A bowl of oil. I’m just glad I asked. Even at 4 years old, my son taught me an important lesson that day. Apparently, kids have their own thoughts. And apparently their thoughts are not what their grownups think they are.
For months we struggled with bedtime. As we saw it, this behavior could not be tolerated, and it had to change. Afterall, we needed our sleep. But he wasn’t having it. We had so many theories of what was wrong. As you can imagine, with every theory came a different trick or strategy. A hug, a scolding, a pill. Nothing worked. Why, I thought. What is wrong with my child? Why won’t he just go to sleep?
Then one day it hit me. Just ask him. When the moment was right. While riding in the car, I casually asked him, “why won’t you just go to sleep”? And just as casually, he told me. He explained that he was afraid that his sister was going to be eaten by a bear. Ok. Now see, I never thought of that. Who would have thought of that? A 4-year-old, that’s who.
At this point, I’m just downright curious. I asked him, “what should we do?” Apparently, he knew exactly what needed to be done. In order to protect his sister, we needed to put a small bowl of oil outside of her bedroom window. What a relief this must have been for him. We had no idea he was carrying this burden all those months. All we seemed to care about was going to sleep. More importantly, he had bears and the safety of his sister to worry about. And no one seemed to care. He had the solution, but no one thought to ask him. No one was listening.
Fast forward to today, ten years later. These two are still reminding me to ask and then be quiet and listen. Even when I think I am, unfortunately, it often turns out that I’m not. Child Psychologist Dr. Ross Greene refers to this in his books. When the child is not meeting our expectations, we as their grownups can become focused on ourselves instead of them. We can begin to think that either they or we must try harder, and then comes the punishments and the bribes. Or we, as their grownups, can get busy with how their behavior is reflecting on us, which often leads to stronger, less tolerant solutions having very little to do with the child’s problem. Despite our best intentions, we can sometimes make their problem and their response to their problem even worse.
In the case of my son, no hug, scolding, or pill was going to help protect his sister from being eaten by a bear. As long as that was the case, he would continue to be afraid for her. As long as we didn’t ask, and we didn’t listen, he had to stay awake to protect her. All our going on and on about our precious sleep and how important it was, was only more proof to him that we cared nothing about his sister. That meant that it was up to him. He was on his own. What mattered to us was not at all what mattered to him. Until we asked the question. Oil in a bowl was all it took. And it worked. He slept. Not because we told him to, but because he finally knew, we didn’t want his sister to be eaten by a bear any more than he did. He could rest. And finally, so could we.