When to enforce rules and when to let things slide

Last night as I walked out of his room after saying goodnight, Jay said something that at first I didn’t understand and which later made me feel about two inches tall. “If I’m sick and I cry, will you sit with me?” he asked.

To explain why Jay’s question caught me the way it did I need to share a little background on his sleeping habits.

Jay is a good sleeper but every so often he wakes up in the middle of the night and starts into a low-level cry. Caroline or I go into his room and try to find out what’s wrong but he’s never very communicative. We offer him water, or a blanket, or to rub his back, but sometimes he gets into this groove where nothing we say gets through to him. On those occasions we take him out of his crib and sit with him for a few minutes until he calms down. When this happens we generally consider it a failure that we weren’t able to get him back to sleep on our terms.

All things considered Caroline and I find this routine a little annoying. Jay knows how to sleep and in these situations there’s nothing discernibly wrong with him. It seems to us that he gets into this whiny rhythm and won’t let go of it. The net result is he derails the night’s sleep for both of us and sometimes for his brother, too. Not good.

To combat this tendency, Caroline and I began reminding Jay at bedtime what we expect from him: “If you wake up tonight, remember, no whining and crying.” The first night we told him this Jay acknowledged the new terms but didn’t seem very happy about them. The next morning he woke up and very proudly reported (correctly) that he’d made it through the entire night without crying.

The first test of our new rule came a few nights later when Jay woke up and started whimpering. I threw off the covers and went into his room. Beside his crib I told him softly, “Remember we said no whining and crying.” It felt a little cold to be invoking a rule as my son cried in his crib in the middle of the night, but Jay seemed to remember the deal he’d agreed to a few nights earlier. He went back to sleep much faster than usual.

But last Thursday night Jay started whining and the new strategy failed.  I reminded him he’d promised not to do this anymore, but on that night he only cried harder when I mentioned the rule. As the minutes dragged on I got increasingly angry. At one point I’d gotten back into bed and Jay started crying again. “Everyone else in this house is asleep and you need to go to sleep, too,” I barked at him down the hall, so loudly and angrily that I could feel Caroline recoil beside me in bed.

I think one of the hardest practical parts of parenting is figuring out when to stick by the rules and when to make exceptions based on particular circumstances. I feel like I’m always striking the wrong balance in this regard—bending the rules about dessert when, despite his pleas, there was really no need for Jay to have a cookie; or blindly enforcing rules about not shouting when it’s clear Jay’s tired and really just needs a nap.

Last Thursday night turned out to be an example of over-enforcement. The next morning at breakfast I noticed that Jay had a runny nose and watery eyes. Slowly it dawned on me: He was getting sick; that was probably why he hadn’t been able to fall back asleep on his own. I recalled the tone of voice I’d used with him the night before and stared down into my cereal bowl in shame.

So last night before bedtime when Jay asked me, “If I’m sick and I cry, will you sit with me?” I realized he was referring to Thursday night when he was sick, and he did cry, but I didn’t know it and so I threw the book at him instead.  He’s too young to rub it in when I get things wrong and not clever enough, yet, to exploit parental guilt.  But he’ll get there soon.  I can only hope his sense of forgiveness develops just as fast.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

From father to son: “We’ll see how you do”

What it might really meant to learn to be a parent