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


Jay and Wally: Two animals who just don’t give a…

At brunch last weekend conversation turned to the honey badger.  You might remember him as number one on the list “6 Animals That Just Don’t Give a F#@.”  To earn a place on the list, an animal has to have proven itself willing to pursue its desires with single-minded focus, consequences be damned.  Members of the list include the undersized wolverine which thinks nothing of attacking a black bear and the open-minded cane toad, which has been known to carry on amorous relations with the corpses of animals from any number of species.

Neither the wolverine nor the cane toad hold a candle to the honey badger, though, when it comes to complete disregard for good judgment or social convention in pursuit of what it wants.  Watch this video of the honey badger wreaking havoc in the African plains. It climbs a tree to catch a cobra; starts to eat the cobra; falls into a coma from the cobra’s venom; wakes up and resumes eating the cobra.  It burrows snout first into a hive of African Honey Bees, ignores the swarm, and eats their larvae.  You get the point.

You probably also see why, following this conversation, it occurred to me that Jay and Wally and little kids everywhere are basically tenuously-domesticated honey badgers.

Not in the sense that they’re willing to endure extreme pain in the pursuit of insect eggs. Rather it’s their utter lack of self-consciousness (which I wrote in “Life with no backstage”) and general disregard for the good opinions of others.  Jay doesn’t care a whit that I think it’s disgusting when he rinses his cheesy fork in his cup of water and then drinks his water, as he did last night while we were eating pasta with blue cheese, arugula, and grapes.   He’s still going to rinse that fork.  He’s still going to drink that water.

What makes little kids so captivating is the contrast they cut with the rest of us, who care a lot more about how we’re perceived by other people.

My little brother wears his hair in a mop because all the other boys in his school wear their hair in a mop because Justin Bieber wears (wore?) his hair in a mop.

I want a new car because I feel self-conscious driving around with a cracked bumper and a missing hood ornament.

Caroline and I want a third child because…well, we actually haven’t figured that one out yet….though one completely self-destructive motivation is the desire to stay one kid ahead of our friends who just announced they’re having twins. (We’re trying very hard to suppress this impulse.)

The point, which is an obvious one, is that early in life just about everyone starts to shape at least some of their preferences in relation to outside influences, many of which are petty, superficial, or just plain arbitrary.  At the same time, babies and toddlers basically never outsource their value systems.  This is what makes them so charismatic.

The same day as the honey badger conversation Jay and Wally each did something that brought this point home to me.

That night Caroline went into Wally’s room to give him a “dream feed,” which we’ve introduced recently to cut down on his middle-of-the-night wake-ups.  Caroline rousted Wally from his crib and held him in her arms to eat.  He ate for about five seconds and then rolled over, threw his head back, and went soundly to sleep.  Caroline tried a few more times but it didn’t matter—a swarm of African Honey Bees wouldn’t have been able to wake him either.  In true honey badger spirit, he’d made up his mind he was going to sleep and there was nothing more to say about that.

As for Jay, every night at bedtime he and Caroline read two books and then Jay comes and finds me and tells me it’s time for the three of us to lie together on his rug.

Except he doesn’t tell me it’s time to lie on the rug. He says, “It’s time for the bunny,” by which he means it’s time to place his large stuffed bunny on the floor so that he, Caroline, and I can lay our heads on it for a few minutes before it’s time for the crib.

Last night I was sitting in my office when Jay came bounding in. “Daaaady,” he cried, “Time to do the bunny.”  Then he stood in the middle of the room and waited for my response.

I looked him up and down for a moment.  He was wearing blue and yellow striped pajamas with a picture of a construction crane on front, his socks pulled up to his shins, an airplane sweatshirt overtop that he outgrew about two years ago, bellowing with glee about cuddling on the floor with his parents and a very large stuffed animal.

How long until he starts to gain some perspective on himself? Hopefully it won’t happen anytime soon, I thought to myself, as I got up from my chair and he raced towards his room on his short, skinny honey badger legs.

Daddy goes out drinking

On Friday night I sped through story time and rushed Jay into his crib with a kiss, a hug, and a promise to see him in the morning.  Then I grabbed my keys and wallet, said goodbye to Caroline, and headed out the door, bound for my first night on the town since Wally was born.

I’d recruited my college roommates Rob and John to come with me to a performance by a local singer-songwriter named Suzie Brown, who I’d just finished profiling for an upcoming issue of Harvard Magazine.  Brown’s story is an interesting one.  For more than a decade she marched through intensive training to become a cardiologist, all the while harboring a honey-dipped singing voice.  Finally, she decided she couldn’t ignore her desire to sing anymore so she took a part-time clinical job and devoted the balance of her days to her singing career.  Her first full-length album, “Heartstrings,” came out this spring and it’s a fair bet it won’t be her last.

That night she was playing at the Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk, on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  It was a hot night, as they all are these days, and probably the most humid of the year. It took us a little searching to find the bar, and as the 9pm start of the show drew near I began to worry that we were going to miss it.  But when we arrived it became clear that none of the musicians were even there yet, which I took as a reminder that the rest of the world doesn’t move to the same urgent schedule our family does.  The bouncer told us they had a new beer on tap that night—a double IPA called the Cape of Good Hope from the Yard’s Brewing Company.  We hadn’t been there three minutes before the first round hit the table.


For the first five months after Jay was born I didn’t have anything to drink at all.  There were a few reasons for my tee totaling, but the main one was this: Life as a new parent was extremely tight as Caroline and I tried to juggle her dissertation, my freelance career, and an infant we didn’t really know what to do with.  Our days felt so precarious that at times a single beer seemed like it would be enough to send us into ruin.

Gradually, though, Caroline and I found our rhythm as parents. We started going out to the movies again, having friends over, drinking wine with dinner.  I remember the first time I got buzzed as a parent.  It was a dinner party at our apartment.  I’d had a few glasses of Cabernet when all of a sudden I thought about Jay, then five-months-old, asleep in his bassinet down the hall.  After being so focused on him ever since he was born, it felt strange that the alcohol clouding my brain was now standing between the two of us.

But I got over that feeling, and in the months before Wally was born both Caroline and I had resumed social lives that approximated the ones we’d had before becoming parents.  I had a couple good friends in town who didn’t yet have kids and liked to stay out late.  On a handful of occasions I stayed out with them, and in the wee hours of the night, with the jukebox playing, my friends at hand, and a son I loved asleep back at home, I’d feel like I’d managed to have my cake and eat it, too.

That, of course, didn’t account for the hangover.  There is no more merciless a being in the world than a toddler; the next morning Jay always made me pay.  Not on purpose, of course.  It’s just that there’s no explaining to him, “Daddy’s head is killing him right now so maybe we can read Horton Hears a Who another time.”  So I’d drag myself out of bed four hours after I’d climbed into it, take some aspirin, and begin counting down the minutes until naptime.


Suzie Brown went on at 11pm, by which point everyone at our table was in the mood to tap our toes. As she sang, we chatted and listened, got up and danced, headed to the bar for another trip around the Cape of Good Hope.  It was only a little later, when I went outside to get some air and chatted again with the bouncer, that I learned that the amber liquid we were swilling was 8.1% ABV.

There’s a point in every good night at a bar where the world outside fades away and the night starts to feels endless.  As Suzie was wrapping up her set I looked at the time and hazily calculated that Jay had been asleep for more than five hours already, while here I was, deep in the throes of a night that had nothing to do with him. It always amazes me how much life can transpire in the time a toddler sleeps.

By the time the music wrapped our table was covered with pint glasses.  We reluctantly headed to the door as the band members coiled audio cables and the bartender recapped the gin.  The cab ride home was a blur of street lamps and warm air lapping at my face through the open window.

Back upstairs in our apartment the door to Jay’s room was shut, just as I’d left it hours earlier.   With a pang it occurred to me that he’d already probably begun his ascent into waking. Caroline and Wally were asleep side-by-side in the bed.  I remembered, then, that I’d had a few too many IPAs to co-sleep with Wally, so I pulled the couch cushions onto the floor and laid out below him.

The next morning I must have slept through the declarations Jay makes each morning from his crib, because when I awoke he was standing right over me.  I squinted at him through the sunlight and he looked at me quizzically.  Caroline leaned over and whispered something in Jay’s ear and a broad smile broke out on his face.  He pointed a finger at me and in an excited voice he said, “Daddy, have you no shame!”