Adventures in Parenting: On Reasoning with Toddlers

Adventures in Parenting: On Reasoning with Toddlers November 30, 2011

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 Sally a drink.

Alright Sally, now it’s time to get back in your bed.

No. Get in mommy and daddy’s bed!

When Sally 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 Sally 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.

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

No! Get in mommy and daddy’s bed!

No Sally, 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 Sally in bed with her, so Sally needed to sleep in her own bed now. Sally 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 “Sally, get in your bed or I’ll give you a spank” was really no different from “Sally, get in your bed or I’ll hit you,” but I also really, really needed my sleep. I knew Sally 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 Sally, 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 Sally’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.

Sally 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 Sally 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 Sally, 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 Sally is simply not doing what I want her to do and I’m at the end of my rope, Sally 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.

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