A few of my Twitter followers asked that I elucidate on “ten lists” I’d turned out recently. Here goes with the fourth installment of my first list: “Things That Make Parenting Easier”, based off my ten-plus years being a devoted and hard-working parent. I hope you find it helpful. That is the only point of this post. To help those who could use it.
Each post will have a picture from my life, my day, when I wrote the post. So from this afternoon: my daughter does the dishes. She’s wearing a hat I made her last night while her friend was over. She is amazing at the dishes. It seemed like for so long it was more work to TEACH my kids how to do a chore (let alone MAKE them do it), but then suddenly they could and wanted to do so much on their own. Trusting kids, and having the long view. That’s kind of the theme of this piece.
This is probably the most controversial of my posts in this list so far, if I go off the commentary I regularly see from adults on the subject of kids’ sleep and kids’ schedules and kids’ food. These topics cover a lot of ground and I’m not going to write some massive manifesto here. I’m going to say a few words about what I’ve observed, then speak from first-person about our family experience.
A little Problem Statement about the backdrop of raising a family. Our culture promotes the scheduling of children’s activities, full-stop. In most families the parents/carers decide just about everything about their kids’ schedules, whether by true necessity, convenience, preference or ideology; our family is a little different as we constantly work to relinquish this cultural edict of Control. On the subject of food, the United States is built on what many would consider an unsustainable model for feeding our population in an ethical manner. Some people have far more resources than others; and those with fewer resources are often villianized and condescended to. We are also an obesity-shaming, orthorexic country who promotes disordered eating and pushes fad diets daily. Our grocery stores are stocked with diet foods and convenience foods and magazine racks full of celebrity-shaming headlines honing in on these public women’s bodies. Our children are exposed to constant messages that their bodies are flawed, their appetites are shameful, and food should be consumed at our convenience with a minimum amount of our effort and respect.
There is very little I can personally do to change those massive realities listed above.
But, I don’t have to. I will just write a bit about where we’re at today.
Regarding sleep. We honor our kids’ autonomy as much as we can reasonably bear. As infants and toddlers, I abandoned setting their naps and schedules. It was exhausting and seemed cruel to everyone. I found they would fall asleep when they needed it, or give me signals they needed rest. I also learned that allowing them to sleep, or not, according to their needs gave me a greater presence in caring for myself. Instead of knowing I’d get free time at a certain hour and working myself to exhaustion in anticipation of that final “break”, I learned to listen to my own signals and rest a little more when I could. Not artificially imposing strictures on another’s life made me care a bit more for my own. I wasn’t a perfect adherent to these principles, especially given I was and am surrounded by people who not only schedule their kids’ lives but vociferously tell me why they do and sometimes, why my family should. Still, we had enough success honoring our kids’ sleep needs and adjusting our life to the realities of caring for small children that it gives me confidence to continue this way.
Today, sleep freedom includes allowing the kids to set their schedule and sleep when and where they want to. I remember when we first “allowed” them the option of staying up all night. Shit got weird. They would stay up all night. But oddly it was pretty chill. They’d take a nap. They were thrilled to have that freedom; reading a book or playing a game or doing art whenever they felt like it, alone until the wee hours. It was pretty thrilling.
That stage of all-nighter didn’t last though. For the last couple years, the kids have slept when we did, without any enforcement, fights, or complaints. They sleep beautifully, can sleep at other people’s houses and at camp, et cetera (there are some houses they prefer not to sleep in), and are well-rested. Not having to get up for school, they awake in the morning and cuddle with myself, their father, the dog, the cat, or one another. They sometimes get breakfast for one another or curl up with a book. When they’re ready for the day, they brush their teeth and wash their face and get dressed. Our mornings aren’t rushed and our nighttimes aren’t crabby.
Regarding food. We honor our kids’ autonomy as much as we can reasonably bear. This means we provide as well-rounded, ethical, and nourishing food as we can. And then we let them eat what and when they want.
We are not a family who can afford an all-local all-organic diet. But we are a family who can support those things to an extent. We are also a family who wants to let our kids enjoy their childhood; part of that is eating 7-11 hot dogs or ice cream or a huge bowl of popcorn. Or Halloween candy until they puke. On the Halloween candy subject, our son Nels did throw up one year… the next year he trick or treated and refused all candy, with a weary shake of his head and hand and a “No thank you.” Ha! I think he was four, which means he remembered the incident of the year previous when he was three. In subsequent years, he’s been very moderate in his candy consumption, on his own accord. No lecture required during any of this.
Our kids did odd stuff around food freedom now and then, but not as much as I would have guessed. I remember once my son filling a Chinese restaurant teacup with sugar and taking a spoonful. I even took a picture (he was also wearing a Hawaiian dress and had marker makeup on). I can’t find the picture now, sadly. Anyway, he didn’t repeat the experiment.
Our kids eat a variety of foods. So far today they’ve had apples, bananas, bacon, eggs, toast, and a smoothie with homegrown blueberries, raspberries, yogurt, and banana. At this moment they’re at a birthday party, so they’re probably eating pop and hot dogs. They love to eat at a variety of restaurants and order off the adult menu. Sometimes they devour a new dish with gusto – Phoenix is every enamored with Thai rad nah, lately, and Nels loves sushi rolls. Sometimes in a restaurant they order a large exotic dish and decide they don’t care for it. Which is kind of like, what we adults get to do. It’s really fun to watch them enjoy a huge variety of food. When I was their age, I’d go to a Chinese restaurant and order a burger.
I could talk a lot more about food and sleep. I encourage anyone with a specific query as to how they can employ their ideals within the confines of their current lived reality, to email me. I’ve written and helped many parents who’ve asked (and several childfree who had questions).
At this point, I’d like to close with a few comments about kids’ freedoms in general.
It is useless for me today to try to control every preference and freedom my children have. It is counterproductive and it is a lot of work. It does not teach them self-control; precisely because it is imposed control. Even “successes” at controlling my kids are likely to create within them anxieties or even resentments. Ralph and I can lead with the best conscience and actions our situation provides us. We’ve built a single-income life that prioritizes our kids’ greatest freedoms. There have been many ups and downs and no shortage of financial difficulty. But the freedom we enjoy today is wonderful.
I can’t program my kids to have the habits I want them to, the food or environmental conscience I think is best, the values I think are right, et cetera. I influence my kids a great deal, but to enforce my values on my children whenever I feel like it, or whenever it suits my convenience, runs so many risks I am no longer willing to make that a way of life. There are always, and I mean always, solutions to letting go mainstream parenting edicts. I am grateful I no longer have the illusions of Scarcity and I do not dwell on non-choice.