Setting Boundaries with Children

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“Do no harm, take no sh*t.” — my new parenting philosophy, via Kay Bruner

I get stressed over hearing my baby cry or seeing a student upset after I enforce a limit. Am I being cruel and unresponsive, I fret, or am I being the calm, confident leader children need to feel secure?

One way I’ve been processing that question is by thinking in terms of boundaries. In an interview on Parenting Forward with Cindy Wang Brandt, Kay Bruner describes boundaries as “what’s me and what’s not me.”

I personally struggle with taking responsibility for children’s emotions. If my baby cries, I feel guilty. I feel like a failure. I feel like I need to stop his crying since, somehow, I caused the crying. I feel like I need to make the crying stop at any cost, including my sanity. Parenting success means my baby is tear-free as much as possible.

This is an impossible parenting goal. It’s impossible precisely because I am not responsible for my baby’s emotions. 

It’s important that we meet our children’s needs and hear their desires. Not hearing desires or not meeting needs disrespects children. But meeting every desire leads to child-centric homes and frazzled parents. In order to avoid any of those parenting pitfalls, we must distinguish between needs and desires, and even further, identify their specific need.

Take the age-old situation of moms being unable to use the bathroom alone.

When your two-year-old is pounding on the bathroom door screaming for you to let her in, you might determine that her real need has nothing to do with you in the first place; she may be hungry, tired, bored, or upset from you telling her she couldn’t eat pennies.

But maybe she really does need time with Mommy. Nevertheless, her legitimate need for quality time with Mom does not mean you need to fulfill her desire to be with Mom right then in the bathroom in violation of your legitimate desire for privacy.

In this situation, nobody’s desire is “wrong.” It’s okay for you to want to go to the bathroom by yourself. It’s okay for her to want to be in the bathroom with you right then. It’s okay for her to express extreme frustration that she’s not getting what she wants. It’s okay for you to feel annoyed at her for feeling that way.

“What’s me”: holding the limit of using the bathroom by yourself, expressing your emotions in a healthy way, acknowledging and legitimizing her needs and desires, and meeting the correctly identified need once you’re done in the restroom.

“What’s not me”: preventing her from feeling upset, preventing her from expressing that upset, or being responsible for stopping her emotions.

“I’m not letting you come into the bathroom with me. I want privacy,” you tell her through the locked door. “I hear that that makes you upset. It makes you feel like crying and yelling. It’s okay to feel upset. I will come be with you when I am done using the bathroom.”

Maybe she stops crying and tearfully says, “Okay.” Great! Maybe you find her sitting quietly outside the door waiting for you. Awesome.

Or maybe she continues to scream. Maybe she even starts kicking the door in response to your calmly set limit. That’s okay too. All outcomes are parenting successes, because you set the boundary and held to it. You did what you were supposed to do. You were never responsible for making her emotions stop in the first place. 

Janet Lansbury reiterates that our responsibility is usually just listening, accepting, and acknowledging our children’s emotions without fixing them:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard. …

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

This is why it’s important to set boundaries with our children: without boundaries, we disrespect their basic competency to navigate respectful relationships.

Without boundaries, we model an anxious, exhausting, unsustainable relationship.

Without boundaries, we teach them that it’s other people’s job to prevent their emotions and solve their problems, a textbook lesson in co-dependency.

Without boundaries, we imply that having emotions is undesirable, that a good life involves no tears, no inconveniences, and no disappointments.

It’s not about being a “tough” parent. It’s not even about putting on your own proverbial oxygen mask in order to help your child strap on his. It’s about supporting your child through the hard and necessary process of developing healthy relationships with others and with his own emotions.

In order to teach him respect for others, he needs to respect your needs and desires. In order to teach him respect for himself, he needs to see you respecting your needs and desires.

Of course, relationships are give and take, even parent/child relationships. Sometimes you say, “I’m not reading the Peppa Pig book again tonight because if I read it one more time, I will literally go insane.” And sometimes you read that Peppa Pig book again even though you will literally go insane.

Obviously, children require our support, especially the younger they are. They are more immature and less self-regulated, easily overwhelmed by their needs, desires, and the emotions accompanying them. If we ignore their bids for attention and support, we cripple them emotionally. But children are not helpless, and they rarely need our help in the form of fixing or eliminating their problems.

Yesterday, a student was building a spinner exclusively out of black Brain Flakes. He needed just a few more to complete his spinner, but another friend had the last three black Brain Flakes. She declined to part with them.

“Ugh, I want the black ones!” he cried.

“You could use different colors,” another friend suggested.

“No, I wanted it all black!” He looked to me, hoping I’d use my Magical Teacher Powers to force his friend into sharing the black ones.

I really wanted to. I knew how frustrating and disappointing it was to spend so much time creating something only to have it fall through. I could easily demand that his friend hand over the pieces, getting rid of the problem and his negative emotions in one fell swoop. It might spare me the annoyance of defusing a tantrum, too. But it’s important to me that children share willingly (another type of boundary) and that students not use my authority to coerce their friends into giving them what they want.

Trying to support him through this problem, I said, “That’s too bad that she won’t share with you. You could either use different colors like your friend suggested, or if you want your spinner to be all one color, you could start over with a new color.”

He sighed, visibly upset. Then he perked up and said, “I’m going to make an orange spinner!”

And he did.

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Spanking Didn’t Traumatize Me, and I Still Won’t Do It

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I’m just going to say it: spanking goes against everything I believe as a parent, educator, and human being. Even as a kid, I felt in my gut that spanking is unethical, harmful, and a violation of children’s rights.

Oh, great. One of those special snowflakes claiming that spanking traumatizes children. Look, what’s wrong with kids today is that they need a good whipping. None of this time out, trying to reason with them stuff. You can’t reason with kids. The only thing they listen to is a swat on the hiney. My parents spanked me when I was growing up, I spanked my kids, and you know what? None of us were traumatized. In fact, we all grew up to be respectful, well-behaved people. I’m glad I was spanked.  

This is many people’s experience: spanking is either neutral or positive. It didn’t harm them, it didn’t harm their kids, and they credit spanking with their development as decent human beings. Even though the American Psychological Association claims there’s a strong case against any benefits to spanking, these pro-spanking anecdata are compelling enough for many spanked children to grow up and spank their own kids.

And I’ll be frank: I don’t consider myself traumatized from spanking. I view it as unnecessary, ineffective, and deeply hurtful, but not traumatic. I don’t credit spanking with making me who I am today, but I don’t credit spanking for making my adult life problematic.

The thing is, spanking doesn’t need to be traumatic in order for it to be wrong.

The idea of purposefully hitting a child with a hand or an object, the idea of intentionally causing pain, goes against my ethical beliefs. “Do no harm” is a mantra of mine that of course extends to the vulnerable children under my care. Yes, (emotional) pain happens during discipline of any sort, but I believe it is never appropriate to intentionally cause pain, whether emotional or physical, or to leverage pain as punishment.

It’s such a slippery slope. When does spanking become hitting, beating, violence, or abuse? When it leaves a mark? What if you meant well and it leaves a mark accidentally? When it causes too much pain? Why is too much pain bad if pain is the thing that turns your child into a good human? And how do you determine too much pain? When your child cries or begs you to stop? Isn’t the whole point to cause them enough pain to get a strong emotional response so that they never do wrong again?

Spanking advocates often point to the emotional state of the parent as the thing that draws the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate corporal punishment. Never spank in anger is the rule.

Personally, I find it downright chilling that any loving parent could calmly and quietly spank their children, especially if the child is crying out in pain. I find it less disturbing that a parent would strike their child out of anger and frustration, then realize with horror what they did. Instead, with this model, parents make a calculated decision to inflict physical pain upon their children, with no remorse whatsoever.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t loving parents spanking their children. Of course there are. The overwhelming majority of parents spanking their children do so out love and fear for their child’s future, not because they enjoy seeing their child suffer. But that makes it all the worse: their love and empathy, their strong parental instinct to protect their child from harm, gets turned off and replaced with a conviction that physically harming their child is the most loving thing to do. This is one instance where that niggling mom guilt is right on the money.

On a personal note, I am not perfect enough as a mother to have spanking in my discipline arsenal without risking a harmful outburst. I am not always patient, kind, or self-controlled. This is why I cannot have corporal punishment of any kind as an option, even as a last resort. I can’t risk spanking my child in anger, accidentally hitting too hard, or unknowingly harming the innocent party if I misinterpret a negative interaction. Instead of allowing myself the possibility of spanking, I actively work on safer, gentler approaches.

Lauding physical harm as an ethical method of discipline is an anachronism in today’s world. We decry excessive police violence. We are appalled at anyone in a position of authority using their position to physically correct a subordinate. We expect children not to hit their siblings and friends. We don’t beat even convicted criminals.

Yet it’s tolerated and encouraged for parents to hit, thrash, beat, whoop, smack, pinch, whack, swat, or slap their children, their babies, the smallest, most defenseless, most powerless people.

Even if the line between spanking and abuse weren’t so thin, even if the danger of physically or emotionally bruising children weren’t so present, I still wouldn’t spank my children.

There’s another way.

It irks me, actually, when parents say things like, “Spanking is the only way to get them to listen.”

As a teacher, I can’t tap into the instantaneous submission that spanking brings. I must work to gain respect and authority through other, gentler means. It’s tough, but it works.

And I didn’t work with angels all the time. I worked with difficult children. You bet I sometimes stood shaking in frustration, thanking God through gritted teeth that spanking wasn’t allowed or else that kid would be hurting right now. I am not an angel myself.

But if teachers can keep a large class of students in some semblance of order without spanking, parents can handle their handful of children too without resorting to physical harm.

If spanking really were the only way to get to the hardest, most defiant kid to listen, I can understand the parenting philosophy of using spanking as a last resort punishment. But I know from experience that spanking is not the only way, and that it is the very opposite of more effective ways of disciplining.

And if there’s another way, why wouldn’t I choose an option that didn’t involve physically harming my children — even if spanking didn’t cause trauma?

A Definition of Egalitarian Parenting

In interpreting Ephesians 5:21-6:9, egalitarians argue that the gospel erases hierarchical lines between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All are equal before Christ. All mutually submit to one another. And this makes sense — what qualitative difference do Jews have over Gentiles to make them spiritually superior? What do men have over women, or one adult over another?

But in the middle of all these adult equals, Paul addresses the parent/child relationship: “Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

Does the gospel change the nature of the parent/child relationship? Does it, in fact, elevate children to the level of equals, tearing down the authoritative hierarchy between parent and child?

I’ve thought about this. It makes no sense that the gospel would leave the parent/child relationship unaffected and untransformed, but children as equals to their parents? The parent/child relationship is the only relationship out of the three that Paul addresses here where there is a qualitative difference between the two parties.

Adults possess more wisdom and experience, and are explicitly charged with guiding their children. Children eat Tide pods, leave their chores undone, and get caught up in peer pressure. Due to their immaturity, children cannot stand alone as equals in the way a slave or a wife can. How could the gospel break down the hierarchy of parent over child in a way that still allows a parent to fully guide, care, and take responsibility for their children?

After thinking about this, I would argue that egalitarian parenting ought to treat the parent/child relationship how complementarians explain their marriages: equals with different roles, with the parents laying down their lives in service to their children and children receiving the instruction and guidance of their parents, all under the higher guidance of God.

Let me provide a contrasting example first.

A Non-Egalitarian Approach: Authoritarian Parenting

In many so-called “Biblical” parenting paradigms, the point of parenting is maintaining a strict hierarchy — even without using those exact words. Parents are unquestioningly at the top, dispensing their views and desires. Children are unquestioningly at the bottom, obeying their parents’ every word as law and meeting their parents’ every desire.

In this paradigm, the key virtues of childhood are instant, cheerful, unquestioning obedience, and respect and honor toward parents. “Because I said so” is a valid and often-repeated justification for whatever the parent requests. There is no recourse for the child beyond that — no appeal to reason, emotion, or another authority. Parents are further encouraged to make their word law and be consistent, even if their initial demand was unreasonable. After all, the point is maintaining an appearance of control at all costs.

Parents train children to come on command. Defiance or disrespect are the worst of all offenses, punishable by painful and humiliating strikes across the buttocks or other shaming tactics. Parents are encouraged to hit the defiant child until her will breaks. “Talking back,” whining, even trying to explain one’s point of view — any emotion or communication that doesn’t show cheerful compliance — is not allowed, and also qualifies a child for any sort of painful, embarrassing, or harsh punishment the parent deems necessary.

According to this parenting model, children owe parents respect and honor simply because their parents are their parents. No matter how unreasonable, unkind, or even unlawful their parents’ actions may be, children are required to respond with superhuman respect. Natural feelings of frustration, injustice, fear, or hurt are interpreted as disrespect and a threat to the parents’ authority. Maintaining the hierarchical system is what’s important here — the system of parental authority and a child’s compliance is what produces happy, well-regulated, respectful adults, regardless of the way that system is implemented or maintained.

Since the desired outcome of this parenting style is the maintenance and adherence to a strict hierarchical system, parents view their children’s actions as a direct commentary on their parenting. Since controlling another human being is impossible without utterly breaking her spirit, this inspires a constant, fearful insecurity in one’s parenting that shames parents. It also justifies even stronger reactions to their child’s misbehavior, since parents are told that their child’s behavior is something well within a parents’ control.

If their children are for the most part obedient and respectful, they feel that they have succeeded in parenting and take the credit for raising well-behaved kids. If their children struggle with emotional outbursts, defiance, or rebellion (whether real or perceived), parents feel like failures. With their own reputation at stake, parents often find amusement and vindication in seeing their child as embarrassed, disrespected, or hurt as they feel.

Even if parents feel inclined to give themselves or their kids a more generous pass, critics will blame and shame parents when their children throw tantrums in the grocery store or can’t sit still in church. And parents dare not justify these breaches of obedience with reasons like, “She was tired and hungry.” It’s expected that parents keep their children reined in and respectful at all times, no exceptions, no excuses.

It’s no wonder that many children under these hierarchical rules experience abuse of all kinds and sometimes even death. And many parents feel frustrated, defeated, and inadequate due to the impossible demands of breaking the spirit of individual little humans who have their own reasons, opinions, and feelings.

I would argue that this hierarchical structure of parenting is the most predominant understanding of the parent/child relationship today. It might take the more extreme forms of come-when-I-whistle servitude, but it most often appears as “common sense” parenting that interprets most misbehavior as disrespect, which only a strong parental hand (that is, shame, punishment, and spanking) can break.

If you take a look at some of these images, you’ll see what I mean:

This isn’t to say that respect isn’t a virtue or that children shouldn’t listen to their parents. But just as complementarians zero in on “wives, submit to your husbands” and interpret “husbands, love your wives” as authority over their wives, this hierarchical view of parenting is all “children, obey your parents” and no “fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

If we look at child development, we’ll see that many of the underlying assumptions about and responses to children and their (mis)behavior often exasperate children. I’ve used my research into child development and the theology of relationships to craft a new, egalitarian paradigm of parenting.

Toward an Egalitarian Understanding of Parenting

In egalitarian parenting, children are fundamentally human and thus entitled to the same respect, understanding, and influence adults accord to other adults. This is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and respectful parenting: while respectful parents do guide with authority, they do so not to maintain a hierarchy but to help children regulate their emotions and actions in accordance with their own beliefs and interests.

Instead of demanding unquestioning obedience, egalitarian parents foster self-regulation. This is the ultimate virtue of egalitarian parenting: self-regulation. This allows space for children’s questions, explanations, and differing opinions. This allows for parents to be wrong and children to be right about their own experiences and emotions. In short, the pursuit of self-regulation allows children to be independent of their parents rather than reflections or servants of their parents.

Since children intrinsically deserve the same sort of respect that adults do, egalitarian parenting requires the parent to follow every command in Scripture about interacting with other humans: doing unto others as we would have them do to us, responding to anger with gentle words, outdoing one another in showing honor, living with understanding, being patient with the weaker ones among us, responding with blessing when we are wronged instead of revenge.

Egalitarian parenting decriminalizes children’s — and parents’! — misbehavior. The parent/child relationship is a relationship dependent on mutual respect, not on an authoritative system to obey. This means that if a child loses her temper and shouts, “I hate you!” at her mother, the damage is relational and requires a relational — not a punitive — response.

What do we do when an adult loses her cool and says something you know she doesn’t mean? We maintain our cool. We deescalate the situation. We calmly and firmly express our hurt and/or walk away from the situation if we’re getting upset ourselves. We model the kind of behavior we want the other person to emulate, and eventually, ashamed, the other person calms down, apologizes, and the conversation often gets at the heart of what’s really going on. 

And if we do respond back in anger and shout something equally rude? Well, in egalitarian parenting, we’re not trying to maintain an impossible facade of rigid authority. Our authority is maintained by mutual, organic respect, not imposed obedience, which means we can apologize or change our minds if we said something unkind or issued a consequence that isn’t fair, and not worry that our children will lose respect for us.

This relieves a huge burden from the parents’ shoulders: they are not responsible for controlling their children, an impossible task. They are merely responsible for controlling their own behavior and maintaining their own end of the relationship — a powerful, magnetic force that draws wayward children into better ways of behaving. 

Egalitarian parenting isn’t passive parenting, however. In a relationship of equals, personal boundaries are key. Parents are allowed to be human and to set their own boundaries when they’re tired, annoyed, hurt, or inconvenienced. If a toddler continues to hit his mother, the mother is fully within her right to set the toddler down and walk away until he can use gentler hands. If a teenager refuses to be responsible with her tasks, her father is fully within his right to not save her from the consequences — unwashed clothes, a messy room, missed deadlines. But the consequences are natural, not punitive, and not meant to reestablish a parent’s hierarchical authority over their child or shame their child into compliance. 

Again, this is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and egalitarian parenting: any consequence or parental response is meant to aid the child in regulating herself and restoring their relationship, not reminding the child who’s boss and wrestling them into begrudging compliance. In egalitarian parenting, parents are not maintaining a hierarchical system. They are maintaining a mutually respectful relationship where parents seek to serve and build up the child into mature independence. 

In another post, I will break down some typical examples of authoritarian parenting and suggest more egalitarian, respectful ways to firmly and compassionately handle children’s undesirable behavior.

Listening to the Mom Guilt

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Children need kind, consistent, well-informed parents. Whatever parenting beliefs a mom holds, if they’re backed up in fact (good advice, careful observation, and thoughtful research) and implemented kindly and consistently, children will turn out okay.

All of this requires confidence. I find that when I’m feeling worried, guilty, or unsure, I don’t apply my beliefs or approaches consistently or kindly. I get frustrated, and that frustration can come out on my child. I waffle back and forth on how to do things, confusing my child who needs consistency to navigate his world.

Have you ever noticed that the most volatile of parents are also the most easily swayed? A lack of confidence in one’s discipline methods, for instance, can turn a kid whining for candy in the checkout line into the end of the world for the parent, too. Flustered and at her wit’s end, the mom starts yelling at her child to stop whining. When the whining inevitably escalates into all-out tantrumming, the mom will scream, “Fine! Have the candy!”

Without confidence, our worry, guilt, and uncertainty makes us lose our cool and our parenting approaches that made much more sense when we read that article a few days ago.

Unfortunately for moms, this uncertainty crops up everywhere, sometimes even right after we’ve gained certainty. I’ll study out an issue and come to a satisfying conclusion, only to hit a roadblock with my baby (or a well-meaning online comment) that sends me reeling back to the drawing board. More often than not, this uncertainty feels like guilt — mom guilt.

Since we carry around mom guilt about the smallest, craziest of things, we think that the guilt is something to get rid of. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s certainly something moms shouldn’t listen to.

But maybe it isn’t.

Whenever I feel mom guilt, I’ve found leaning into that feeling to be productive and insightful. Even though the feeling manifests as guilt and often begins in response to a less-than-gracious question or rant, it’s drawing on many of those other underlying mom emotions. I don’t feel mom guilt about the things I confidently believe and have seen successfully implemented. It never feels good to hear another philosophy or parent questioning your style, but I put that in a different category than mom guilt.

I feel mom guilt about the new things, the uncertain things, the things I’m not quite sure I understand or am doing correctly, the things that I think I should do according to the parenting philosophy I follow but that don’t feel right.

When I lean into the mom guilt, I hear what my gut is truly saying: I’m not sure this is working for my baby. I’m not sure this is working for me. I still have questions and concerns that bother me more than I want to admit. 

This is a matter of confidence. The mom guilt clues me in that I am not confident about some aspect of my parenting and that I should start troubleshooting the issue.

Sometimes I just need reassurance, either from a mom friend who’s been there and done that, or from my husband who’s ready to back me up when I chicken out, or from my own experience seeing a parenting decision work out well for our family. Being a mom is hard. It’s easy to lose perspective amidst the sea of options and potential disasters stemming from those options. Feeling confused turns into feeling inadequate — and that’s when good husbands, sisters, friends, mentors, and my own mother step in to remind me that I am a good mom and I will get through this.

Sometimes I need more research or thought. I’m analytical and systematic in my approach to parenting; I need to understand things conceptually in order to implement them practically, or I’m lost. Plus, there’s so much I don’t know! I thought babies would be more straightforward, but ever since the first moment when I held Emmerich and hoped to goodness I didn’t drop him, I’ve been Googling the most basic of things. Mom advice is indispensable in sorting through all the expert opinions and data, but the expert opinions and data still need to be sorted — including the personal data of observing my own baby more closely.

What I try not to do is stuff the mom guilt away. It’s right that we empower moms to listen to their motherly intuition, and that’s why it’s important to listen to the mom guilt: mom guilt is part of that motherly intuition. It’s not the comforting side where mom knows best. It’s the side that reminds you that you don’t always know best, especially in the particular situation making you uneasy.

Moms, like any humans, get caught up in their lofty parenting goals or limited perspectives or sleep deprivation or stress and fail to see their children clearly. We don’t know all the answers off the top of our head. We haven’t done all the research possible. Mom guilt reminds us of our humanity. While we need to respond to mom guilt with so much grace, we need to listen to the mom guilt when it shows us where we might have gone wrong — whether it’s as benign as losing confidence or not understanding our children or the issue or it’s as serious as potentially wronging our children.

All of us can think of loving, devoted mothers doing something from less-than-ideal information or ideology, even some truly horrible things like hitting children with plumbers’ pipe for punishment or yelling at their children, not apologizing, and then blaming their loss of temper on the children’s bad behavior. I would venture to guess that the majority of parents who hit their children or yell feel guilty about their actions, but instead of leaning into the guilt, they stuff it away with excuses and beliefs that led them to believe hitting or yelling is okay in the first place. How many broken parent/child relationships could have been saved if parents were encouraged to listen to the guilt they felt after inflicting overly harsh punishment or insensitively communicating?

A mom who doesn’t listen to her mom guilt can build up problems in her relationship with her children. As I said above, a lack of confidence often leads to a loss of the firm, kind, consistent parental leadership children need. Some parents let that lack of confidence and uncertainty fester into a feeling of inadequacy, lashing out at others — their children, their nosy relatives, the random people of the internet. Some parents overcompensate for their lack of confidence by putting on a show and justifying their behavior without true introspection.

It’s difficult to allow ourselves the possibility of being wrong as we interact with and care for the people we love most. Leaning in to the mom guilt requires (ironically) a level of confidence in our self-worth, and that’s hard to come by, especially for moms in a parenting culture of shame and way too much information.

But the grace we need is that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to try something else. It’s okay to feel guilty, or uncertain, or clueless. We need to believe that for ourselves and for other moms so much that we’re empowered to admit when we’re wrong or unsure, and make the necessary change.

Kids don’t need perfect moms to turn out well. They need kind, consistent, well-informed moms — and all of us are capable of being that if we listen to our mom guilt and try again.

Gendered Parenting Advice?

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I was disappointed to see this article printed in a mainstream parenting magazine. Entitled “Boys vs. Girls: How to Tailor Your Parenting Techniques,” it lists several ways boys differ from girls and vice versa, and how these differences require responses tailored to your child’s specific sex.

Where to begin?

Well, first, girls and boys are more similar than dissimilar. Data on so-called masculine and feminine traits falls into a normal bell curve, like so:

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The average boy and the average girl are pretty much the same. Gaussian distribution also means that a significant number of girls are more masculine than the average boy, and a significant number of boys are more feminine than the average girl.

Certainly, some differences do exist between the sexes, even at young ages. Biological differences cause girls on average to grow faster and hit puberty sooner, something that will change once the average boy hits puberty and surpasses the average female peer in height.

But most of the time, when people talk about the differences between boys and girls, they’re observing the extreme, outlying masculine and feminine traits — not the average boy and girl and not innate biological differences. These sociological differences may be statistically significant, but not significant enough to change parenting strategies on the basis of sex alone.

I don’t have the space to detail all the ways in which neuroscience tries to find psychological differences between the sexes that simply aren’t there, but Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference and Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes by Christia Spears Brown debunk or clarify many of the article’s claims about gender differences.

Even if the differences mentioned in the magazine article are accurate interpretations of correct research, those differences are made larger and more meaningful than they really are.

The first example in the magazine article demonstrates this: “Boys develop language skills more slowly than girls. Most of their speech is comprehensible by age 4 1/2. So avoid ‘constructive criticism’ using abstract words such as inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. They can sound like the wah-wuh-wah-wah-wah of the adults in ‘Peanuts’ cartoons to your son.”

The educator in me died a little. How does comprehensible speech indicate the level of boys’ verbal comprehension? Every language learner comprehends more than he can verbally express. Even if speech and comprehension develop at the same time (that is, slowly), the logical solution is not to avoid widening the child’s vocabulary but to familiarize the child with the meaning of inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. Ironically, the online article links to another, gender neutral parenting article on how talking, talking, talking is the key to developing language and widening vocabulary — not avoiding certain words because your child is a boy.

By following this gender-specific advice, we train ourselves and our society to perceive boys as more incapable of verbal expression and thus to treat them that way, resulting in — surprise, surprise — fewer verbally expressive men.

All of the advice in the article could just have easily been presented in a gender-neutral way: Certain children require louder decibels to hear, so if your child “ignores” you, she or he may not have heard you in the first place. Certain children have a hard time sitting still. This is because they’re kids.

It’s unnecessary to mention gender at all. In my work as a teacher, I’ve never found gender helpful in diagnosing problems or planning lessons. I assume all children need communication adjusted to their unique personality. I assume all children have short attention spans and a need to move after 15-30 minutes. My students ran the gamut of self-control and communication skills, and I’ve seen them go through all the stages of verbal and physical development that every kid, boy or girl, goes through.

I don’t treat children differently based simply on their sex. I treat them the way they need be to treated at that particular stage in their development. I try not to lower or heighten expectations based on their sex.

The article would have been wise to heed its own warning about gender stereotypes and, in its own words, simply viewed children as the unique individuals they are.

No Bad Kids

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This is the last installment in my premature celebration of the Week of the Young Child. I didn’t finish up yesterday’s post in time because e.e. and I took advantage of the three hours of spring weather, so you only get 4 posts. Try not to be too upset. If you need more young child inspiration, check out the other posts in this series on infant play, listening to children, and not being a helicopter parent

Christian views on discipline and child development are often based in the idea of original sin. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child,” Proverbs tells us. “Beat it out with a stick.” (Rough paraphrase.)

According to this view, every undesirable behavior stems from some sort of conscious choice to do wrong — disobedience, disrespect, or just general naughtiness. Kids are inherently sinful, and their sinfulness affects everything they do.

I cannot disagree with this diagnosis strongly enough.

Yes, the fall affects every aspect of the human experience. We are indeed sinful. But “sin” is not, in my understanding, properly understood as merely disobedience to or rebellion against God’s law. Sin isn’t even primarily willful, conscious choices to do wrong for doing wrong’s sake. Sin is any disturbance of God’s shalom, any disorder of the good things still in this world. This includes disobedience and rebellion, of course, but it also covers the brokenness of the world and the harm we receive from it — whether it’s as “benign” as watching an animal die, suffering from the common cold, or getting yelled at for an accident; or as serious as enduring discrimination or abuse.

Living in a broken world messes us up.

I believe children are born in the image of God — that is, with an innate desire to love, to create, and to do good.  Jesus praises little children as our examples of faith, because he recognizes their motivations to please, to do right, to wonder, and to believe against all odds.

But children are not little angels. They throw fits. They bite other kids. They yell “no” when you tell them it’s time to change their diaper.

How can I make the case that kids are inherently good when we’ve all seen plenty examples of children acting out?

Well, think back to the last time you lost it.

I’ll start. I came home from work and snapped at my husband for not doing the dishes like I’d asked. “You never do anything around the house!” I yelled, instantly remembering a half dozen things he’d done in the past week. Offended, he then pointed out those half dozen things. Instead of apologizing, I grumbled something about him being so sensitive. He gave me a look of hurt and annoyance and turned away. “You don’t care about me!” I yelled. “All you care about is your stupid computer games!” A long rant later, having failed at getting a rise out of him, I stormed into the bedroom and burst into tears.

I just wanted him to hug me. I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted the dishes done. I just didn’t know what I wanted; I was too strung out to think straight.

Sure, you could argue that I’m acting out of my total depravity. Maybe you’re right. But I’d gotten no sleep last night while the baby wailed, I’d felt like I spent all my time cleaning our house, an awkward coworker disagreement went down at work, a kid got a bloody nose under my watch, and the unwashed dishes were the straw that broke this weary camel’s back.

I don’t normally snap at my husband, but when I do, I’m sleep-deprived and stressed.

Our adult bad behavior often stems from the hurt or frustration we experience in a broken world. It’s a rare person who chooses to exercise her will in a sinful way just for the sake of it. Physical and emotional ailments wear down the will, making it more prone to hurting others or ourselves, like a wounded animal snarling at its kind owner in self-preservation.

Even with abuse or crime, hurt people hurt people. Hurt begets hurt. Violence begets violence. Abuse begets abuse. We give what we experience.

None of that excuses sin, but it explains the complications of human nature — how pain and ignorance disorder our otherwise good motives, causing harm to ourselves and others.

With children, it’s even less complicated than that. Developmentally immature, children don’t know how to handle the brokenness of the world, not even small things like hunger or minor disappointment. They don’t have the self-control to quell their emotions when they’re stressed; they don’t have the empathy required to see how their actions affect others; they don’t have the knowledge of how to solves problems with words instead of teeth and hands.

Bad behavior, from tantrums to biting to disobedience, is often communication under duress: “I’m tired!” “I want that toy back!” “I feel like that rule is unfair!”

Children don’t explicitly do things to harm or bother others for the sake of harming or bothering. They feel things deeply, and they need to express those feelings. They just don’t know how to do so in appropriate ways.

Neither do many adults, it turns out. Have you ever seen a kid throwing a tantrum in the noodle aisle, only to walk past them again in the cereal aisle and see the mom screaming at the kid for throwing a tantrum in public? Both felt strongly about something, and both expressed their feelings in an inappropriate, immature way.

The thing is, many adults give their own tantrums a pass because their own feelings appear legitimate to them, while they hold kids to a higher standard of behavior simply because their kids’ reasons for throwing a tantrum don’t seem legitimate.

We need to give our children the same respect, grace, and understanding we want when the world wears us down with its many inconveniences, injustices, and hurts. And if you’re not giving or receiving this grace for yourself, you’re not going to be able to give it, either. Just as there aren’t many “bad” kids, there aren’t many “bad” parents, either. Just harried, stressed, tired, overwhelmed, and outnumbered parents who are still learning how to survive in a broken, sinful world.

 

You Are Not the Authority on Your Child’s Feelings

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A rare “cranky” photo. He fussed during our entire Easter photoshoot…because he had just sat through a long church service and was more than ready for a nap.

I’m celebrating Week of the Young Child 2018 a week early! (Yay, mom brain!) Yesterday I wrote about curbing our tendency to tell kids “no, don’t, stop.” Today I’m talking about listening to them. 

I write a lot about the importance of letting people tell their narratives as they see them. I believe this is crucial for understanding and making peace with those who are different from us. When we fail to hear what people are actually saying and meaning, when we hijack their narratives to push our own agenda, we are no longer truth seekers.

Children are no exception. In fact, I think it’s particularly imperative for parents to figure out what their children mean, instead of foisting false motives onto kids. Children are only just becoming self-aware and are much less capable of expressing that self-awareness. We are their last court of appeals; if we get it wrong, they have no one else to turn to.

One of my students injured herself on the playground — tripped while running, regular kid stuff. When her mom asked the girl for an explanation, she didn’t even let her daughter finish the requested explanation before lovingly and kindly butting in with her own version:

“I was running on the playground, and — ”

“No, you weren’t looking where you were going again, were you?”

The girl’s happy smile froze. She didn’t contradict or agree with this assessment. She didn’t know what to say in the face of a parent rewriting the story of how she simply tripped over a stair step. What’s worse, the parent insinuated that this was almost a character issue: you’re too spazzy, you never pay attention.

We hijack our children’s narratives all the time, especially when they’re expressing inconvenient emotions.

I find myself teasingly calling e.e. a crankybutt every time he inexplicably cried. This is dismissive of both his emotions and his communication. It’s not that he understands and is offended by the term “crankybutt”; it’s not that I fail to quickly and gently respond to his cries.

But it is the case that every time I genuinely view him as a crankybutt, I am not accurately identifying his real needs and emotions. Every time I label him without understanding, I train myself to view me as the authority on my child’s emotions and meaning, instead of him.

With that in mind, I try to be intentional in how I speak to and about e.e. When he starts fussing for no apparent reason, I say, “I wonder if you’re feeling tired” or “I wonder if you’d like to lie on your back now; let’s roll you over and see.” Simply adding I wonder reminds me to be observant rather than prematurely dogmatic.

If a nap or a spell on his back doesn’t do the trick, it doesn’t mean he is a cranky, demanding child who, oh my goodness, just needs to stop crying already. It means my assessment was wrong about what his crying meant, and I should try something else. 

When my husband comes home, I try to speak accurately of e.e. Was he really “cranky all day”? Was he really “clingy” or “needy” (both negative words)? Or was he simply in genuine need of more cuddles and attention because he’s an infant and requires Mommy to help regulate his emotions? Maybe he was slightly gassy and I didn’t know it, or feeling extra tired that day, or starting another growth spurt unbeknownst to me.

How we speak of our children to ourselves and to others matters so much, because perception is reality. If we start viewing our kids as whiny, cranky, and naughty, instead of tired, overstimulated, and curious, we will start treating them as whiners, crankybutts, and disobedient children — instead of just kids. We will overwrite and thus erase what our children are trying to tell us in their limited way. 

Even more insidiously and subtly, we’ll blame our kids for our own negative feelings instead of taking ownership of them ourselves. We are worn out at the end of the day, preoccupied with our own exhaustion and stress, so when our preschooler bursts into tears at pickup, we minimize her exhaustion and stress as a “tantrum” in order to cope. “Why are you being such a baby?” we’ll snap. “Stop crying right now.”

Guilty as charged. When e.e. wasn’t napping well and I was zonked from multiple night feedings, I felt frustration, sometimes even anger, at e.e. and his nonstop crying. “You are so frustrating!” I wanted to yell. “Just stop crying and go to sleep and we’ll both be happy!”

With the very last shred of self-control within me, I paused and reminded myself that e.e. was not frustrating; was frustrated; and there’s a big difference.

Correctly identifying and speaking the frustration out loud kept me from blowing my top: “I am feeling frustrated,” I would tell my uncomprehending infant. “You keep crying, I haven’t slept enough, and all of that is making me feel very frustrated with you.”

Reality was restored, the true narrative recovered, and both my feelings and e.e.’s feelings were understood and validated.

Stop Telling Kids to Stop

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My students playing freely with baking soda and colored vinegar. I made only one rule (“Don’t eat anything”), and the only kid who broke never made that mistake again!

It’s the Week of the Young Child! (Actually, it’s the week before the Week of the Young Child, but my young child keeps waking up every forty-five minutes at night and I can’t read dates right, so we’re going to celebrate early.) Yesterday I wrote about playing with infants. Today I’m talking about playing in general, and how boring and restrictive we adults are about it. 

“Don’t walk in the mud!”

“Don’t go near that road.”

“Don’t touch it!”

“Don’t put it in your mouth!”

Caregivers talk almost exclusively in imperative commands. I’ve seen parents hover over their kids, controlling every blink, twitch, and word with some form of negative commentary:

“Hold the door open for her! God. Do not walk in that dirt — DO NOT WALK IN THAT DIRT. I don’t want that in my house. Get out of there right now. Go to the passenger side door, she’s backing out. Stop it, you two; get in. Now! Stop! Stop it! Why are you acting like this?!”

I’ve been that teacher who micromanages every bit of fun that kids have:

“Keep your hands to yourself, Casey; there’s no wrestling at school. No, we don’t stand on that bench, you might fall off and hurt yourself. No, you may not walk up the slide. Get out of the way so Rachel can — Rachel! Feet first down the slide! Put down the snow, Malia, no, ew, don’t eat it, that’s yucky. Friends, get off the ice! Nobody is allowed to play near the ice, remember?”

No, don’t, stop.

We say these things to our children over and over again, even if no real danger is present or harm is done.

It’s often born out of a fear of healthy risk, a disinclination to clean up messes, and, for me especially, a fear of what other people think. Will people think I’m a lax parent if I let my toddler try on a purse while shopping? Will people think I’m a lax teacher if I let kids talk in the bathroom? Is that lady judging my parenting because my son accidentally let a door slam in her face? Will parents think less of me if they see kids pushing each other in the Cozy Coupe car under my watch?

Instead of putting the children’s needs first — their needs to play and explore freely without constantly bumping into a barrier of no, stop, don’t — caregivers often put their own desires first — the desire to look competent and authoritative to others, the desire to not clean up another mess. But it’s emotionally exhausting and ineffective for caregivers to uphold detailed, endless rules that unnecessarily restrict kids. It just breeds power plays and frustration on both ends.

For everyone’s sanity, here are some suggestions to curb this micromanaging tendency:

Create yes spacesA “yes space” in RIE theory is an area with no hazards — a place where, theoretically, your child could explore unsupervised without risk to herself or other objects. It’s a place where caregivers could have no conceivable reason to say “no” to anything their child wants to pull out or play with.

Even if you don’t have a special room or gated area for a “yes space,” put on the onus on you to take away hazards instead of requiring a young child to stymie their curiosity. Put away items, lock cabinets, or move your child to safer area so that they hear “no, don’t touch!” less often. Why create an unnecessary power struggle when you can simply take away the temptation?

Get comfortable with risk. Kids learn through risk. They learn about themselves, their competencies and shortcomings, and the world around them, its hazards and helps. If we constantly police what kids can do under our supervision, they won’t be safe and smart when outside of our supervision.

As an example, I try to let kids walk down the steps of our school’s changing station on their own, even though it’s a bit tricky for younger, uncoordinated kids. I stand right there, ready to catch them if they fall, but I don’t hold their hand unless they request it. Sometimes they trip a bit and risk falling, but those near-falls teach them how to navigate stairs of all sorts on their own. Those children are less likely to do reckless things, since they’ve experienced the risk of nearly falling flat on their face. It’s the kids who get lifted down from the changing table or who always have an adult helping them down who do far more dangerous things (like nearly throwing themselves off the stairs expecting me to catch them!).

Be realistic about harm. Kids will fall, trip, and run into things no matter how many rules we enact or how many times we yell, “Don’t run! Watch where you’re going!” They will get hurt, and there will be scrapes, bruises, and bloody noses. That’s just the nature of childhood.

We have a soft gym at my preschool, and kids love to roll down this ramp on large balls. Some teachers are uncomfortable with this and want the kids to only slide on their bottoms. You know how many kids have injured themselves rolling down the ramp on balls? Zero. And how many kids have hurt themselves merely sliding down the ramp? Plenty.

Besides, kids often ignore adults’ pleas to stop if the risk is minuscule or the request is silly. When I was a kid, I lived on a quiet street in the suburbs. All the neighborhood kids congregated in and around this street to play hockey and ride bikes. We’d been doing this for years when one day, a police officer spotted us riding our bikes back and forth across the street, in and out of our driveways. “That is too dangerous,” he cautioned us. “You could get hit by a car. I don’t want to see any of you doing that again.”

From that day on, we obediently made sure no police officers were nearby before we started up our bike rides.

Even kids as tiny as toddlers will continue to take a risk if they don’t understand the real danger behind it, which is why it’s important to reserve our no, don’t, stop for clear dangers. Otherwise, our no, don’t put the dishwasher pod in your mouth will seem as over-reactionary as no, don’t eat the snow. (We all tasted snow as kids. And leaves. And grass. And our mom’s weird-tasting wood coasters.)

Unless the activity causes intentional injury (e.g., one student slinging balls into other kids’ faces) or a potential for a huge injury (e.g., playing by a busy road), just calm down.

Let children measure their own level of safety. It’s true, kids make dumb decisions. But it’s also true that in certain circumstances kids can evaluate and express when they feel hurt or in danger better than their caretakers. I’m losing count of how many times I’ve pulled two kids apart on the playground, expecting howls of pain, and found both the tackler and the tackled laughing hysterically.

“Ian,” I’ll chastise the offender. “We do not tackle our friends at school. You could have hurt Ryan really badly!”

And then as soon as I turn around, Ryan, that poor, helpless victim, tackles Ian back, still laughing uncontrollably.

For some reason, many kids find it funny to punch, tackle, push, wrestle, and throw balls at each other. Don’t you remember doing things as a kid that just sound horrific now as an adult? I rough housed with my dad, getting tossed on my head and finding it the funniest thing ever. I repeatedly crawled through this huge bushy plant with leaves that gave you millions of paper cuts. I wound up our tire swing and spun around until I was dizzy enough to puke — multiple times.

Every kid tolerates things differently, and we do children a disservice to decide what they can tolerate or not. I’ve determined that my job as a teacher is not to enforce my view of what’s tolerable or not, but to enforce what they view as tolerable or not.

We teach our kids to speak up for themselves: “I don’t like that,” I hear them say all the time to each other, from being called a “buckethead” or getting tackled to the ground. I uphold children’s “I don’t like that.”

If I see Ian going in to tackle Alexa, for instance, I’ll throw myself between the two because I know how much Alexa hates playing rough. If Ryan decides he’s had enough of the tackle game and Ian’s not letting up, I pull Ian off and say, “Ryan told you he doesn’t like that. You need to listen to friends’ words when they tell you they don’t like something.”

Just don’t be a stick in the mud, okay? Really, what’s the harm in your child walking through some damp dirt in the parking lot? Worst case scenario, he gets dirt on your car floor, which is already covered in Cheerio dust and road salt. What’s so bad about kids wrestling each other? Worst case scenario, someone gets hurt, and the game stops. What’s the worst that can happen if you let kids climb up the slide?

I’ll tell you. They can step on their dress, slip, and slam their chin into the landing, resulting in an ER trip and stitches. But did that stop me from climbing up the slide? You bet it didn’t.

And if busting my chin open didn’t stop me from doing something fun, you shouldn’t stop kids from being kids.

How to Play with an Infant

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Our stupidly simple play space: a blanket and Mommy’s mirror

Welcome to the Week of the Young Child 2018! To celebrate, I’m writing a week’s worth of blog posts on how to foster young children and our relationship with them. 

Being that mom, I worried about how to play with my infant son. Did I need to bring out special toys? How long should he have tummy time? Should I be with him at all times? Isn’t he supposed to be rolling over by now? Pinterest, help me before I ruin my child!!!

Of course, e.e. wasn’t remotely interested in any bright toy I waved in front of his face. He gravitated toward stuffing burp cloths in his mouth and staring at blank white walls.

In Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) philosophy, infants are competent little humans capable of expressing their needs and interests — as opposed to helpless blank slates requiring parents to do everything for them. Obviously, immobile, nonverbal infants require more help than mobile, verbal children, but it’s true that even the littlest of humans aren’t entirely helpless.

Once I began viewing e.e. as capable of thinking and communicating his own wants and needs, I took a step back and respected his ability to entertain himself as well.

I’ve since come to view my role as a parent as less of an entertainer, shaking rattles and singing songs, and more of an observer and a facilitator. I don’t make the fun; I make the space for it.

The light bulb moment happened when he was around two months old.

Every time he suckled for his pacifier, I stuck it in his mouth. Every time, he almost immediately spat it out — and began suckling for it again. Frustrated, I stopped giving him the nook.

“Look at him,” my husband said suddenly. “He’s playing with it.”

Sure enough, e.e. had invented a single-player game of fetch — spitting out the pacifier, then slowly reaching out his tongue to lick or nuzzle it back into his mouth. Then he spat it out again and repeated the whole process.

My two-month-old is making up games? Clearly, I didn’t even know my own child.

Ever since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time just sitting and observing e.e. — his interests, his competencies, his ways of doing things. From those observations, I’ve tweaked the activities we do together to strengthen his interests or pique new ones.

A little while ago, he discovered his hands were not only good for gnawing but also great for grabbing.

That’s when I reintroduced toys, after three months of no luck. But I didn’t play with him, per se. I didn’t jiggle the rattle or kiss his face with the bunny. (At least not very much. I’m only human — totally enamored and obsessed mom human, to be precise.) I just set them out and watched what he did with them.

In his own time, his gaze fell on the fuzzy gray bunny, and his mouth and fingers registered that stuffed animals felt a lot like his beloved burp cloths. He spent a good five minutes pawing and flailing at that bunny.

Then he lost interest.

Normally when a baby loses interest in something, I start shoving the object back in her face, cooing, bouncing, standing on my head to get her attention again. (Why do we do that? Do we feel like failures as caregivers when babies find the ceiling more interesting than our proferred activity? Do we just think that’s just the thing to do with babies? Asking for a friend.)

That’s annoying. That’s rude. That’s the exact thing I snap at my husband not to do. And if I don’t want anybody to stick a toy or a long explanation about hydroponic gardens in my face when I’m obviously writing this blog post, Erich, why does another human’s clear signal of disinterest deserve less respect just because that human is an infant?

So I curb my inexplicable tendencies to be the life of the party. I try to just watch instead, to see if I can facilitate another play opportunity or just let him be.

Babies know what they want.

No, really, they do — that, or my baby’s just the most prodigious infant that ever lived. (Which, like, duh.)

The other day, e.e. expressed an interest in sitting up. Whenever I propped him up on his Boppy pillow, he strained forward until I lifted him into a sitting position. This can’t be developmentally appropriate for his underdeveloped spine, I reasoned, and lowered him back down. But he stuck his neck forward, crunched his belly, and gave me that bewildered why-do-you-do-this-to-me-Mom? look.

The books say he isn’t supposed to be sitting up until four months, but e.e. knew what he wanted, and he knew how to guilt Mommy into making it happen.

Okay. Fine. (But I still want you rolling over, e.e. Prodigious babies roll over.)

Now that I’m looking for e.e.’s cues, his playtime objectives are quite obvious. When he wants to grin or talk, he grins or talks. When he wants to interact with me, he looks in my eyes. When he doesn’t, he looks away. When he gets tired of tummy time, he starts fussing. When he wants to be on his tummy, he rocks his body until I take a hint.

Sometimes he’s smiley and social. Sometimes he’s introspective. Sometimes he wants to stare at blank walls. Sometimes he just wants to gaze into my eyes while making duck lips. And sometimes he wants to lay prone on the ground and complain about life. (Like mother, like son.)

Through observation, I’ve seen e.e. for who he is, what he wants, and what he can do — even as an infant.

*

Okay, weird mom, but really, how do I play with an infant? Here are e.e.’s and my top five suggestions for easy, fun play:

  1. Baby yoga
  2. Songs with motions (“The Wheels on the Bus,” “Hickory Dickory Dock,” “Bananas Unite,” etc.)
  3. Blowing raspberries at each other
  4. Mimicking each other’s vowel sounds and facial expressions
  5. And, of course, chewing on burp cloths

All the Ways to Ruin a Nap Routine

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Sleep is a big deal and a big struggle.

Nothing sends me spiraling into grumpiness and depression like a lack of sleep. When I learned of my pregnancy, my first thought was to figure out how to gently sleep train my child as soon as possible. I knew I couldn’t handle sleep deprivation for very long.

Sleep is also a huge priority in my parenting. Not only does sleep make for a happier baby, but it also is crucial for development and learning. Lots of children today are sleep deprived, and I don’t want my kid to be one of them.

e.e. is a good sleeper, so his first couple of months were the stuff of parental dreams. He slept five or six consecutive hours a night, and took naps like a champ. We practiced good sleep habits, like putting him down drowsy but awake, following the Eat, Play, Sleep routine to prevent overtiredness, and rarely nursing him to sleep.

And people said this parenting thing was hard.

From birth, e.e. slept on his tummy. At his two month checkup, our pediatrician did her duty and scared me into trying to get e.e. to sleep on his back. Since he already was a good sleeper, she said, it shouldn’t be difficult to transition him onto his back.

She stands by her advice to this day, and she also takes full blame for ruining my child’s sleep.

I don’t know if a sleep regression coincided with our attempts to put him on his back or if our attempts to put him on his back triggered a sleep regression, but everything went haywire after that. He stopped sleeping through the night, instead waking every hour or two to nurse. Getting him to nap was the most agonizing, futile thing I’ve ever done.

We switched him onto his tummy to control the damage, but to no avail.

Once upon a glorious time, we just needed to swaddle him, insert a pacifier, bounce him a bit on the exercise ball, and he was out. Now he screamed at the swaddle, screamed at the pacifier, and screamed at the bouncing (unless we bounced for a minimum of ten minutes to calm him down, and then another thirty to get him to sleep).

Naptime became a battle, and nobody won. e.e. was tired and cranky all the time. was tired and cranky all the time. At its worst, it took me two hours of repeatedly trying the old methods to get e.e. to bed, and in the end, we still cried ourselves to sleep.

This was not working for us.

At our pediatrician’s suggestion, we decided to let e.e. figure out how to sleep on his own.

I came home from the appointment, put him in his bassinet, and listened to him scream. I desperately tried to drown myself in infant sleep research so as to quell the anxiety searing through my bloodstream.

Every five minutes, I went in to pat his back and assure him that mommy was here and loved him. His screams made me feel like the worst mom in the world: If you were really here and loving me, I wouldn’t be crying at the top of my lungs!

I was crying, he was crying, and finally, after twenty minutes, I scooped him up and nursed him to sleep.

As he slumbered peacefully in my arms, I bolstered my resolve with a good, hard look at my baby’s needs. e.e. needed to sleep more than he needed to not cry. Besides, even if my goal was to reduce his tears, then the status quo wasn’t working: he cried just as hard when I bounced, crooned, and patted him as when I let him cry himself to sleep.

He was giving me more than enough hints that he wanted me to trust his competency — kicking out of the swaddle, arching away from the pacifier, wailing on the exercise ball, even turning away from the breast. He was his own person, with his own timetable for doing things that didn’t fit my predetermined plans. If I insisted on listening to my fear and anxiety about him crying, we’d get even more sleep deprived.

I did some research to curb my fears about the dangers of cortisol spikes and abandonment, and touched base with a couple of moms with lovely children completely unaffected by their early days of crying it out.

Knowing I wouldn’t brain damage my child helped a ton. We tried again with giving him an opportunity to self-soothe himself to sleep. Here’s our routine:

After about an hour of being awake, he gets snapped into his Zen sack. (Contrary to the five star reviews, it’s done nothing to improve his sleep, but it’s cute, soft, and perfect for transitioning out of the swaddle.)

I snuggle him close and remind him that we’re putting him to sleep differently for his nap (yes, I’m a weirdo who explains things to her newborn). “It’s difficult to fall asleep alone,” I empathize, “but I’m confident you can do it. If you feel you can’t, I’ll come check on you in five minutes. I’m always here for you.”

The white noise and fans go on, the lights go off, and we slow dance to the bassinet as I sing a short lullaby to this tune:

Now go to sleep.
Go to sleep, sleep, sleep.
Go to sleep, little one.
Close your eyes and dream tender dreams,
For you are guarded, protected by my love.

Then I give him a kiss (okay, lots of kisses), place him on his tummy, and wish him a happy nap.

That’s it. What once took hours now takes a few minutes.

He’s caught on quickly! It’s only been a couple of days, but for the most part, he cries or fusses only a few minutes before I sneak back in to see him conked out for a good, long nap. Before I lay him down, he starts sucking on his own fist to calm himself, something he never did before when I was frantically sticking pacifiers in his mouth.

This is such a huge relief for both of us to go from long, drawn out battles to a short, effective routine that allows him to sleep longer and, ironically, cry less.