Smile. Take a deep breath. And. Relax. -Becky A Bailey, Ph.D, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline
What is your difficulty?
Getting my three-year-old son to bed at night.
What feelings arise?
I feel confused, helpless, and discouraged.
I feel like whatever I try to do, to help him get to bed, won’t work.
I also feel stupid, because I’m a teacher and a mom and SHOULD know how to handle this…but sometimes I don’t have an answer.
How is your problem affecting you?
When he threw his toothbrush the other night, I felt my body get tense.
I sort of held my breath.
I got frustrated that bedtime would take longer than I wanted it to take and I wanted to lie down and relax after a long day of teaching. I was annoyed that he was making a mess that I would have to clean up… because motivating him to get on the floor and wipe up the mess with the towel will be ANOTHER conflict after this one is over. I felt extra tired inside when I saw the problem getting worse.
What is your part or connection to the problem?
My goal of getting bedtime over with quickly probably affects things negatively. I want to be done with tooth brushing quickly. My son can probably feel my impatience, and he doesn’t want to be asked or told to brush his teeth. He probably feels helpless and out of control himself, so he retaliates and throws his toothbrush.
What are you learning about yourself, the situation, or your son?
That I love my son.
That I want to be a loving and caring mom.
That I get insecure that I’m not a good enough mom.
I look at this problem from the outside in. I try and imagine him being an adult and looking back on his childhood and I want him to remember me as a loving mom. I take a deep breath and remind myself that this behavior is part of his developmental stage. He wants to run the show. So I give him choices, so he feels a sense of control, like: “You have a choice. Would you like to put your pajama shirt on first or your pajama pants on first?” I’m learning that clear expectations and using cues help. Like, “Okay, now it’s time to pick out the PJs.” And, “Great! It looks like you’re dressed for bed. Now you can choose your book.” I found the book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky A. Bailey very helpful.
Parenting articles giving advice, hearing fellow teachers talk negatively about parents, seeing children at school with behavior issues…I want to give my children an excellent foundation…but there are so many choices and decisions we make as parents with a pressure of always having to do the right thing feels overwhelming.
Sometimes doing the right thing is taking a strong leadership role as a mom or a teacher, but sometimes I feel like other parents judge me for being “strict” or “harsh.” I have to remind myself that I am loving and kind, and the kids appreciate having a strong leader.
I think about affirming things a loving, caring mom might tell herself, which upon reflection, I do as well. I say things to myself like:
“You’re doing a good job, Danielle.”
“Your sons have strong personalities, just like you…so you have to be clear and follow the program, and they’ll follow that example.”
“The effort and discipline with routines you’re putting in now will pay off as they get older.”
“Your efforts are already paying off. They enjoy conversation and appropriate behavior when we eat at restaurants, and they are pleasant and confident in pretty much all situations.”
“I imagine a loving mom putting her kids to bed. I have a vision for when I say, ‘It’s time for bed,’ in which the children happily run upstairs, brush their teeth, get their pajamas on, pick out their books, and everyone enjoys reading the books together.”
I notice that staying on task and focusing on what needs to get done (without rushing) seems to help keep things on track.
I’ve taken note of my son’s resistance to bedtime. Sometimes he doesn’t want to go to bed, so he fights the process and cries about not wanting to wear any of the available pajamas. Or he’ll fight with his older brother about doing things first.
If my son cries, well, that’s not a big deal. Maybe in a way, it’s a good thing, because he’s learning to deal with life’s adversities.
I don’t have to have a crying-free household.
Tears are okay sometimes because that’s life. If I make it my goal to keep everyone happy all the time, I’ll be miserable trying to meet an unrealistic goal, and I won’t be doing my job as a mother preparing my children for real life. What I mean by real life is that sometimes you won’t get what you want. Sometimes you feel that things are unfair. Dealing with that at a young age is healthy especially with loving parents that can help them manage their feelings.
I really enjoy my own time at night after the boys go to bed…because that’s the time I can lay down, draw, paint or watch a movie with my husband. I also find that the time with my sons to be wonderful…even the difficult times. I TRY not to rush bedtime because I do enjoy the bedtime stories and cuddles.
As a full-time teacher and mother, it’s realistic and warranted to desire some quiet time to rest…and even though people tell me “You’ll wake up one day and wonder where the time went,” I don’t think I’ll feel bad about my desire for some quiet time. I’m setting a good example, teaching, and caring for hundreds of children each day. It’s all about balance. Other people are nostalgic. That’s what they are saying when they tell me, “Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.” I shouldn’t feel ashamed that I’m very tired. OF COURSE I’M TIRED!
This period in my life: Exhaustion, second-guessing, self-doubt, winging it, they all come with the territory.
Accepting the tension is key.
Much of being an artist and teaching art is about helping people see that there is no singular right answer to many problems. There are infinite possible answers and we have to wade through the muck to sort of find our way.
What can you shift in your thinking or feelings?
I see my attitude shifting from keeping everyone happy to helping everyone move forward. Life goes on. Let’s hug it out. It’s all good.
That resisting bedtime is typical toddler behavior and it’s not that big of a deal.
When I started looking closer at my problem, I began to figure out WHY I get mad and why I care about bedtime going smoothly: because I care about my children. I care that my children are healthy (with clean teeth and enough sleep). I also care about myself and my own time to make art and relax.
How do you choose to respond or work with this difficulty?
It takes courage to acknowledge my weakness and humility…to admit that it’s hard to parent and put my son to bed…to admit that I care what people think of me.
But at a certain point, I feel like I can’t do any more and still be true to myself. I’d be a phony to pretend I DON’T CARE when Ryan throws his toothbrush at me. By not reacting, I might be following some developmental expert’s advice on not escalating the situation, but that’s not me. That feels fake and like I’m ignoring something that’s clearly problematic, or playing a game of manipulation. That’s not healthy either. It’s more me to say, “Ryan, I’m feeling my body tense up. I’m feeling scared that you’re going to hurt me or make a mess. Let’s sit down for a second, cuddle, and take a couple deep breaths and calm down.”
How might you use what you’re learning in the future?
I’ll keep trying to focus on ways to resolve conflicts that are both loving and direct. It’s not about keeping everyone happy. It’s not about being a perfect mom. It’s about being clear with my words, paying attention to what is REALLY going on, helping my sons in ways they NEED, and learning from it. Also, it’s a good reminder to not be afraid of conflict. I can back away from the need to control situations.
Danielle Poling. The United States