Here’s a common, everyday sort of example of what is engaging my energy. My toddler went to bed screaming and woke up screaming in the middle, every night, for a string of more than 15 nights. He has an unusually large vocabulary for a 2-year-old, so he is able to tell me that he has bad dreams about elephants.
It’s an obvious place to apply analytical thought, under pressure and in less-than-ideal conditions. So let’s go for it, let’s over-analyze. We are mothers, are we not? That’s how we roll, at least around my house.
Are bad dreams actually the problem, or is waking now an established habit? Is this behavior a developmental stage that solves itself? If the former, how do we demystify elephants for a toddler? If habit is the problem, how do we identify and change the problematic elements? If it’s a location-based habit, we could change where he sleeps. If it’s a habit that feeds on attention or a developmental stage that simply has to be weathered, how do we withdraw our attention in a way that meets our ethical standards?
The major ethical principle in play is: be kind to babies. Sounds simple, right? Something that is easy to agree with? Responding to a toddler’s cry is kind. In this case, though, it might be reinforcing behavior that makes it more difficult for him to sleep self-sufficiently, thus contradicting the greater good of the toddler. So, if we decide that responding immediately is not kind, we still have to reconcile our actions as closely as possible with the basic ethical principle: i.e., we have to decide how long to let the toddler cry and what kind of reassurance to offer when we do respond. Our response must also incorporate our research on what is developmentally appropriate.
Since toddlers are less than rational, it’s also possible that if we let him cry for too long, our lack of response becomes part of the trauma of bedtime and night waking. So, let’s dig deep into our well of empathetic thinking and emotional intelligence, and add the toddler’s perspective, as best we can, to the solution we devise.
Are you already rolling your eyes at the amount of thought going into this one simple problem, a pretty common one? Let me take you deeper, into the reflective questions I am prompted to ask myself. What does my response say about my character, and does it align with the kind of parent I want to be? Does my response help or hinder the long-term trajectory of my relationship with my child and my spouse?
While I am busy rabbit-holing and test-driving earplugs, my husband goes through this thought process:
He’s scared of elephants because of a movie (damn you Winnie the Pooh). What’s his favorite movie? Mary Poppins. Can we incorporate Mary Poppins into bedtime? How about a soundtrack? Does the library have the soundtrack? Yes! I’ll go out tomorrow and rent it.
And do you know what? The Mary Poppins soundtrack sends him off to sleep, all night, in complete peace. For two nights in a row now (knock, knock, knock on wood).
With abject gratitude, I immediately ordered Mary Poppins the 50th anniversary DVD and the soundtrack (and Looper, for the man of the house). Let’s be honest, I also collapsed into a puddle of exhausted not-knitting. And will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.