As I write this, I am standing watch outside my toddler’s bedroom door. It is after 10pm and it is only a matter of time before a mostly-naked child wearing only a nighttime pull-up will come storming past me, giggling maniacally.
I hate this game.
How Did It Come To This?
There are three factors at play in this scenario (and a fourth secret one), and I am going over each one with a fine toothed comb. While I’m sure our situation is in no way unique to our family, it still feels like we’ve brought something horrible on ourselves. At the same time, I feel like my wife and I have made all our big parenting decisions through at least some degree of reasoned, research-based methodology (though there really is no “best practices” when it comes to raising children). We never made unilateral decisions, we always considered long-term outcomes, and we always consulted peer-reviewed research.
So why am I now a bouncer outside my daughter’s room?
Reason One: Co-sleeping Instead of Sleep-training
When we brought our little bundle of joy (blissfully unaware of her future career as a sleep terrorist) we decided that rather than try to force our child to sleep by herself, we’d let the baby sleep in the same bed with us. For the record, I don’t regret this decision, although I understand that no everyone agrees with this position.
At the time, the advantages were that both my wife and I had very minimal disruptions to our sleep schedules. The baby very rapidly adapted to the nighttime routine that we followed ourselves, and when she needed food in the middle of the night, it was so easy to provide it that it barely involved waking up.
I understand the concerns about this practice: there is a fear that one or more adult humans might accidentally roll over and crush a newborn. This, for one, is an unfounded fear: parents are instinctually coded not to do that, unless that instinct is clouded by other factors (such as alcohol). Another major concern is that a child won’t learn to self sooth or become independent if they co-sleep with parents. Again, I can point to my own daughter as an example of a child who is about as independent as they come and figured out how to calm herself down with two fingers in her mouth on the early side of the wide developmental range that this behavior is supposed to manifest.
What it did do, and what is vexing me right now, is that she never learned to put herself to sleep without a parent handy. We moved her as an infant from co-sleeping briefly to a crib near her parents, and then to her own bed. While she loves her bed, and having her own room, and sleeping on her own, she still hasn’t quite gotten used to the idea that she can put herself to sleep. This was a tradeoff that we accepted at the time, and I still feel that it was worth the tradeoff of not dealing with a crying baby in the middle of the night.
She’s a cuddler, and wants the adult who reads her books and tells her stories to remain with her until she falls asleep (at which point, they are free to go). This isn’t an unreasonable position, honestly; I’m sure many people fall asleep faster when they have someone to snuggle with as well. The problem was that my evenings were shot: I’d read a few books, retell one of her favorite “mouth stories” (usually Star Wars, but sometimes “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” for some reason), and then I’d be woken by my wife a few hours later having drifted off in a toddler-sized bed. There were even times -dark times- when I couldn’t be roused at all and spent the night sleeping in a kid’s room, my neck uncomfortably crooked to accommodate the plethora of stuffed animals, my legs cramped from curling to accommodate the fact that I was a grown man sleeping in a bed meant for a child.
Reason Two: Playing Games
Mom and Dad play games; games are a big part of our household culture. The daughter has been to Gen Con twice as a human and once as a fetus. She has her own board games which are age appropriate and teach various things. We’ve played games as a family: one of my fondest memories is the “Word Game” when she was just beginning to talk and we’d ask her to try to pronounce various words that we liked.
Not surprisingly, she has taken to playing games herself. Her favorite games at school are imagination games (the one I witnessed recently was where she was pretending to be an animal in a zoo, waiting for the zoo keeper to fall asleep so she could escape. I could tell she was my kid because the animal she chose to be was a dragon). She likes to pretend to be all sorts of things (including farm equipment), and play-acts with her toys. She even plays at being scared.
My point here is that she was raised in a culture of games, so maybe she can be cut some slack that she thinks some things are games that are really not. When she bolts from her bedroom and runs past me, she thinks we’re playing. But we’re not playing: I’m getting increasingly agitated and frustrated that this kid won’t go to sleep at 10pm. She’s so involved in her game that she can’t see that no one else is having fun with it. Or, y’know, basic child psychology that ascribes a distinct lack of empathy to children around her age (I choose not to buy into this paradigm too much, because I see examples of empathy all the time).
The Third Reason
Our child is a gremlin with boundless inappropriate energy (like many children, I suspect). Why else would I be forced to write this hours after her bedtime and frankly long after I’d rather be asleep myself? It doesn’t help that she’s used this week to master door knobs. Like many kids, she gets “punchy” when she’s tired, which any parent will agree is pretty much the worst reaction to being tired ever.
There’s no carefully-weighted parenting decision here: some/most kids are just energetic at all the wrong times. Ours is no exception
The Fourth Secret Reason
Our child is not just energetic, but devious. She learned pretty early on how to manipulate adults with cute ploys (which, I want to make it clear, do not work on parents). She’s also figured out the “rules” and won’t hesitate to adhere to them just to get what she wants. By way of example: about 20 minutes ago, while I was blocking the door to her room so she couldn’t get out, she informed me that she needed to go potty. Knowing full well that the rule is that, thanks to Daniel Tiger, “when you have to go potty, stop and go right away.” She didn’t really need to use the bathroom, but it bought her precious time not doing the thing that I told her to do (GO TO SLEEP!)
This was followed up by a plaintive plea only 10 minutes later for a hug, which she also knows I can’t walk away from. She’s tried negotiating (“What about desert instead?”) and has even made bold assertions (“It’s WAKE UP TIME!”); really anything to get us to change the terms of the order (which, again, she thinks of as a rule in a game).
I don’t actually regret either of the two actual parenting choices that I included as reasons why my daughter hasn’t quite mastered putting herself to sleep yet. They were weighed carefully, and I still believe the decisions were right for our kid and our family (your family may be different). The inappropriate energy is not my fault, nor are her attempts to “lawyer” us. That’s just who she is.
Nope. My only regret is that when my daughter wants to fall asleep snuggling with me, I can’t do it. Not if I want to teach her how to fall asleep on her own. Which she just now did. On her own. By herself. Without me.