know we'd be upset if we compromised this due to Kiddo's being uncooperative.

So, with the 7pm time in mind, we began to decide how we were going to help keep Kiddo on track. Helping him dress was counter-intuitive: it gave him more attention for these undesired habits, and this is an area of development he really does have a grasp on, so let's not move backward. So we explain, now, at the beginning of our bedtime routine, that we need Kiddo to be in bed on time. He regularly has three stories at bedtime, and can have all three, provided we get our jobs done so we have time for them, because his sleep is important. Then, we set a timer for five minutes at the start of the dreaded pajama time. Kiddo knows now that he must be changed before the timer goes 'ding', or we lose the time for one of those stories. What happens if he isn't dressed, or wants me to do it? Well then, he's trading Mama a story for the service of dressing him. Uncooperative with brushing teeth? Well, if it takes a long time, we then don't have time for all three stories.(He does it himself in the morning, and we assist at night so he's not going to bed with a bunch of junk still left on his teeth.)

Now, ideally, we'd have him start all these activities much sooner. But I don't live in a perfect world. Kiddo eats dinner between 5:30 and 6, and usually gets his clothes dirty doing this. We also have toys to clean up, which is important. In short-- I run out of time to be an ideal parent in this area. I could be, if I was willing to have a child who could delay bedtime for his convenience, and if I was willing to deal with the morning meltdown of getting him to preschool without enough sleep. I'm not. I think that actually, I would be a worse parent for letting him stay up and be exhausted the next day. There's no way I'm doing that.

Are these "consequences"? Punishments? I don't think it's a punishment, but a very natural and instructive consequence. For the next 15+ years, he's going to have to get himself ready for school and be other places on time. He has to learn now that when we don't get things done promptly, we may not have time for other things. The loss of stories isn't to make his actions come back to hurt him, but to help him understand that there is an order about our day, and that there are times for being a silly goofball-- most of the day, as a matter of fact-- and there are times that we just need to do our job of getting dressed or putting on shoes or brushing teeth without a lot of cajoling and explaining. And we aren't mean with him about not having time for all three stories, it's just told to him as a matter of fact. Sometimes he petitions for all three, when he's been told we only have time for two, and then we just say "Oh, yes, you spent a lot of time getting your pajamas on, so we don't have time for all three. Tomorrow night, you can get dressed right on time, and then we'll have time for three stories." It's not a forever consequence, tomorrow night he gets a second chance to do it right, and we knows that we believe that he can do it right.

So maybe it's not perfect, but finding balance is sometimes all about tipping back and forth until we hit center. I feel good that we aren't getting upset with him so much anymore, and he's not being indulged, and our evening isn't being thrown out of whack. For what it's worth, I still think it's pretty damn unconditional. We're all still learning, and I think we've got a pretty good way of going about this for now.

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