What do you do when you’re ambivalent? Some people, when faced with conflicting thoughts and opposing intentions choose to do nothing. That’s unfortunate, because nothing gets addressed. Some choose to address one but not the other of their concerns. The best choice would be to address both, disparate though they are.
Sorry if that was unclear. I think an example will help.
Your child comes to you at 11:30 at night and says "I made my bed very nice and neat". You, as a parent, should compliment him and let him know how proud you are, but you are quite unhappy that he's up so late. How do you go about praising him at THAT moment, when he's about an hour or more past his bedtime?
I’m very impressed with the dad who asked me that question. He clearly understands the need to acknowledge a child’s success at doing something that is expected of him rather than taking it for granted. His quandary is the timing. His child is supposed to be asleep now, not awake and reporting on his success earlier in the day. There are two things to address here: his success at making his bed and his being awake well past his bedtime. How do you praise success in the midst of failure?
The first thing to do is to detach the two issues. His success at making his bed is in no way mitigated by his failure to be asleep an hour past his bedtime. His report of success and his evident failure occurred simultaneously but they do not affect one another. Each one should be addressed, and there is no reason to delay addressing either of them because of the other.
Even though it is 11:30 at night, dad should promptly acknowledge the reported success at making his bed, saying something like, “you’re a very good boy for making your bed carefully!” A hug would be in order as well.
Now it’s time to address the other concern: it’s an hour past his bedtime and he’s still awake. At all costs avoid the impulse to ask, “Why are you still awake?” Unless you think he has been reading, listening to music, or conversing with a roommate, the answer to that question is always, “because I didn’t fall asleep yet.” There, now you know, so please never ask that question again.
Haven’t you ever had trouble falling asleep? You’ve never found yourself lying in bed awake wishing you could drift off to sleep and you just aren’t falling asleep? Most people have had that experience so it shouldn’t be so surprising that it happens to children, too.
So how do you address a child who is still awake way past his bedtime? That depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish. If you want to make him feel even worse than he’s already probably feeling (it’s not fun to lie there awake for such a long time) you would say something like, “I don’t like that you’re still awake. You should have been asleep a long time ago. Now go to sleep and we’ll talk about it more in the morning.” That will get your frustration off of your chest and make your child feel bad.
If, instead, your intention is to express to your child that you feel bad for him, you would say, “You’re really having a hard time falling asleep tonight. That must be frustrating. Is something bothering you?”
If the answer to that question is yes, don’t say, “this isn’t the time to talk about it. Try to put it out of your mind and we’ll talk about tomorrow.” He can’t just put it out of his mind. Take five or ten minutes now and let him describe his concern. Often, just talking it out will help him see it as less of a threat and he’ll be okay. Those few minutes are far less than the amount of time he’ll stay awake if he continues to stew on it.
If he says no to your question, if he is not aware of anything in particular that is bothering him, reassure him that getting less than his usual amount of sleep on occasion is not terrible. He may be tired some of the day tomorrow but he’ll get through it okay. The last thing to tell him is that he’s going to be exhausted and cranky and unable to focus and he’s going to have a miserable day if he doesn’t get to sleep real soon. That’s a perfect formula for stressing him out even more so that he won’t be able to fall asleep because you’ve told him how awful his life is going to be if doesn’t fall asleep. That’s the wrong address.
Yes, all of this is taking place at 11:30 at night, over an hour past his bedtime. Relax. Slow down. Parenting, sometimes, really is 24/7. Your ability to help your child with something he is struggling with can be very difficult when you’re tired and struggling with your own concerns. The way to do it is not to push your concerns aside as though they didn’t matter; that leads to resentment. The way to do it is to focus clearly and sharply on what it is like for your child right now, what he is thinking and feeling and wishing for. Then, resist the urge to make suggestions. Rather, ask him what he thinks might help him. Give him a chance to think about it for a minute. (I know, it’s 11:30 at night. Relax. You’ll both get over it.)
In the short term he’ll fall asleep sooner if you give him some calm, reassuring time now. In the long term, you’ll become the address he turns to for solace and support.
Rabbi Ackerman works with individuals, couples, and families, and can be reached at 718-344-6575.