Nicholas at four years old likes to negotiate about how he spends his time. It’s mostly a good thing: Of course he should have some say in what happens, and compromising and prioritizing are important skills. The trouble is that he has so many things he wants to do and so little time at home–he’s in childcare while we work full-time, and on weekends we tend to have a number of errands and other activities. Often, the time between getting home and needing to go to bed seems to fly by, and at the last minute he tries to renegotiate and stay up late to pack in all the activities he earlier was willing to bargain away.
Sunday night, he was having a great time playing with his visiting uncle when I reminded him that bedtime was approaching. Nicholas said he would not have any bedtime stories so that he’d have more time to play. I agreed. Of course I expected some delays when it was time to get ready for bed, due to uncle-related excitement, but once we were alone in his room I was firm about our agreement that he would go right to sleep without stories.
Well, now he had changed his mind. Just one little story, pleeeease??? No, the agreement was no stories. Nicholas got very upset. He wanted to do lots of things! He wanted stories, and I was being so mean by denying him stories, and he was NOT sleepy! He began bouncing around in what I recognized (noting his sagging eyelids) as a desperate attempt to stay awake. By now it was 20 minutes past the time he ought to be asleep. I reminded him that when he bounces, then I cannot lie down with him because I do not like the bouncing. He stopped for a few seconds. When he started again, I got up and left the room. He flew into a shrieking rage. I stood outside the door waiting for him to quiet down a bit, then offered him a second chance.
When I lay down again, he was physically still but complaining fretfully that he wanted to do this and that and it wasn’t fair to have no stories. I briefly considered giving a second ultimatum (“If you want me to stay with you, be quiet so I can get to sleep.”) or doing the active listening thing (“You really like playing with Uncle Ben. It’s hard to go to sleep when you want to do other things.”), but both ideas made me feel exhausted and seemed likely to fail with this tired, unreasonable child.
I was angry myself, wondering what to do, and I think that’s what brought this Mister Rogers song to mind. I gently rubbed Nick’s angrily quivering back and sang, “What do you do with the mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems very wrong, and nothing you–”
Nicholas interrupted, “No, Mama–the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right.”
Gently reminding myself that his father and I got exactly the hyper-accurate, perfectionistic child we deserved, I conceded that he was correct and sang on, “What do you do? Do you…”
He filled in, “…punch a bag?” He punched his other hand, but otherwise he was lying quietly and smiling. We sang the rest of the song together. He calmed down completely, and so did I.
(Because of our weekday schedule, we rarely get to watch Mister Rogers on TV. We have a set of his songs on records, from Daniel’s childhood, which Nicholas plays regularly. Even if your family is TV-free, I highly recommend these songs!)