The Wrong Story

One of my best friends in the world is having trouble with her son and his terrible sleep habits. She hadn’t asked me for any help, but she told a terrible story on an email list we’re both on (hey Kids Born In 1993, we used to use email lists to talk to large groups of people! Hey, people born before 1950, email lists are things that people born between 1955 and 1990 still use to talk to large groups of people!) about how she ended up in the hospital with a bladder infection, cause somewhat by 18 months of crippling sleep deprivation.

I did what any friend would do, I wrote a long email explaining exactly what she was doing wrong and how to fix it.

What is amazing to me is that I had the presence of mind NOT to send it. I spent about twenty minutes furiously typing out my astonishing expertise on what she, a mother of her own 18 month old, living in California and working full time – and, oh yeah, six months pregnant with her second child – should do as a parent to get more sleep, and then somehow I managed to NOT be a dick enough to send it. You know what I thought of doing instead? This is what an asshole I am, I thought of sending the email TO HER HUSBAND. Because I didn’t want to step on her toes, poor dear, but I was sure her husband could shepherd her through these disasterous decisions she was making.

Now, I ended up not sending it to anyone, I deleted it, and despite the rest of this story that was the exact right thing to do. This woman is 40 years old, in perfect health and is running a large non-profit in California. I have sought out her advice for every grant-and-job application I’ve filed in the last god-knows-how-many years, the very idea that my extremely limited parenting skills should be foisted on her, unrequested, is really the height of disrespect to a person that I regard more highly than almost anyone else I know.

Now, what happened is – she called me and asked what she should do. I told her that I didn’t want to say anything because I don’t have sure-fire answers and the whole thing is really delicate and nobody knows a kid as well as their parents do… She essentially said, “Oh for the love of… I’m exhausted, I haven’t slept in 18 months and I just got out of the hospital with a bladder infection, can you please just help me fer chrissakes?”

There is a difference between discipline and humiliation. If your child breaks the rules, then they have to be told that they broke the rules and they have to deal with the consequences, and for everyone this is different. Some parents very sweetly take their child aside and explain to them that a *better* way to do something is to do it according to the rules, and that way everyone’s happy. Some parents just give their kid a swift hand to the butt. Honestly, I don’t know which approach works better, I know that all the books say that spanking doesn’t work but somehow we survived two hundred and fifty thousand years of human development surrounded by crushing violence and cruelty and everyone made it just fine, so who am I to judge?

I’m embarrassed to admit, my tragic flaw as a dad so far has been misunderstanding that the long talk about the rules is equal to attention, and kids love attention and affection, so what happens is this – your kid acts like a little shit and in return he gets to have a five minute talk with you in your sweetest voice. It took me a while to realize that what Barnaby hates the most is isolation. Now, when either kid acts like a little shit, they’re sequestered, they get put in a room and we leave. That’s discipline, for us, that’s as bad as it gets. And it only really happens when the kids are shitty.

In my book, waking up at 4 in the morning is shitty. It’s bullshit. In our house, nobody’s awake between midnight and six, those are the rules. I break them all the time because of insomnia, but I’m sure as hell not gonna wake up Jordana at 4 to sit and talk (the way we both used to before we had kids). When Barnaby was about seven months old, we set up the rules (although it was more like 5 AM back then). But when Barnaby cried in the middle of the night, we did nothing, we let him cry.

Because HONESTLY, as a parent you have to ask yourself, “what am I, BATMAN? Is there really a four AM problem that only *I* can solve? An emergency drink of water or my child will have malnutrition? Is he gonna be on a shrink’s couch at 40 because I didn’t give him a hug in the middle of the night? I mean… if that’s true, then I have a child that is simply *not gonna make it in the world*”

Now humiliation isn’t discipline. Humiliation is when you scream at your child at the top of your lungs, when you spit out the things she’s doing wrong and follow it with a punishment delivered with disgust. Humiliation is a totally reasonable tool, but you have to look at it like military intervention – a last ditch when diplomacy has failed. You have to use it only in times of hideous actions on the part of your kid. If your kid is supposed to be brushing their teeth and instead they’re doing a naked interpretation of The Nutcracker in a full length mirror – and they’ve been doing it for ten minutes despite the number of times you’ve asked them to brush their teeth – humiliation is NOT necessary and you’ll dull its use later. If your kid is dicking around and runs out into the street in front of a car, then humiliate the SHIT out of them, make sure they know that this rule, when broken, will lead to them being DEAD.

And here’s what’s ridiculous, everything I just said is more than likely wrong for anyone else’s kid. I mean, look, when I talked to the woman who called, I explained to her about how our sleeptraining worked and she tried it and, at least for the first two nights, had good results. She was sad because her 18 month old is now rejecting her because she’s the disciplinarian, but when the second baby comes along that’s all gonna change… and plus, these are kids, they’re lunatics, it could all change by *Saturday* with no explanation.

When I was explaining this, I said, “If a kid comes home with a bad report card and you punish him, that’s good parenting. If a kid comes home with a good report card and you celebrate him, that’s good parenting. If a kid comes home with their report card and you don’t pay attention when they try to give it to you, that’s bad parenting.” And I totally patted myself on the back for how goddam WISE that sounds.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized, I’m an idiot. Your kid brings you his report card, and you’re in the middle of working so you tell him you can’t pay attention right now. The take away from that might be “there is a time for work, and a time for us to talk and if I don’t make time for my work then it won’t get done.” What better lesson for a kid with a good report card, that time spent working is *valuable*, and that you honor their homework and reading time in the same way that they ought to honor yours. Or, on the other side, what better lesson for a kid with a bad report card, that prioritizing your work schedule means you accomplish more.

Even though she called me, and even though my advice worked for two days, it was still the right decision to keep my damn mouth shut about how to raise her child. Parenting is rollerskating down an endless flight of stairs holding a dozen puppies, if you think you have any idea how someone else is negotiating it you are probably somewhere between exactly right and dead wrong. And that’s about a hundred times less useful than your silence.