I think most parents at least attempt to set rules to keep family life in some semblance of order. We set bed times, play times, meal times, bath times, and screen time. We have strictures on where kids can jump, climb, yell, squeal, and eat. We have guidelines for how everyone in the family must behave: we say please, we wait our turn, we share our things, we sit at the table for meals, we use our words.
Then you get busy or stressed out, and all the rules and routines go right out the window.
A little over a month ago, Isla got a toddler double whammy: a cold and teething all at the same time. It destroyed her sleep, and ours, and made her miserable during the day. We relaxed our rules on meals, screen time, and bedtime routines. We let our little yowling, howling, tantrum-throwing kiddo call the shots because, well, she was sick and already miserable and everyone deserves a little bit of spoiling when they’re sick, right? Add to that my new role at work which is taking up way more of my time, day and evening, than before, and house hunting and the time change and a busy social calendar, and the rules were put on indefinite suspension.
I don’t know how else to say this, but without our usual rules, my kid became kind of a brat. I know part of it is just her age, but for Isla, it was a complete 180 in personality and behavior that was obviously not just a phase. Things that previously she just did, she was now fighting tooth and nail. She didn’t want to sit in her high chair. She didn’t want to eat breakfast or dinner. She didn’t want to take a bath and would kick and scream and twist to keep from going in the tub and then scream until snot ran down her face while I tried to scrub the grime off her as quickly as possible. She didn’t want to go to sleep, and we were spending an hour getting her to go to bed every night and then she would wake up, sometimes for hours at a time, in the middle of the night.
Everything became a battle, because all the things that had been the routine, the expectation, the rule were now the exception.
As parents, we relax the rules because they are hard for us to maintain. It’s easier, sometimes, to let your kid eat a veggie pack in front of the TV instead of dinner at the table with the TV off, or to rock them all the way to sleep rather than putting them down drowsy and running the risk of having to come back in 10 minutes later to rock a hysterical toddler back down to an almost-asleep state. The funny thing is, while we relax the rules to make things easier for ourselves, it often ends up just making more trouble for us in the long run.
Most kids like having rules and routines. They like knowing what is expected of them and what comes next. And they like feeling like their parents are in control of things. Toddlers especially are so overwhelmed by their emotions and all they are learning every single day, it’s comforting for them to know there’s someone stable around them who knows what is going on and can help them understand and navigate the big, confusing world around them. They test boundaries and assert their independence, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want boundaries at all or someone safe they can depend upon. Parents provide the rules and framework through which children can feel safe to explore their world.
Last week, Kellen and I had finally had enough and made the decision that it was time for a return to the old rules. No screen time before or after daycare. Meals must be taken at the dinner table and the TV must be turned off. We take a bath at 7 PM. We rock to drowsy, not to sleeping, and we only go in to help her get back to sleep if our set time limits lapse or there’s something very wrong. We say please and thank you, and tantrums don’t get you what you want. This applies to everyone in our house.
Things didn’t immediately become perfect–they never will be–but in the last few days, there’s been marked improvement in Isla’s attitude. I think the biggest reasons for improvement are that she’s eating regular meals again and sleeping through the night. No one is in a good mood when they’re hungry and sleep deprived. Cutting out screen time has been our biggest facilitator for better eating and sleeping, both because she no longer wants to sit in front of the TV to eat meals and because she’s getting enough quality time with us during the day that she’s not waking up hollering for us because she misses us at night.
In my experience, rules and routines are some of the most important things you can provide for your children, along with food, shelter, clothes, and lots of love and affection. They provide a sense of security and safety, and they help kids make sense of a world they’re just getting acquainted with. They’re hard sometimes for everyone to maintain, but long-term, they’re worth it.
I know next time I think about relaxing the rules because I’m too tired or too stressed to deal with the momentary inconvenience of sticking to my guns, this experience will serve as a potent reminder of why we have these rules in the first place.