Monday, August 01, 2011

A Rambling Post about Sleep, Lessons, and Our Collective Need to Snap Out of It

I sometimes think that people parenting kids with lower than average sleep needs and people parenting kids with average (or, wonder of wonders, above average) sleep needs are occupying parallel universes. Our experiences are familiar to each other, but not quite the same.

For instance, I was talking to someone the other day who casually mentioned how she gets so much done in the evenings, after her kids are in bed at 7:30, since she can go to bed as late as 11 and still get a full night's sleep- the kids don't wake up until 7 a.m.

I just nodded and smiled, because what could I say? My toddler doesn't go to bed until 8:30, on a very good night (on a bad night it is after 9 before she is asleep). My preschooler's light goes out at about 9, and our bedtime routine is done at about 9:15... but sometimes, particularly during the week, when she naps at day care, it is close to 10 p.m. before I am sure she won't be calling me back in. At least she sleeps through the night- the toddler is usually up once. And they both wake up at about 6:30 or sometimes 7 in the morning.

(And before anyone lectures me about how much sleep they need, and how I'm depriving them of sleep... no, I'm not. They show absolutely no signs of sleep deprivation (which is more than I can say for the grown ups in the house), and they generally wake up on their own with no help from us. Actually, they generally wake us up.)

Anyway, to get anything close to a good night's sleep, I basically have to go to bed as soon as I'm done getting Pumpkin to sleep. Which doesn't really work, since there are also dishes to do, and every once and awhile I'd like to talk to my husband. (Blogging generally happens during the 15-30 minutes of "on call" time while I wait to see if Pumpkin's really down, or after everything's done, as way to unwind and "shut down" the day, usually with a beer, and usually only if Hubby has to do some work and is therefore not available for chit chat or The Daily Show.)

This means that we have started to find ways to grab some time to ourselves when the kids are still awake. For instance, tonight I did yoga while my husband put Petunia down for the night. I just had to do it with Pumpkin. She keeps up a running commentary for the entire DVD and doesn't really do the stretches, but she loves to do yoga with me. So I'm adding that into our weekly routine, because I really want to do more yoga.

I find it funny that I get a vestigial twinge of guilt about this, as if some part of me thinks that we should be doing a more enriching activity instead.

This is wrong on a couple of levels.

First, I find yoga to be an almost miraculous way to decrease stress and increase my sense of well-being. If my kids pick up a yoga habit from me, that is probably a good thing, as good as picking up a love for reading or an interest in science.

Second, when did we as a culture decide that our kids need so much of our attention and focus? Yeah, yeah- newborns do. But a 4 year old? It is probably good for her to start seeing her parents as separate people, with their own agendas. To start coming to the slow, and hopefully gentle, realization that no, she is not in fact the absolute center of the universe.

I alluded to the fact that I think modern kids get a lot more focus from their parents than kids did in the past in my weekend reading post about how mothers have always worked, and the comments on that post included some really interesting thoughts on that subject. I have some half-formed thoughts on this, which, if I had more time, I'd love to research and turn into a carefully crafted blog post. But that's not going to happen anytime soon, so instead, I'll just type them out in all of their half-formed glory, and y'all can tell me where I've gone off the tracks.

I look around me, and even the sanest of the other day care parents have filled their kids' schedules with at least as much stuff as we have. We're all discussing kindergartens as if we actually had a bad choice in front of us (for the most part, we don't- we almost all live in areas with schools that are at least decent, and frankly, some of the most worried parents I've talked to live in areas with downright awesome schools). When we go to someone's house on a play date, the toys on offer always include a fair number of educational/enriching options- and they would think the same about our toys. I know at least two parents who don't let their kids watch any TV at all, and we all limit screen time.

All of these things are fine, and even good. But I can't help but think that we've gone a bit off our collective rockers. It is like we all see our kids as having been born with almost infinite potential, and think that it is our job to try to keep as much of that from "leaking away"  due to suboptimal activities as possible. Watching Yo Gabba Gabba instead of an educational DVD- or better, doing a science experiment in the backyard? There went some of that precious potential, gone forever.

Since I've clearly bought into this to a certain degree (hence the Chinese lessons, and our own ever-evolving rules about what constitutes acceptable screen time), I can't judge the other parents. And I don't want to.

But I do wish we could all give ourselves a big Moonstruck slap and snap out of it.

The way I see it (in my saner moments), the human brain is this amazing plastic thing. It is adapted to learn from experience, but also to give us second and third and even hundredth chances, and to learn the most from repetition, not from casual encounters. For centuries, humans have passed on the skills their offspring needed just by making those kids a part of their daily lives. My kids are going to live in a technologically rich world- so of course I should let them learn about technology the way human children have always learned: by using it. It makes no sense to try to pick and choose what things they need to know- how would I possibly be able to predict that? I can take my best guess, and that is what school and any enriching classes will cover. But I won't get it all right. And even if they learn some frivolous things, so what? If all Pumpkin learns from Yo Gabba Gabba is what "break it down" means, is that such a bad thing? Some day, that knowledge might smooth a social interaction and spare her a awkward moment of feeling like a clueless geek.

I'm not arguing at all that we should stop giving our kids lessons in various things, or just sit them down in front of the TV all day. But I am arguing that we should take this parenting thing a little less seriously. There are no guarantees, no matter how we do it. We rolled the genetic dice when we conceived our kids, and all we can do is try to give them a fair shot at living up to the potential set by the genes they received.  It is not our job to shelter that potential and make sure that it is never harmed, because that is just not possible. It is our job to introduce them to our world, and try to give them the skills they need to go out and enjoy it. While also maybe giving them an obstacle or two to overcome, because we all have to have the story we tell at cocktail parties, about how we overcame such and such and went on to achieve so and so. We wouldn't want to deprive them of their chance to look noble and heroic by making things too easy for them.

And now my beer is gone, and it is past time for bed. I can already hear Petunia shuffling around in her crib. If I want some time in bed without a toddler bedmate, I should hurry. So I'll just ask you- what do you think? Should modern parents loosen up? Or is our current state of affairs a perfectly reasonable response to a society in which most families only have a few kids who mostly live into adulthood, and therefore we should invest more in our kids than our forefathers and mothers did?


  1. Great, great post. Spend time thinking a lot of these same thoughts.

  2. Amen! I think that our children learn more from our example than from any of the myriad attempts we make at 'enrichment.' So if we lead well-balanced, happy lives, and try to be responsible and respectful to them and to each other, they'll be as well off as possible. Even watching us mess up and then do our best to pick up the pieces is helpful.

    So, seeing you take care of yourself with a little yoga? Great! Le Petit plays on while I do exercise videos. Better to have a sane, relaxed mom than neurons untouched by the evil cathode ray tube, I say (and almost without guilt).

    Also, the sleep parallel universe thing? So true.

  3. Anonymous6:06 AM

    Our post on this topic is queued to go up on 8/10. It also contains distilled information on sleep from gifted books and a few pet theories of my own. :)

    As one of the daycare teachers at DS's school told me, she's happy knowing that there is no TV all day at preschool because that means she can plop her daughter down in front of it while she makes dinner at night without feeling the least bit guilty.

    And to answer the question: What's the purpose of your kid reading so early? MOMMY and DADDY need some downtime! And no, we didn't teach him to read... we let him plop himself down in front of Starfall because... mommy and daddy needed some downtime. Yay starfall.

  4. Anonymous6:14 AM

    Re: TV shows... we only let him watch things that don't annoy us. So no Yo Gabba Gabba (also he doesn't know Barney exists). We're pretty selfish in that regard, but I think he'll survive. Luckily Netflix streaming has a vast selection of great kid's shows. Have you tried Sid the Science Kid? That's his current favorite. Also Madeline. And Cyberchase, though I still can't handle hearing Doc Brown voicing the bad guy.

    I don't feel any guilt over this stuff... just sadness that we can't get him to watch tv any time we want him to like we used to be able to do. Perhaps it's time to start suggesting chores for him to do when we need time alone. (Do you want to watch a show or do you want to clean your room?)

  5. Thanks for the nice comments, everyone!

    @nicoleandmaggie, I'm with you on avoiding annoying shows. I actually sort of like Yo Gabba Gabba. I find it charmingly surreal. I like Elmo, too, so perhaps I'm just weird.

    Yes, we've seen Sid the Science Kid- it is great!

  6. Yes, it seems a terrible shame that kids dont seem to have the opportunity to play, and learn independently.

    This lady has a wonderful blog, not sure if you have read it:
    coming across some similar issues.

  7. Totally agree. I think people really over-worry about this stuff (enrichment, play classical music etc..) It's all fine and good but I really think that the kids will be alright. My parents did not raise us that way but theydid value education. Still, on a day to day basis, we watched way too much TV, including Gilligan's Island and later daytime soaps and MTV. Somehow all of us went to good schools, 2 went to graduate school, got good jobs etc.. We also did go to the library a lot but it was our own interest (nature, not nurture) since my parents did not read a lot.

  8. Yup - I agree that we need to loosen the hell up.

    We were at the beach on Sunday, and sat beside this mom and her two kids. She had them on such a tight schedule (it's time to put sunscreen on, it's time to go in the water, it's time to sit on the blanket quietly, it's time to have a drink of water), it was nuts! I felt bad for the kids (who were about 7 and 9, I would guess) because they had absolutely no say in what they got to do or when to do it. They looked incredibly bored --- AT THE BEACH. Sad.

  9. I can't wait for Tate to learn to read! So, so excited.

    When I have things to do around the house and I actually do them, Tate will play by himself or ask to help. If I don't, he sees a playmate.

  10. Kids need own time as much as we do, that's why I TRY ( although not always possible) to not interfere with them when they are playing or give them time alone in the yard ( safely fenced and child-proofed) without me or any intervention( unless they are up to too much mischief).

    Same in reverse. There are times where I need to do my own thing. Most of the time they are too absorbed by their own play to even give two hoots about what I'm doing. Sometimes they need a reminder. Still, they are at the age where they understand they have to respect mum and dad's 'me' time, like we try to respect theirs.

  11. that wasn't worded so well. I meant ...interfere when they are playing...

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  13. i agree whole-heartedly. f is in preschool 8-4 daily, and we purposely only have her in a 1/2 hr swim lesson once a week so that we can all have some down-time together. she also has never needed much sleep, so i feel you there. finally, f has been saying "break it down" a la DJ lance rock lately, which i love.

  14. the milliner12:15 PM

    These very thoughts cross my mind now and then when I'm not otherwise obsessing about something else.

    I've definitely caught myself in moments where I'm trying to ease the situation for DS and I realise that perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, it's not such a bad thing if he has something to get through or overcome. I blame part of it on my own inner drive to do things (including parenting) well (and whatever 'well' means in parenting terms), and so I will really get into the details of parenting and finessing my approach. The other part of the equation for me is that because DS is so sensitive, sometimes it's hard to draw the line between helping him address the situation while being respectful of his temperament vs. sheltering him too much.

    I get the occasional twinge of guilt too when we do 'my' activities as part of DS' activity time during the day. This morning we washed dishes (he plays in the 2nd sink while I wash) and then we did yoga. He did 5 sun salutations with me then started playing around with the pets while I did another 5. I do think it's good for him to take part in taking care of the house and like you mention, encouraging him to do yoga will surely have benefits. I think the guilt comes in when I feel like there's a lot of DS doing chore-type activities or my activities disguised as group activities, combined with screen time ( like @Parisienne Mais Presque), but not much 'play time', unless it's with me. He's not great at playing on his own. Slowly better, but not great. Some weeks are better than others. Ugh.

    I think that to a certain degree we all suffer from information overload.

    I can't wait for DS to read too. I think he will get into that in a big way. As for TV, I have absolutely no problem with DS watching some videos after daycare when I prepare dinner. He really needs the downtime and time alone. We could probably do a better job of setting tighter limits on the amount. But for now it'll have to do as other larger life issues are at hand.

    And yes, yes, yes on the sleep parallel universes.We're back on the 5am waking schedule and I forget how much this erodes my ability to function over time. It's less obvious than the multiple night wakings, so I usually go a while thinking 'why can't I get X done' before I realise that perhaps I need more sleep.

    I think the answer to your question is moderation. I think we can offer/do things our parents couldn't do. But there is such a thing as taking it too far. I kind of think we just need to keep the best from the past and add on with new information available now.

  15. @Cloud- so with you on the sleep. My children just don't need it. Bedtime is 9 on a good night. Wake-up often happens before 7. The 4-year-old doesn't nap and the almost 2-year-old still does... sometimes. It's not a guarantee. If anyone ever gives you grief about it, say that low sleep needs in children are often a sign of giftedness. It's true!

  16. I do think we over analyze it all. We seem to think, even subconsciously, that if we can just do these certain things we can guarantee our kid will be: smart, talented, successful, etc. I blame the internet. (I say that only 1/2 jokingly).

    But you nailed it that it's just kind of a gamble, this having kids thing. There's no guarantee that they'll turn out any specific way, even with all of our overly watchful eyes on them.

  17. I totally agree with you on the parallel universes thing. My husband and I have above average sleep requirements, and the little one has way lower than average - on occasion I've had her tuck me into bed at night! I've had to resort to going into my own room for "quiet time" and we often have everyone at home doing their own independent things instead of highly focused play-time. I'm an introvert (and I suspect she is too), so trying to spend all my down-time with her makes me frantic, miserable and exhausted. She deserves better than that, and so do I.

  18. Most definitely on the parallel universe thing for sleep! Add in the no napping toddler for my first, and it really was an incredibly different experience than those with good sleepers/nappers had! Last Saturday night, my kids were away and my sister and I went to a movie that started at 9:45! The only reason I could stay up for it was really because I hadn't spent an exhausting 2 hours getting two kids ready for bed. I had similar thoughts to yours ever since.

    As to our need to snap out of it... I absolutely agree, BUT I think there is an in between from the over-involvement and the "benign neglect" discussion that made its rounds a few months ago. My kids are amazingly creative and come up with such interesting games when they are allowed the free time to think and play together. But I'm only somewhat comfortable with the free-range parenting paradigm, since I know and remember some of what can go on when parents are uninvolved (and mine were not uninvolved, but I had friends whose parents were extremely hands off). There's got to be a balance, just like with everything else.

    And actually, I love the Montessori schools because I do feel they allow kids to do their own thing without intense structuring of the day and the lessons.

    @the milliner - Speaking of the Montessori method, they have a whole area of learning/activities that are basically household chores, including taking care of plants and doing dishes (called Practical Life). These are considered important learning activities that teach kids coordination and respect for plants and things, while also providing them the life skills that they'll need as they grow up. And most importantly? The kids often pick those activities simply because they are fun to do! So you aren't forcing him to do chores. You are giving him the opportunity to learn and play in a way that's fun for kids! ;-)

  19. Great post, as usual.

    I agree with everyone who said "moderation" is probably the answer. I don't think screen time is the devil, and yet I think kids benefit from adults having engaging conversations with them - but then again too much of either is probably suboptimal. I dunno. It's a crapshoot. I guess I try to ignore what I think other people are doing and make the kinds of choices that feel right for me and my kids at a gut level. I know I tend to err on the side of let's have more unstructured time outside. But really who knows?

  20. the milliner7:33 PM

    Oh, @Parisienne Mais Presque, I forgot to add one more thing to my already too long comment.

    ITA with the fact that "I think that our children learn more from our example than from any of the myriad attempts we make at 'enrichment.'"

    When DS (3) is done with the computer (laptop) that he uses on a coffee table pulled up to the sofa, he closes the screen, pulls out the (magnetized) plug and pushes the coffee table back into the usual position. He obviously does this as he's seen me do it many, many times.

    When he did it the other night, I said to DH "That is total proof that if we want DS to do something, we need to model by example." Not that it's guaranteed or anything. But I think it stacks the probability in our favour.

  21. the milliner7:38 PM

    @caramama, it's true, I had forgotten about this component of Montessori. DS was accepted to a Montessori pre-school/grade school for this coming year but have decided not to send him yet as I think he's not ready for their much reduced nap time. In the meantime, we'll keep doing 'practical life skills' at home :). Might as well take advantage of his interest in doing chores now while he's interested!

  22. bogart8:35 PM

    Oh, yes. Can we throw in some observations about introversion? I really do best if I have at least 2 hours/day (4 is better!) when I'm not working (job work or housework) and not interacting with other people. My DS, OTOH? Seems be an extrovert. And, yes, a good night involves his going to bed around 9 and sleeping until around 7, and once he's up, he goes nonstop, unless, if I'm unlucky, he naps, in which case he really might be up until midnight (awake, though in bed), and if that happens he'll nap again and -- woe is me -- the pattern repeats!

    We basically don't limit screen time. As far as DH's entire family is concerned, you simply have a tv on in your house all the time, so I'm just grateful we do better than that, as DH doesn't in the abstract see a problem with it (he also doesn't actually do that, at least). Also I've realized that DS won't really keep watching TV ceaselessly on any given day, even though DH (I am not making this up) will say, "Hey! If you [who have gone over there to play independently with your toys] don't get back over here, I'm turning this off!" Middle America: I married it. And yes, I have spoken to him about this but no, it doesn't help, or at least, hasn't eliminated the behavior. But hey, he's a loving and involved dad, so, whatever (see? blasee? I haz it.).

    I do worry that too much TV reduces the incentive to want to learn to read. But beyond that, as mom to an only, what really makes me crazy is, you can't just send your kid off to play (I mean, by himself, sure, but it's reasonable for him to want some human interaction also). By DS's age (4) I was certainly trotting up to the next-door neighbor's house, and vice-versa, to play with the kids there, supervised only in the sense that there was an adult in the house aware of our presence and checking in from time to time. Today it seems like everyone is so scheduled and/or in organized childcare and/or anxious that this just isn't possible. Playdates don't really cut it for me as a replacement: I'll drive, but I want to drop my kid at your house (or have you drop yours at mine) and leave (see above: introvert). So we end up paying for expensive preschool in part so that DS gets time with other kids. Or it's screen time, or DS wants to interact with us (again, no problem, except remember, there are 14 waking hours in every single one of DS's days). Yargh.

    But I do have my own time; DH takes 2 and I take one night/week when we just don't go home (well, he, who doesn't WOH, goes out, I just don't come back from work), and hang out, and do whatever (separately, the other one of us has DS, though we do also have occasional date nights). Really this has made such a huge difference to my sanity that it's not even funny. Oh, and I am getting to where I'll tell DS that I'm going out (without him) just because I want to and, basically, that I get some "me" time. Because, yeah, I'm the mom, but I'm also a person. And the older he gets, the easier it is to include him in stuff I enjoy, so there's that, too.

  23. I'm loving all these comments! But I had a very bad sleep night last night (Petunia pulled what my Mom tells me is an old trick of mine- waking up at 1 a.m. for a middle of the night party. She wouldn't go back to sleep until almost 3). I'm too tired to write thoughtful answers to everyone, so I will just say a collective thank you for such interesting comments.

  24. bogart6:50 AM

    Oh no! Sorry to hear that. Hope she doesn't make a habit of that. My DS did that exactly once, and it was utterly charming, in an exhausting sort of way. But certainly not something I'd want to experience regularly (or even that one time, to be honest, but as a memory it's quite sweet).

  25. The cycle of parenting deals with sleep or lack thereof. Infants is the stage where parents get less sleep and too many sleepless nights.

  26. Hah, found this today from your 2011 in Review post, and realized that I wrote a little bit about kids having their own downtime (and me needing mine) just today.

    I do think we take it so very seriously because we want to think we can do everything JUST RIGHT.

    One thing I noticed - BabyT doesn't give a hoot about Little Gym, or swimming lesson, etc. that we've signed her up for. The thing she talks the most about? When we took the bus downtown (to go to some kids' concert, which she also doesn't really care about). It was the bus ride itself that she loved the most.

    It's good to get that reminder from her sometimes - the most boring-sounding things can be super-fun for a little kid.


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