This post is about that continual struggle we parents face between knowing when to hold a child close and when they are ready for a very “gentle push” away. I suppose in a perfect world we’d wait for our children to mature at their own pace right up to the bitter end, for every step and milestone. But in reality sometimes there are things that need to be changed for the sake of family harmony, and if the child is “almost there” a Gentle Push might allow for that harmony to be achieved sooner.
Sometimes I’ve felt confident that they are ready for a Gentle Push. I weaned both kids at around age 3.5 years. It was my idea, not theirs, and had they been consulted they would have said “no way”. But both kids got through it with nary a tear nor a protest, confirming my belief that they were ready. But other times I’ve found it hard to tell if they are ready for an “imposed change”. Particularly with Daughter, who is a bit of a drama queen and finds change very difficult to accept.
We recently introduced a change in the sleeping arrangements so that Husband and I could finally reclaim an adult bedroom after years of playing Musical Beds with the whole family. It was time and we needed this. Daughter, predictably, blew a gasket when she found out of our plans. But by that evening she was declaring her new bedroom to be “pretty cool” and has slept happily in that room every night since then. She was ready.
Last night we gave Daughter another “gentle push”. For several years Daughter has loudly protested any attempts to have her father put her to bed (unless I’m not home; which is rare). I usually ended up putting first one child to bed, then the other, which was exhausting. Lately Husband has started putting Son to bed. Son hasn’t liked it but because he didn’t put up the fuss that Daughter did we continued doing it. I just really needed to not be doing both kids every night, y’know? But this didn’t seem too fair to the boy.
Add to that the situation when we started camping in our trailer this past summer – I could put them to bed at the same time but I could not sleep with both of them as the beds are too small. If Daughter woke up to find I’d moved to Husband’s bed she would either crawl in with us (squishing us while sleeping soundly herself) or insist (loudly) that I come sleep with her. After a few sleep-deprived nights it ended up that we’d move a sleeping Son over to his Dad and I’d sleep with Daughter. Son commented a few times that he didn’t like this arrangement and wanted to sleep with me sometimes. We did try one night but Daughter went into hysterics and I ended up caving because I couldn’t take it (and was sure we’d get kicked out of our campsite for disturbing everyone’s sleep). Looking back now I think we made the mistake of just imposing the rule in the moment and then not supporting her when she lost it (by that time of night we were exhausted and not very sympathetic).
The last straw broke this past weekend when we spent two nights in a hotel room with two double beds. Son woke up both mornings to find himself in Husband’s bed. That last morning when he awoke he angrily got up and sat on the other bed with a frown. When we asked what was wrong he said “I always go to sleep in Mama’s bed and wake up in Tata’s bed – I don’t like it!”. Well, I finally had to face what this was doing to him. I well recall how my paternal grandmother used to favour me over my little brother – I hated it then and I hated the thought of doing it to my own children.
So Husband and I came up with a plan that we would alternate putting the kids to bed each night and Daughter was just going to have to learn to live with it. Last night about an hour before bedtime we sat her down and explained what we were doing and why. She screamed and cried and got rather hysterical but we were prepared for it and offered her lots of hugs and comfort while still standing our ground. By the time bedtime came around she had got most of it out of her system. Husband lay with her and read from the latest chapter book and all was quiet while I read stories to Son in the kids’ room. I did hear some crying when, I presume, it was lights out. But it was not like the hysterical crying of before. And it didn’t last long either. Both kids had a great sleep, too.
This morning she insisted she wasn’t happy about it and was glad that it was my turn to put her to bed tonight. There may be some protesting tomorrow night but I’m willing to bet it will be more subdued than last night’s. And I also bet that, within a few days, this will all become “normal” and there will be no more protests. Meanwhile, Son beamed when I told him of the new plan and how it was especially made for him so that he could sleep with me some nights when we travel. That made it all worthwhile.
I’ve been struggling internally lately with the concept of setting rules and imposing structure on children. It’s not that we don’t have any rules, but they are few and as the kids get older some situations are proving to be less than optimal for the family unit as a whole. There have been some great discussions in my online communities lately on the subject of imposing rules and structure within the unschooling context, and how such things can be introduced while still remaining true to the values of respecting and honouring our children for who they are. It seems to boil down to having a sense of when they are ready for a Gentle Push.
For someone like myself, who has issues with confrontation (I generally actively avoid it, if at all possible) the tempestuous meltdowns of a certain young girl-child have often proved more than I can handle. I’ve interpreted them as “she’s not ready” when maybe that wasn’t the case. In looking back at Gentle Pushes that have worked, I’m seeing now that a common thread is having a set plan in place, letting the children know ahead of time, and giving them time to process in an environment that is empathetic and supportive (while still gently sticking with what’s just been said). It also seems to be important that we be prepared to change our plan after a suitable trial period, should it turn out that the children really weren’t ready (or it’s just not working the way we thought it would). Involving children in this process will hopefully assure them in future situations that, if it truly isn’t working, they will be heard and their needs respected and honoured.