Before you have kids you really have no idea what kind of a parent you’ll actually be. You’ll have an idea of the kind of parent you’ll want to be, but until it’s your job to stop a tiny baby from crying there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure. Over time you develop your parenting style – some of it on purpose, some of it on accident, and some of it out of pure necessity. For example, I purposely make the conscious effort not to tell my kids no when they ask if I can play with them or pick them up. I accidentally discovered that the best solution to calm down a cranky baby at bed time is with sad country music. Out of necessity, I discovered that my go-to action for stopping any dispute, correct any behavior, or implement any punishment is to take it away. Whatever it is.
It starts small enough, a baby slams their sippy cup on the table over and over again, so I took it away. Baby hits me with toy, I took it away. Baby rips pages out of a book, I took it away. It is effective for babies in that they have the immediate tangible consequence. They had a thing, they were mean with the thing, Dad takes the thing. A very straightforward way to train your kids to behave a certain way. Well, wouldn’t you know the damnedest thing happened – I trained myself.
I have come to the realization that my immediate reaction is to take the thing from my kids. Whatever it is. Looking back, there was a time when I removed the bedside table and all its contents from my daughters’ room when they were being too silly at bedtime. So a table, radio, lamp, humidifier, water bottles, and books were placed in the kitchen until they woke up the next morning. I also went through the house and collected every bottle of lotion and put them out of reach. Because they were taking it when they weren’t supposed to, five bottles of Aveeno took up residence on top of my dresser for a week. When my daughter lied to me and told me she finished her dinner and started eating her dessert, I literally took candy from a baby. Took her roll of Smarties and fired them into the trash can as she watched in horror. Though, to be fair, Smarties are trash candy anyway and I was actually doing her a favor.
I am sure there are a thousand more over the years, and they were all done without a second thought. Last week, I finally recognized and overcame this impulse when it reached, what I realized, was a new level of absurdity. After the full bedtime routine of getting in jammies, getting stories, and getting tucked in, my two daughters refused to stay in their rooms and go to sleep. At one point, they got up and changed out of their jammies into the clothes they wanted to wear the next day. About two hours after their bedtime, they finally got to sleep. The next day was a school day so they couldn’t sleep in, and wouldn’t you know it, the next day at bed time they were over-tired and worse than the night before. They did the exact same thing of changing out of jammies and into their clothes for the next day.
Quick two things. One, how stupid is it that kids get over-tired? If you are tired, shouldn’t it be easier to go to sleep? Shouldn’t rest be a desirable thing if you can barely keep your eyes open? Two, if my kids can change out of jammies and into their clothes in the middle of the night (and by middle of the night I mean 9:30 PM), then why do they beg me to help get them dressed each morning? They showed their hand. Fools.
Anyway, I decided enough was enough. If they didn’t want to stay in their pajamas, then not only would I not help them change into them, but they wouldn’t even have them. I was going to take the jammies. While they were gone at school I was going to go into their drawers and take all the jammies. That’ll teach em! Wouldn’t that teach em? I mean, it seemed like a good idea at first and definitely in line with the kind of disciplinary measures they’ve come to expect. And I was honestly very curious to see how’d they’d react when they’d get ready for bed that night. But then I thought, what if they were fine with it? What if they just started sleeping in their normal clothes? If they developed that habit now, would they ever get out if it? Do I want my kids to stay in their jammies at night? Yes. When they get older do I want them to be the weird kid at the sleepover who goes to bed in jeans? Absolutely not. Slippery slope from there to swimming in a pair of shorts rather than a real bathing suit.
I decided to leave the jammies be. But what is it that has become so ingrained in me to take things from my kids? Is it the remnants of the primitive instinct to be the hunter/gatherer/provider and the flip-side of that is the taker? I provided them with that 24 pack of markers, so it is in my nature to take it back. Is it some innate sense of God-like power that comes from the fact that I created them, and as such, have the power to givith and taketh away the construction paper? Is there a better way to handle these situations where I end up taking something from them? Surely there is some wisdom I can give, some discussion we can have to articulate expectations of behavior and the consequences of when those expectations aren’t met.
The next day at dinner my wife and I explained to our kids why it was important to go to sleep at bedtime, and let them know why the way the had been behaving wasn’t right. They agreed. They understood. They acknowledged that if they got out of their beds for any reason other than to go to the bathroom that there would be consequences. That night they tried to sneak out of their beds at least three times. I took all of their stuffed animals.