Bedtime List: How to organize a child’s routine

Our two-year-old Lydia has always been the type who takes a while to wind down, but in the late spring after she stopped nursing, she went pretty easily into a relatively smooth routine of listening to several stories and then saying good night and lying alone in her bed in the dark listening to a story CD as she fell asleep.  She was napping inconsistently, but at least we could get her to bed for the night in a predictable way.

Then, at the end of June, I finished my job and the next day we traveled to visit my parents in another time zone for a week, and then when we got back our daytime routine relaxed because I didn’t have to get to work and get Lydia to childcare–and her happy routine disappeared.  She started freaking out when we turned out the light, screaming and crying and refusing to stay in bed.  Some nights she’d lie quietly if a parent stayed with her, but other nights she’d flip around, literally trying to climb the wall next to the bed and falling on the parent–ow!!–and if we didn’t stay, she was almost certain to get up and come looking for us.

Also, Daniel and I were sometimes forgetting one or another of the steps of getting her ready for bed, because we weren’t doing them in a consistent order and it’s easy to get distracted when anything unexpected happens–which is basically every evening in a household with not only a two-year-old but also an eleven-year-old sort of nutty inventor person….

snack; toilet; pajamas; brush teeth; brush hair; stories; tuck in; sleepI decided it was time for a Bedtime List. This is an idea I didn’t try on Nicholas until he was five, the age when I remember having my first Lists.  My dad made me a Morning List and an Evening List showing what to do before kindergarten and after.  I loved following my Lists!

Nicholas has never been so keen on the Lists; he likes deciding what color each item should be and how it should be illustrated, but then he doesn’t want to look at the list and tends to argue about what should happen when.  Probably this is mostly about his personality compared to mine, but what if it would have worked if I’d started earlier?

Lydia is too young to be involved in making the List.  Her father Daniel and I went over what needs to happen in what order to make sure we agreed, and then I made this List using drawings that I thought she would recognize.

It’s working very well!  Lydia likes looking at her List, pointing out the steps and talking about them.  She’s more cooperative with the routine than she was before, especially if we get back on track after a distraction by saying, “Okay, what have we done on the List?”

A fringe benefit is that Lydia is practicing her pre-reading skills: “This red sign says eat snack!  This other red sign says brush teeth!”  Understanding that written words convey meaning is a very important step toward recognizing those words when you see them without pictures.

We’re still working on getting her to stay in bed by herself.  But at least she’s understanding more clearly that certain things are going to happen every night and that the sequence is supposed to end with sleeping.

Organizing a child’s routine with a list works for me, at least sometimes!

Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

One of the hardest, most humbling things about being a parent is those moments when your child communicates with you using strategies that you’ve used with him or that he’s seen you use with someone else–and you shouldn’t have.  We all have times when we do something to try to get another person to do what we want her to do, without giving enough thought to whether or not it’s a healthy strategy that we’d like our children to learn or that we’d like anybody to use on us.  My first child (now eleven years old) is an especially egalitarian-minded type: He doesn’t accept that adults have a natural authority over him by being adults, so he assumes that anything we can do to him is something he can do to us.  You can see this, rather humorously, in my story of why Counting to Three stopped working.  Since then, we’ve had many interactions in which Nick’s attempts to treat us the way he perceives us as treating him have been painfully enlightening!

Although these issues have been magnified by parenting, the same problems can come up between adults, especially adults who live together and/or have known each other for a long time.

What communication strategies am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

  • I want you to do something right now, so I just keep ordering you to do it in an increasingly angry voice.  No matter what you say about why you can’t do it this minute or why it might not be the right thing to do, I won’t listen or acknowledge hearing you.
  • You ask me for something, and I attack your desire to have the thing, bringing up a bunch of barely-related things that you asked for when you should’ve known better or that I gave you but you didn’t appreciate enough.
  • I want you to do something, and when you resist, I start complaining about all the other things I wish you would do that you haven’t done.
  • You ask me for something, and I list a lot of other things that I have done for you, making it sound like you ask too much of me.
  • Instead of asking for what I need, I work myself to exhaustion doing things that benefit both of us or just you.  When you don’t seem to notice, I feel resentful.  I keep working, refusing to pause to take care of myself, until I suddenly blow up at you and act like you are stupid for not knowing what’s wrong.
  • I complain about how I’m tired and having a bad day and overwhelmed by the things I need to do.  Then, without asking about how you’re doing, I tell you that you have to do something nice for me.

We saw a counselor a couple years ago who didn’t work out so well overall but had one really good point that has stuck with me: “The key to family harmony is emotional self-regulation.”  It is easy to say to yourself, “His nasty behavior put me in a bad mood!  I shouldn’t have to be nice when everyone’s being so awful to me!” but then you are putting other people in charge of your feelings and actions.  This is particularly problematic when the other people are children and you’re supposed to be their role model.  You have to snap out of the “person who has been treated badly gets to treat others badly” cycle and set a more positive tone.  It is hard, but in my experience it pays off.  Feeling like my family members are constantly ruining my day and I’m powerless to stop them is hard, too, and really wears me down in the long run. Read more of this post

The X, Y, Z Method of Child Discipline

We thought Becky Bailey’s book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline was a mixed bag that contained a few good techniques; this is one of them.  Bailey talks about it in a more long-winded way, but I boiled it down to this formula, which I’ve found easy to remember and therefore to actually use in the heat of the moment sometimes!  Almost 8 years after reading the book, this is the one tip that’s really worked well for me.

This simple sequence can be used in any situation in which your child has done something he shouldn’t and you’re pretty sure you understand what he was trying to achieve with that behavior.  If you have no idea why he would do such a thing, use another method or (if you have time) ask him to explain what he was going for and then use this method.

“You wanted X, so you did Y. You may not do Y. Instead, when you want X, do Z. Try that now.”

This method achieves several things, efficiently:

  • You start by showing your child that you understand what she wanted.  This helps her feel like you’re on her side instead of attacking.
  • You show that you understand the connection of the motive to the action.  Then you condemn the action without condemning the motive.
  • You make a clear statement of what it is that is not allowed.
  • You explain what your child can do that is allowed.  It’s okay to want X, but she has to get it a different way.
  • You encourage her to practice the good behavior immediately.  This helps to reinforce it, as well as helping her to get what she wants.
  • The clear structure gets you to make your point quickly instead of going into an extended harangue about how bad the behavior is.

Examples: Read more of this post

That Time I Caused Trouble in Sunday School

This is a story I’ve told my son Nicholas many times.  It’s entertaining for him, but it’s also a story that really gets him thinking about right and wrong, temptation and resistance, punishment and forgiveness, what those kids who get into trouble all the time might be thinking, and many other interesting issues.  It’s inspired some great discussions!

I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing some “storytelling” style posts like this, to share some of my better anecdotes from my visit to Earth.  Please comment below or contact me if you would like to read more stories like this!

I was a mostly well-behaved child.  I liked to learn rules and follow them.  I liked to do things that made adults approve of me.  Sometimes I was disobedient or obnoxious at home or in other familiar places with familiar people, but because I was very shy my behavior in public situations like school was calibrated to attract as little attention as possible.  It was very rare for me to “get in trouble” in school even enough to have a teacher take me aside to speak to me, and I certainly never got sent to the principal or anything like that.

This was true also in Sunday school, which I attended at a church so large that there was a separate class for each grade, which might have as many as 50 names on the attendance sheet and 20-30 kids present on any given day.  Our classrooms were much like those in a school, with a big chalkboard at the front and small bulletin boards alongside it.  Each grade had a different curriculum theme, but they varied widely–some were vague, so the teachers scrambled to put together random activities to keep the kids busy and maybe sort of relate to the theme; other years had structured activities and worksheets for every week.

Fifth grade spent the entire year pondering the question, “Why Do Bad Things Happen?”  This was a Unitarian church, so each week we studied the perspective of a different religion or culture.  One of the first ideas presented was that bad things happen to bad people who deserve them.  That idea was quickly refuted by kids thinking of examples of good people who’d had bad things happen to them, and vice versa.  But there was also a tangential discussion of whether people who do bad things are always bad people and whether there really is any such thing as a bad person, or we’re all just people who sometimes do bad things and sometimes do good things.  Many of the kids talked about believing that they were basically good people, or at least medium people, but once in a while “something comes over me” such that a bad thing just had to be done and they were powerless to resist.  When a later lesson brought up the idea of evil spirits that possess people and force them to behave badly, most of the class agreed that even if this weren’t literally true, it was a good description of what the urge to misbehave is like.

I didn’t argue aloud, but I was skeptical.  I was a good girl, and badness was not tempting.  Read more of this post

How to Get Kids to Behave in Church

Welcome to the February 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Do It Yourself

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of
Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code
Name: Mama
. This month our participants are teaching us how to make
something useful or try something new.


By the time my first child was born, I’d been attending a small, liberal Episcopal church in my neighborhood for eight years.  Church is very meaningful to me, so I wanted to continue going, but how would I manage with a needy little baby who would become a wiggly toddler and then a child with his own ideas? Nicholas is ten years old now and has a baby sister, Lydia, and I’m able to manage both of them pretty well while still soaking up church myself.  I’ve learned a lot along the way!

I’m saying “church” but many of these tips would apply to other religions’ worship, and many of these strategies for church behavior also apply to any situation where we need to sit still and listen, like performances and meetings.  I’ve put them approximately in the order that you can start using them, beginning with things that work from birth–so if you have an older child and you’re just now trying to get back to church, skim along until you see something that seems feasible for your child now.  Read more…

Should Your Family Be Child-centered?

This is a controversial and confusing question.  Some people go on and on about how parenthood melted their selfish hearts and made them realize the importance of devoting themselves fully to making their children’s lives perfectly wonderful and completely safe.  Other people go on and on about how children are hedonistic little leeches whose spirits must be broken to show them who’s boss, and responsible parents must schedule their babies’ lives in 15-minute increments.  Then there are a lot of points of view in between.  It’s very easy, as a parent in this fast-paced society, to put a lot of energy into getting everything together for your kid and suddenly realize you’ve been neglecting yourself–or to rush around Getting Things Done and suddenly realize that you’ve been treating your child like a task on a checklist and haven’t focused on his sweet little face for days.  Where’s the balance?

Well, I can’t claim that Daniel and I have it all perfectly worked out, but in our 8 years 8 months as parents of Nicholas, we’ve done pretty well with this basic attitude: “We are all people together.  We are the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Experienced people help newer people learn how to do things.”  Nobody is the center.  This is the approach my parents seemed to be using when I was a child (I don’t know if they’d explain it in the same words) and I noticed from an early age that some other families had a different attitude.  Of course, every family is different, but I think all families could work from the basic principle that we’re all in this together and no one person is the most important.  It seems to me that whenever I wander away from this idea–either by getting dramatically self-sacrificing or by demanding that everybody take care of me–it works out badly.
Here are some of the issues parents often struggle with, and the ways they’ve worked out for our family.

Is it child-centered to allow your child to eat when hungry and sleep when sleepy?  Is it better to have a strict schedule?

Read more…

Saying “No!” to Toddlers

Today I received email responding to my recent article on child discipline and asking me to take a look at this article: 10 Alternatives to Saying No to Your Child.  That’s some good advice!  I’m glad to see it on a site that helps people find jobs as au pairs (childcare providers who live with the family, usually in another country) because I know that many people in that line of work have limited experience working with young children, so they need good, detailed strategies.  I agree with all the basic ideas in the article, but I also have a few tips on the subject to share.

The idea of “alternatives to saying No” is not that it’s bad to tell a child what she shouldn’t do.  There are many times when it’s necessary to stop a certain behavior.  The idea is to do it in a positive way when you can, instead of just hollering, “No!!” all the time.

Imagine living in a place where you don’t know the language or customs.  Dozens of times a day, people say a certain short word to you.  You hear this word in lots of different situations.  How long would it take you to understand what the word means?

That’s how it is for babies and toddlers.  It takes them a long time to understand that “No” sometimes means, “Stop pulling my hair!” and sometimes means, “Stay out of the kitchen!” and sometimes means, “Don’t sit on the cat!” and so on and so forth.  Using more specific words helps them to understand which word means what.  You can see this in a toddler’s response to a negative command that uses words he recognizes: You say, “No, you can’t have a cookie,” and he grabs a cookie–not because he is willfully defiant but because “cookie” is the only word in that sentence that has a clear meaning to him, so he’s thinking you just acknowledged his desire for a cookie.  Tell the kid what you want, not what you don’t want. Read more…

What to Do When Your Child Witnesses Bad Discipline

If you have any opinions at all about the appropriate methods of disciplining children, and if you are ever anywhere near any families with different opinions, someday you will find yourself in this situation: Your child sees another parent respond to a child’s behavior in a way that your child recognizes as different, which may be shocking or upsetting to your child.  What can you say to help your child understand what’s going on?

My son Nicholas is eight years old now.  We’ve used a mostly gentle discipline approach that focuses on explaining, redirecting, and using these strategies:

We sometimes get fed up and start yelling or say things that aren’t so nice, but we do our best to avoid being really harsh and hurtful, and we don’t hit him.  That means that when he sees another parent using harsh or violent discipline, he expects an explanation. Read more…

Things Not To Do: Toddler Toothbrushing Edition

Our son Nicholas is seven years old now and sometimes puts up a fuss about brushing his teeth, but he’s nowhere near as resistant as he was when he was a toddler, and the lesson I learned then still seems to apply.

Soon after his teeth emerged and we started brushing them, the novelty wore off and he began to resist this drippy, tickling intrusion into his mouth.  I understand the objection, but I was determined both to take good care of his new little teeth and to teach him that toothbrushing is part of the daily routine.  He’d turn his head away, refuse to open his mouth, run away, and sometimes cry.  Some nights we’d let it slide, but one day when he was 22 months old he had sardines for lunch and garlic for dinner and horrible-smelling breath, so I was determined to brush his teeth…and it took forty-five minutes to get it done!  I wrote this account of the ordeal: Read more…

Traffic Safety for Little Kids

We live on a quiet street, but just around the block is the main street of our neighborhood, which has lots of traffic, parallel parking along both sides, and lots of intersections where right turns on red are allowed.  Only some of the intersections have traffic lights and walk signals.  There are lots of useful places within walking distance, and the sidewalks are wide, but crossing the street can be risky.  A lot of drivers seem to think the traffic laws don’t apply to them!

When Nicholas began walking, I saw that he already knew (from being carried by a walking parent) to pause on the curb and look around before stepping into the street.  That was very helpful, but it didn’t mean he actually knew how to cross the street safely alone.  By thinking out loud, I taught him what we look for when we pause on the curb and how we decide when it’s safe to walk.  But informed decision-making ability isn’t the only thing you need to be safe. Read more…

Simple Solution to Six-year-old’s Sleep Situation (coming into parents’ bed)

(I had to add some words that don’t start with S to help search engines find this article!)

Our son is six years old and still kind of wishes Mama would stay with him all the time he’s sleeping.  He understands that grownups don’t need as much sleep as children and have other things to do in the evening, so he long ago accepted that although one of us will lie next to him in his bed until he’s asleep, we then get up and leave him alone until morning.  We’ll come to help him if he has a nightmare, nosebleed, vomiting, etc., but in general he’s been sleeping alone all night since he was about three years old.

That changed about six weeks ago. Read more…

Important Word to Teach a Toddler

When our son Nicholas was just beginning to talk and simultaneously expanding his interests in climbing on things and stacking things in tall piles, his father Daniel taught him an important word.  This word summed up a major reason to be cautious about climbing that thing or stacking that way, in one word instead of a whole sentence, so it was very useful when we needed to tell Nicholas to stop and rethink what he was doing before he got hurt or broke something.  Nicholas soon learned to say this word himself, so he could cry for help with his adventures and we’d quickly understand what was going wrong, and also he could warn us if something we were doing was hazardous in this way.

The word is Read more…

What to do when a baby repeatedly drops something

This is a common game of babies: Drop an object on the floor. Wait for adult to pick it up and give it back. Drop it again. Repeat until adult begins tearing hair, turning purple, or otherwise doing something entertaining.

We didn’t play that game when Nicholas was a baby. Read more…

What I did with the Mad my kid felt

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. Read more…

Second Chance

Disclaimer: We only have one child.  Other children may react differently to this technique.  Give it a try and see if it works for you!

I started into parenting thinking that it’s unfair to impose a consequence on a child without warning him first (except in a dangerous situation, of course) and that once you’ve chosen a consequence you must stick to it, to show your child that you mean what you say.

Here’s what I’ve learned from Nicholas, who just turned four years old:

Often, warning a young child that his behavior will result in a consequence has no apparent effect or perhaps gives him “permission” to do it one more time. Read more…

Really Only Very Small

This is one of the simplest yet most profound parenting tips I’ve heard:
When your child is driving you absolutely insane,
and you wish he’d just get with the program and act like a civilized human being,
and you’re sick and tired of his getting in the way of all the very important things you need to get done,
and he’s making the most aggravating noise you’ve ever heard,
and you’re beginning to understand how it is some people throw a child against a wall,
Just take a moment to really look at your child and see how small he is, how soft and fragile and new, how inexperienced in coping with the stresses of life.  Why, just a few years ago, he didn’t even exist!  It’s really not so surprising that a brief delay in his acquisition of raisins strikes him as a great tragedy, or that his feelings overwhelm his polite communication abilities.  A problem that looks small to you looks very big to such a small person. Read more…

What right have you to be angry?

Nicholas still acts up in church sometimes. A couple of weeks ago, we had an even more difficult time than the one I wrote about last year.

It started with Nicholas wanting to go to the bathroom just as I was listening eagerly to the Old Testament reading, which was the story of what happened to Jonah after he got out of that fish–although I knew Jonah had his own book of the Bible, I’d never read or heard any of it other than the part about being swallowed by a fish, so I was curious.  But I didn’t get to hear it because Nicholas had to go to the bathroom, and he’s only three-and-a-half years old and afraid to wander around the church hallways alone, so I had to go with him.  Well, that couldn’t be helped.  I would read it in the service leaflet when we got back.

The moment we got back, Nicholas grabbed my leaflet and began scrambling the pages around, scribbling on it with a pencil, crumpling it, and generally rendering it unreadable even if I ever managed to get it back from him. I resolved to read Jonah at home later, and I turned my attention to the next reading.

That lasted about twelve seconds before Nicholas began whispering at me. Read more…

Show. No. Fear.

A few years ago, my mom and I saw a toddler having a tantrum about leaving an outdoor tourist attraction at closing time. She wanted to walk–NO she wanted to be carried–NO she wanted to ride in the wagon–NO she wanted to shriek and thrash in the gravel!!! This went on and on and on while her parents hovered over her, saying tentatively, “Honey? Wouldn’t you like to maybe ride in the wagon?” As we passed, my mom said to them, cheerfully but firmly, “Show. No. Fear.” She told me she knew it wouldn’t be helpful to get more involved than that, but she hoped that that phrase, which had been her mantra in dealing with toddlers, would help them take charge.

Now that I have a young child myself, I’m understanding better what she meant: Read more…

Great system, bad example!

We’ve been struggling with our three-year-old’s demanding behavior and angry outbursts and have sought help from several books.  The most recent was Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, frequently recommended in online discussions.

Overall, it’s an okay book.  The main idea is that a conflict is an opportunity to teach your child skills he can learn to control himself on his own, and she explains very clearly why this is such a great approach.  The book has a few very good parts: Read more…

Counting to Three…Part Two

Well, the technique of counting to three had a good run, but it’s not working anymore.  Nicholas tried using it himself to get us to do things we’d refused to do, he saw that we still refused, and now he sees no reason why he should comply just because we’re counting.  I don’t remember ever trying it on my parents when I was little….

I suppose that hard-core Consensual Living parents would argue that I should never have used this technique on my child if I wasn’t willing to respond to it myself.  They’ve got a point.  But I think (and this is why I can’t really get into Consensual Living) that parents, because of our greater knowledge and experience, can at times hold firmly to a decision we have explained to a child, even if the child would rather we do something else.

For example: Read more…