“You never give me second chances,” wailed my 5-year old son, Bryan, after I took away Osito, the stuffed bear that was turning his bedtime into playtime. He was right: he hadn’t had a second chance - that night he’d had second, third and fourth chances.
When it came to teaching good habits to our children, my spouse, Snip, and I believed in perseverance and repetition not retribution. We had only been a family for 6 months, having adopted Bryan and his older sister, Karla, from foster care. So, teaching Bryan fundamental tasks such as brushing his teeth, cleaning up the playroom and putting down the toilet seat were about making common-sense habits routine. And in all these lessons, our patience was rewarded.
The health and safety issues were pretty clear, too: Do it wrong and your first chance may be your last. The potential outcome was the consequence. Leveraging a time out against almost being run over by a car seemed to lower, not raise, the stakes of harm. These rules were non-negotiable. No riding your bike without a helmet. No driving in a car without wearing a seat belt. No running with scissors. Ever. Bryan never questioned these rules.
But the self-regulation rules that governed impulse control and a sense of personal responsibility were taking him longer to master. Bedtime occupied that twilight zone of culpability versus accountability. Since he needed his sleep in order to be attentive in school, the question wasn’t if there should be consequences for his bedtime behavior, but when. And how many chances were too many chances? Being patient and forgiving seemed too soft while the non-negotiable rules seemed like overkill.
“Establishing and maintaining boundaries for a young child is one of parents’ biggest challenges,” says Dr. Abbie Goldberg, Associate Professor of Psychology, Clark University. “But the child’s biggest challenge is accepting and even pushing back against those limits as they grow their own sense of self.”
“Trust me, you’ll lose more sleep about it than they will,” notes Goldberg.
Exasperated by his persistent bedtime antics, I had marched into Bryan’s room and demanded Osito with whom he was having a fairly animated conversation. He quietly cried himself to sleep. Great, I thought archly, something that finally works.
Later that night, when I checked on him before going to bed myself, Bryan stirred awake.”Hey, bud,” I said tucking Osito under one of his arms, “sorry that I used my big voice tonight.”
“That’s OK, Mama,” he answered sleepily. “I’ll give you another chance.”