Why I Struggled to Discipline My Kids During the Pandemic
YouMy 2.5-year old son was five months pregnancies when I made the transition from his crib to a toddler’s bed. Although he was to become a big brother, the change was inevitable. I wasn’t tired of lifting him up over the railing which caused a bend motion that gave rise to second-trimester heartburn. He’d always struggled with transitions, hadn’t slept through the night until close to 2, so I was ready for a battle, and determined not to let my own feelings about the seismic shift he didn’t know was coming affect my resolve. My husband and I would be firm and kind, and our son would ultimately learn—if it took a few nights of screaming and tears, we’d suffer through them. This was how we’d worked through his other anxieties, like having his fingernails clipped and being dropped off at day care, the sort of short-term pain, long-term gain that helped us all grow.
Of course the pandemic followed. Instead of tucking him into bed and walking out, I found myself resting on the floor night after night, becoming increasingly uncomfortably as my due date approached. But I was certain that he would need me, and this was the right thing. Similar approach was taken to treats and television. He asked me for fruit snacks once a day and I started to say yes. They brought him joy, and who was I to deny him that at a time when he couldn’t go to school, see his grandparents, or have playdates? I’d been worried about adding a sibling, but now his whole world had been upended, as had mine. I promised myself that when this was over, I’d return to the discipline and structure that I knew helped him thrive. My toddler winning our fights might be an interim solution.
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Now, fast forward to 2022. My daughter was born June 2020. We’re still fighting a pandemic. Yesterday night, she cried because she wanted a television show. It turned out that I was also up for most of the night reading about the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion and what it might mean for her civil rights. Concerning climate catastrophes that could have catastrophic consequences for her life. Information about racist manifestos. Concerning another rise in COVID-19 related cases. Concerning the deaths of 19 students, 2 teachers and other staff members at Uvalde High School in Texas.
She was my first instinct, and I did not want to disappoint. My instinct was to coddle, to indulge, and to offer another hug. Look at what she’s losing. You can give her the gift right now. These are the little things that she deserves. Over the past two years, I’ve said yes to hundreds of extra desserts, at least 20 new Hot Wheels cars from the dollar bin at the pharmacy, 20 more minutes at the playground that inevitably lead to naptime meltdowns when we’re thrown off our schedule. Although I knew I was wrong, I just wanted my children to feel happy. Then I thought about the cavities the dentist found in my now-5-year-old son’s teeth because I’d stopped fighting him on late-night gummy vitamins and flossing.
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It’s one thing to give in to a toddler’s desires in unprecedented times, but what are we to do when there’s no end to the unprecedented? I’ve been in crisis mode for my daughter’s entire life, but my adult feelings about social collapse don’t correspond to what my children need from me. Children need love and to be loved. They need to be safe and fed. We’re the ones with nuanced, complex emotions about global events. We’re the ones processing our guilt and fear and helplessness. Of course acknowledging my small children’s feelings and helping them work through them is important, but there’s a danger in projecting my own disappointments, or even successes, onto them. My toddler is very frustrated. But it isn’t because of Alito’s draft decision on Roe V. Wade—it’s because she’s 22 months old and doesn’t want to go to sleep.
As a parent, I need to recognize that doing right by my kids won’t always align with what makes me feel slightly better about the world burning around them. This has always been a truth of parenthood, but as the flames inch ever closer, we are grappling with increasingly complicated feelings about the inheritance we’ll leave. I’m trying to remind myself it’s alright to disappoint my children, it’s alright to parent them. No matter if they have to wake up at 3 am, the future is here. The only way I’ll teach them the resilience to face our world and the empathy to change things for the better is by saying no even when I wish they could have everything.
“It’s nighttime, and at nighttime we sleep,” I told my daughter last night as she demanded Daniel Tiger. She fell asleep. I gave her an embrace to calm my nerves and soothe hers. “I hear you,” I said through her tantrum until she had settled and I could go back to my own bed. She won’t remember the tears, yet hopefully this lesson will stick with us both.
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