The alternative to controlling my children
By the second week of vacation, I had long given up on sleeping in – much less sleeping through the night. Up at 6:00 am one morning, I just needed to keep our one-year-old occupied for an hour while my wife’s family slept.
How hard could that be?
He banged everything he could find on the kitchen floor, hollered through breakfast, and whined as I bounced him around the house in my arms.
“Shhh! Shhh!” I said to him over and over again, as if that would make a difference.
I panicked. What should I do with him?
I let him slap at the large mirror in the dining room, held his hands as he wobbled on his unsteady legs, and held him upside down. Everything resulted in loud noises and more shushing.
It just wasn’t my morning. When a baby needs sleep, there’s no replacing it.
By the time I handed him over to my wife, I realized that I’d let myself become extremely stressed out. Mind you, this is our second born, and I spend quite a bit of time at home with our kids during the week. I’m not the bumbling greeting card dad who can’t figure out where to stick the bottle when the baby’s crying.
Still, I frequently make the mistake of trying to control my kids, especially when there’s no chance of ever winning. A tired baby is destined to cry for the first hour of the day. I gave in to anxiety because I couldn’t control the amount of noise he made.
Isn’t control one of the main battles throughout all of parenthood? It sure felt like that when I was a teenager and young adult.
When I was in high school, I wanted to attend a youth group at a Baptist church, and my Catholic mother tried to stop me – I went anyway, and eventually attended seminary.
When I was in my final year of college, I fell head over heels in love with a girl, and my dad said I should focus on my career instead of marriage – we got engaged a few months, later and have been happily married ever since.
As their grips tightened over my life choices, I slipped away from them for a season (before reconciling a few years later). I don’t think they anticipated that their attempts to control my faith and relationships would result in me shutting them out of those parts of my life and choosing my own path without their input.
If a teenager finds life with God through a youth group Bible study instead of high church liturgy, there’s nothing a parent can do to change that.
If a college student thinks he’s found the one, a parent can’t stop the sparks of that relationship, especially from 660 miles away.
Now, as a father to young children, I feel smaller gaps emerging each time I try to control them beyond the bounds of reason: “Drink your water now!” “Share with your brother!” “Stop nagging me!” I can relate to my parents a little bit more each day as I navigate conflict and my own control issues with our boys. I want to dictate what’s best, rather than starting where they are.
And if a baby is sleep deprived, there’s nothing a parent can do to minimize the noise of an unhappy child. If our one-year-old woke up the rest of the house during vacation, it wasn’t from my lack of trying. My anxiety and attempts at controlling his behavior certainly didn’t make things better.
Photo by Richard Masoner
A few days later, we were home, and the kids were sleep deprived from the drive the day before. Neither of our kids slept well in the car. We put the one-year-old to bed early, but he was still over-tired—screaming and arching his body as I held him.
I felt the anxiety coming over me, shouting in my head: “You need to make him quiet now! He’ll wake up his brother in the next room! What if your neighbor goes to bed early?! Hurry! Make him quiet!”
As I struggled to pray about this, I suddenly had a picture in my mind that I was a sponge, absorbing his sadness rather than fighting or controlling it. I tried to let his sadness pass through me rather than wringing it out of him.
I watched him cry, red-faced and waving his fists, as I rocked him. He passed from sleep, to crying, back to sleep, and then back to crying. All the while I gently whispered, “Shhhhhh” to him, rather than the demanding “Shh!” of vacation.
After a few minutes of crying and writhing from side to side in his crib, he drifted off to sleep with his arms stretched over his head. His chest lifted up and down ever so slightly as his exhaustion slipped away into the quiet of sleep.
I shuffled out of the room, tired but finally at peace with my child and, at least for a moment, with myself.
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