There are times when I feel like I’m navigating this parenting thing just fine. Sure, we sometimes encounter choppy seas, and members of the crew often get cranky, but day by day, my co-captain and I steer the ship in the right direction.
And then there are times when our kids just flip the script.
The day before Rosh Hashanah, something got my oldest son upset. It had to do with a perceived inequity between him and his brother, one of those comically insignificant details that kids sometimes latch onto.
Nate is very generous with his younger brother, but it’s also important to him that they do things as a matching pair when possible — wear matching Halloween costumes, eat their popsicles at the same time, strip down to their underwear together and run around the house. Nate has even decided to use his birthday money to buy a second Playmobil airplane to give to Harvey so that they can fly them together. So it didn’t surprise me that when Nate realized his brother had something special that he didn’t have, it got under Nate’s skin.
But then Nate threw down the gauntlet. If he didn’t get what he demanded, he said, he wouldn’t go to bed, ever. And for the next three nights, he followed through on his threat.
We were coming off of a solid year of smooth nighttime routines for both kids, so Nate’s behavior was unwelcome, to say the least. Yet what unnerved us most wasn’t that we were dealing with a child who didn’t want to go to bed. We had dealt with that when he was a toddler and would run out of his room laughing hysterically at bedtime.
But Nate is no longer a 3-year-old whom we walk back to his room over and over again. He’s a 6-year-old who’s persistent enough to upend our household and defy his parents for three straight days over a slight that seemed insignificant to us but was meaningful to him. We were in uncharted waters.
One practice that has served me well as a parent is when I feel I am hitting a wall with any particular behavior, I stop trying to control it, step back and follow my child’s lead. In this case, when it was clear that Nate had dug in his heels, my husband and I decided to ignore him.
His persistence was astounding.
The first night, we did the dishes and folded laundry, and Nate wandered from room to room, quiet and aimless. Around 10 o’clock, he curled up next to his dad on the couch and fell asleep. The next night, we told Nate that since we do chores in the evening, if he wasn’t going to go to bed, he was going to have to work. And he did. He spent night 2 cleaning his room before falling asleep on the couch, and night 3 scrubbing crayon markings off his wall until 11 p.m. His persistence was astounding.
My husband and I were pretty sure it was no coincidence that Nate had decided to try out this new, challenging behavior three days into a new school year. Nate is not a kid who is fond of change, but he’s not one to verbalize his feelings. It’s not the first time we’ve seen the impact of a life transition manifest itself through his behavior.
But what did stand out was the language that Nate was using to set his ultimatums.
If you don’t give me what I want, he told us, I will do something you won’t like. As a parent, I have used that construction many times. If you don’t put on your shoes, we won’t be able to go to the park. If you don’t do your chores, you won’t be able to play with your toys.
I hadn’t quite realized that this was the language of manipulation, and it was startling to hear that language directed back at me.
Clearly, Nate was fighting for control. Late on the third night, I went into Nate’s room. He was clearly exhausted, but he was still scrubbing. I told him it seemed like something was bothering him, and for the first time, he opened up to me about it. He didn’t like first grade, he told me. He didn’t want to go back.
I couldn’t let him stay home from school, but I could give him control over other things. So I got out a pen and a paper and we made plans. We made a plan for the routine we would follow the next morning as he got ready for school. We made a plan for a treat I would pack in his lunch. We made a plan for bedtime the next night, which games we would play and how many stories we would read and what time he would go to bed. We shook on it. And Nate lay down and went to sleep.
It’s easy to get into a battle for control with your kids. You spend so much time trying to get them to do the things they’re supposed to do, and yet, at the end of the day, you can’t force them to do anything.
Control is a funny thing — it can be divisive when you try to exert it over someone else, yet empowering when you apply it to yourself. At the end of our three-day standoff, I gave Nate more control and thus gained some back myself. It’s something like cooperation.