Adventures in Parenting: On Reasoning with Toddlers

This is part of a series in which I am re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.

Last night I had a parenting adventure that was both reassuring and sobering. It involved a situation all parents face in exasperation many times in their parenting careers: A toddler wide awake in the middle of the night.  You see, a small voice beside my bed woke me up in the middle of the night last night.

Drink of water.

So, I got up and got my daughter a drink.

Okay, honey, now it’s time to get back in your bed.

No. Get in mommy and daddy’s bed!

When my daughter wakes up in the middle of the night we frequently let her get in bed with us, so her request was not out of the ordinary. I put her in bed between my husband and I and tried to go to sleep. But she wiggled. She turned sideways. She accidentally kicked me. Twenty minutes later, neither of us were asleep.

More drink of water?

So up we got and I got my daughter yet another drink of water. But this time I decided she needed to sleep in her own bed. I needed my sleep pretty badly, having been up late studying, and it simply wasn’t going to happen with her in bed with me.

Honey, this time you need to get in your bed.

No! Get in mommy and daddy’s bed!

No sweetie, your bed.

I led her into her room and over to her bed and explained that mommy really needed sleep and that mommy couldn’t sleep with herin bed with her, so she needed to sleep in her own bed now. She yelled when I tried to put her in her bed, and kicked and then went rigid as only a toddler can do and squirmed back off her bed. So I explained it through two or three more times. Still she protested.

I felt helpless. I had been taught growing up that this sort of incident was a big part of why it was necessary to hit (i.e. “spank”) children. I was told that in a situation like this there were two options: Either threaten a spanking or give in and let the child have her way. I didn’t like either of those options. I knew “get in your bed or I’ll give you a spank” was really no different from ” get in your bed or I’ll hit you,” but I also really, really needed my sleep. I knew my daughter wanted to get back in bed with me and I understood that desire, but I had needs too, and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep was one of them.

In desperation, I put on my “let’s get serious” voice and said,

Look honey, I’m sorry but you just have to sleep in your bed. You may NOT sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed. Now I’m going back to bed because I am tired and I need to sleep. Goodnight.

I shut the door to her room behind me, turned off the lights, and got in my bed. And listened. After about a minute, I heard my daughter’s door open and I heard walking through the hall, quietly, slowly, as if on tiptoe. Then I heard a very soft voice, almost a whisper, so quiet I couldn’t make it out at first.

Have to go potty.

My daughter wears diapers at night. She has never before asked to go potty in the middle of the night, even when she wakes up. This was not normal.

My parents would probably have said that she was trying to manipulate me, trying to find any way possible to stay out of bed. But I ignored the voices in my head and instead hopped out of bed once again and took her to the bathroom. She only went a little, but she did go, and then I put her diaper back on her and praised her up and down as I always do when she potties in the toilet.

Then, to my surprise, she walked willingly back into her bedroom and climbed into her bed. I followed her and covered her up and gave her a kiss. I then left her room and shut the door and didn’t hear a peep from her until morning.

This incident taught me two things. First, it is indeed possible to convince a toddler to stay in her bed without hitting her. It’s not always easy, but you can reason with a toddler, even in a state of exhaustion in the middle of the night.

Second, though, it taught me that it is possible to be too harsh without ever even mentioning hitting. When my daughter came into my room to ask to go potty, she tiptoed and whispered. She was afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of mommy being stern with her again. Perhaps my “I mean business” voice was just a little to businesslike and not motherly enough.

But why did she come back in my room and ask to go potty in the first place? It wasn’t because she had to go potty. I think it was because she wanted me to say something nice to her, and the only way she could think of to make that happen was to offer to go potty on the toilet in an effort to please me. Her plan worked, and she went back to bed willingly in a much happier state of mind, knowing that mommy was happy with her and all was well with the world.

In the future, I’ll continue to reason with my daughter, and I’m sure I’ll still have to use my “I really mean business” voice from time to time. But I’ll try harder to remember that even when I’m annoyed, or tired, or when she is simply not doing what I want her to do and I’m at the end of my rope, my daughter still desperately wants my love and wants me to be pleased with her. She’s just a little person trying to figure things out, not a monster out to get me.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • carlie

    That is a very good story.

    Something’s been forming in my head as I’ve read these posts, and I’m still struggling to put it into words well. Basically, that it’s not a bad thing to work with your kids instead of trying to mold them. Take that example earlier with the mom who had to jump up and tell her kid “no” in her own living room all the time – why is it such a big imposition to put all the breakables away for a few years? It’s much less imposition for an adult to not look at a knicknack for awhile than to have to smack a toddler’s hand ten times a day every day for months while they aren’t quite ready to learn not to touch it. And it’s not a big deal to plan your outings around your child’s sleep/eat/cranky schedule so that everyone has the best time possible, rather than the time that’s the most convenient for only the parent involved.

    In a way, it’s really selfish and childish to expect children to conform to the adult’s way of doing things rather than for the adult to adapt.

    • carlie

      Oops, hit “submit” on accident too soon.

      Where I was going with that in relation to this particular post was that if the bedtime thing becomes a routine annoyance, you might find another way to deal with it that meets both of your needs. When mine were that age I had twin beds for them (put directly on the floor), so that “going to bed with mom” meant that I went into their bed instead of them coming into mine. The advantage? When they fell asleep, I could get up and go back to my own bed. They could come and get me, and I could go lie down with them, but going to their beds meant that I was the one in control of when snuggle time ended and I had to go get some sleep now. Even if they weren’t quite asleep yet, just the feeling of being so warm and cozy was often enough to keep them there and happy rather than getting up and going across the cold house chasing mom down. Just an example of how once you get the idea of full unquestioning compliance with rules out of the way, you can come up with creative ways to meet everybody’s needs (with some compromise) that work so much better than “because I said so”.

  • Mara

    Of course, it’s difficult to remember they’re not monsters at 3 am :) I have trouble with that sometimes.

    And oy, the sleeping in your own bed thing is a perennial dilemma here. I’ve settled for the moment on letting my turns-3-tomorrow kiddo climb in bed with me if he wakes up in the middle of the night. We’ll revisit it in a few months, but I can only be so mean to a face that adorable.

  • Judy L.

    It’s amazing how quickly children can change gears, and how a simple thing like not hitting your child or threatening to hurt them or abandon them can keep a situation from escalating.

    I am not a parent. But I am the aunt of four, two of whom are autistic.

    I will never for one moment believe that Michael Pearl and every other person who hits their child doesn’t feel a little thrill every time they exert their power and control over the child. You simply can’t engage in that kind of violence without getting your bloodlust up, without feeling what I’ve taken to calling the “thrill to power”. I felt that once when I sat my niece down really hard one time, and that feeling of using force on someone so small and precious and defenseless sickened me.

  • catgirlthecrazy

    Reminds me of mom’s stories about me when I was a toddler. While mom and dad were at work, the nanny would often put me down for a nap most of the day and do housework around our house. Mom appreciated the housework, but was less enthused about the fact that it meant that, when my parents were falling asleep, I was wide awake and ready for fun.

    The way mom tells it, exchanges went something like this. Me: Play now! Mom: you’re adorable, but I need sleep.

    So I had the nickname Zombie Baby.

  • Camilla

    I sometimes pull out “mommy story” and tell something like, “Once there was a little rabbit, who kept his mommy up all night playing and having fun. Then in the morning, his mommy was grumpy and when he asked for his oatmeal she was mean… so the next night, the little rabbit stayed in bed when she told him to, and when his mother woke up in the morning, she was happy to see him and gave him lots of carrots.”

    It can really work wonders at a certain age, when the real natural consequence is too far off to be appreciated without help, and straight up asking or scolding isn’t cutting it. I’m still a little shocked that stories can be so boring, perfunctory, and transparently moralistic, and still be a hit with my kids.

    • Ysanne

      Actually, there are scientific studies that support the effectivity of this story-telling strategy. It apparently works by helping the kids understand the consequences of their options. Interestingly, it doesn’t even really make a difference if the story’s plot features the choice with the good or the bad result: They seem to be able to work out the “and otherwise …” bit themselves.

  • Rabidtreeweasel

    I worked with a seven year old who had bad dreams after his mother died. He would climb in my bed around 4am and start talking like it wasn’t 4am. I realized that he was scared to go back to sleep. This worked for him, and might work with adjustments for younger children:
    (Before bed) I love you. Is there anything else you need to tell me before you go to sleep?
    (Sometimes, he’d tell me about a bully at school or the monster in the closet, all things I am better equipped to deal with at 9 at night.)
    Okay. If you need anything, you can come tell me, but unless it’s an emergency I’ll ask you to wait till morning. If you have a bad dream you can come tell me about it, but when it’s time to go back to sleep we’ll sleep in our own beds.
    (I had a chair in my room that we sat in for those talks, instead of us getting in the bed.)

    I’m not perfect. He woke me up at 5 once because his computer wasn’t working. I told him tech support doesn’t open till 9 am and that next time I would eat his computer. I apologized later after he got home from school. His Dad, however, backed my original play and threatened to sell the computer to the Chinese if it happened again.

    • Ysanne

      and that next time I would eat his computer

      Now I have to wipe coffee off my screen…

      • Dianne

        Wipe it off? But the screen will be palatable with the coffee left on.

  • Ysanne

    Nice story… I can really empathise. :)
    Btw, a need to go potty may even have been the reason to be up in the first place. I wouldn’t have imagined, but little kids can be too sleepy to understand that it’s their need to pee that causes their discomfort. My 3-year-old used to get up at 5:30 and come into our bed and squirm and wake up everybody, but now that he’s understood why he can’t sleep, he just takes a pee and goes back to sleep until 7 or longer. Granted, the first time included a little tantrum, but he actually fell asleep on the toilet as soon as he had finished.

  • Ace of Sevens

    I wish my parents had done this. Everything was a whupping with the belt while they wrang their hands about how their parents hardly ever had to spank them and why we were so poorly behaved.

  • Agent Smith

    To Train Up A Child only gets one word wrong.

    The Pearls are advocating an adversarial parenting style, one at odds with harmonious existence. I don’t see how treating one’s child as the enemy, with a will that must be subjugated regardless, is loving in any sense. Your way is much more preferable.

  • appellategirl

    This post made me cry. My kids are well past this age (16, 14 and 9) but I remember these toddler days so well. So many people told me (and still tell me) that I “spoil” my kids by being too loving and “coddling” instead of being “firm” with them. Every parent needs to shut out those critical voices and just work out a solution that works for YOUR family.

    With my first daughter I tried to make her sleep in her own bed by letting her “cry it out” as an infant, and it broke my heart and was never really successful. She was always so anxious at bedtime and even at 5 or 6 was still wanting to sleep on my floor next to my bed because she didn’t want to be alone. By the third child, I just let him sleep with us until he was 3, and after that he would cheerfully go upstairs at bedtime with no drama. Still does, at 9 years old. I know this might not work for every family, but it worked for mine.

  • Dianne

    Another story about “spoiled” children, if you can stand it: One day when my partner was young (something like 5), he and his mother were out for a walk. They went by the Columbia campus and he wanted to play on the steps. So they stopped and played, with him running up and down the steps a lot. MIL’s ex was a professor at Columbia and happened to walk by. So he stopped and chatted a bit. (It was a fairly friendly breakup.) He noticed the kid running around and told MIL, “If you don’t control him he’ll never amount to anything.” She essentially rolled her eyes at the advice.

    She told me and my partner this story one day about 35 years later. Shortly after her son had gotten tenure at Columbia. I suggested he run into his mother’s ex’s office and say, “Hi! I’m that kid you said would never amount to anything. I made tenure…10 years younger than you did!” and run out again. MIL felt justified in her “spoiling” her kids and suggested we do much the same with our little one.

    • Sara A.

      I roll my eyes along with your partner. My general theory of acceptable child behavior:

      Is anything bleeding, broken or on fire, or about to become so in the immediate future? Are they actively interfering with someone else’s ability to do something they have every reason to expect to be able to do? (such as eat dinner in peace, or get a turn on the swing). Are they being unnecessarily rude? (Necessary rudeness is an advanced skill). No? Then they are just fine.

      Running up and down steps, or sitting in locations which are not normal seating (something my son did which apparently scandalized a stranger) do not fall under these categories.

      • Caravelle

        I like “Necessary rudeness is an advanced skill”. Because it really cuts both ways to some extent (to the extent to which we shouldn’t expect too many advanced skills from young humans).
        At some point in my childhood I read a book that featured hyper-polite and well-behaved children vs dirty and rambuctious children, with the latter praised by strangers as “so alive !” and the former as brainwashed. At the time I took it as “hey, I SHOULD be lively ! People appreciate that !”.
        Now from an adult perspective considering how controlled children are in practice I do appreciate the message of the book as I did as a child, but I no longer take it to heart as I did at the time. I think a lot of the misbehavior I remember as a child, and that I remember being justified (because politeness is a meaningless social convention amirite ! (thank God I never read Ayn Rand as a teenager is all I can say))… really wasn’t. I was completely insensitive to other people’s feelings it it arranged me to be.

        Surprisingly I think I might have a point beyond “talking about myself” for a change… Which is, I think the standard for “acceptable behaviour” is a lot more complicated than “are you physically harming others” (although even that is pretty complicated). But I’m still not sure it’s that much more complicated than children can understand, if adults are themselves making efforts to understand it and explain their understanding to said children.
        What worries me is that people often try to teach children things without really understanding them themselves and relying an authority… which is fine if they happen to be right, but is that really a way to transmit knowledge and behaviours ?

  • chimako27

    Sometimes they aren’t sleepy. I used to tell mine that I didn’t care if they were awake, they just had to stay in the bed and play quietly or read if they were old enough. They thought that was cool and I had the baby monitor so, no worries. Definitely never spanked them in the middle of the night, that’s a recipe for no sleep at all for anybody.

  • Adele

    I loved this story and especially the “lessons” you learned from the incident. It still astonishes me how much my daughter needs to be reassured of my love when we argue. She has said to me, “I need you to be nice Mommy now.”


  • Arakasi

    My wife & I made a deal with our 5 year old. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, he can come to our bed and climb in on the condition that he doesn’t try to wake us up. We keep a sports bottle with water by it by his bed and he can go potty by himself, so that eliminates two of the main reasons for waking us. Mostly, all he wants is to cuddle with us, and we can manage that without ever regaining consciousness.

    We figure that he will grow out of it soon enough.

    This morning, I was out of the house before they woke up. My wife told me that when he woke her up about five minutes before her alarm, he was already dressed and ready for school.

  • Monika

    We have a rule that our daughter (now 3.5) can always ask for a cuddle. It doesn’t mean she is getting what she wants or has won the argument but it is s nice way to defuse things and we can often talk more calmly and rationally after the cuddle.

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