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Why Kids Act Out at Bedtime (And What They Really Want From You)

bedtimedadflanaganWe’re in a mad scramble to get to a guitar recital on time. My oldest son is trying to find a recital worthy shirt that isn’t a) crumpled on his floor b) covered in mysterious stains c) too small or d) all of the above.

My wife is giving the babysitter a speed tutorial while our younger son tries to get their attention by making all of it as hard as possible.

And I’m in charge of putting my youngest daughter to bed. We do our routine, and I ease the door shut behind me, secretly impressed with myself for getting my task accomplished so quickly. I join my oldest in digging through drawers for a decent shirt.

It’s dawning on me that he needs new clothes when, from the corner of my eye, I see my daughter slip out of her bedroom and walk toward me. I look up, and I almost blow up.

In the few short minutes since I tucked her into bed, she has covered herself from knee to toe in black, permanent marker.

I choke on my rage, knowing it won’t do anyone any good, and it mutates into a question through gritted teeth: “Why did you do that?”

I hear the question coming out of my mouth, and it sounds completely asinine. I know the answer. I know all she wants is to make life harder for me, to show me who’s in control, to invade what little margin I have left and take it away from me.

When I talk to parents, I hear a lot about naptimes and bedtimes. An urgency comes over parents at these times. We’ve given and given and given and now we’re about to get a little space for ourselves. We’re going to have a moment or two to attend to our own agenda, our own wants, and our own needs.

And yet, these are the moments when our children become most needy. They want another story, another prayer, another glass of water. They get scared of the empty darkness and the imaginary creatures it contains. They finally decide to open up about their day.

Or they cover themselves in marker from knee to toe.

“Why did you do that?” I hear the question coming out of my mouth and it sounds ridiculous. But my little girl doesn’t think so. She looks up at me and with complete sincerity says, “Because I wanted you and Momma to come in and clean me up.”

Because I wanted your attention. Because I want you to see me. Because I want to know I’m important to you. Because I want to feel like I belong to you. Because you are my mom and my dad and that makes you the two most important people in my world, and I want to feel like I matter as much to you as you matter to me. And I will do anything—anything—to find a way into the center of your world.

Bedtime is like a little leaving—a temporary separation—and our children don’t want to go, because they cherish us so deeply. As parents, this is not our first reaction when the bedtime resistance begins. Because it’s hard to get our minds around how fond our children are of us. And I think it’s hard to comprehend for at least three reasons:

1.     Sometimes, we aren’t very fond of ourselves. We can only believe others love us to the extent we are capable of loving ourselves. If we don’t cherish ourselves, it’s hard to believe our kids cherish us the way they do.

2.     We have forgotten the beauty of the first moments. The kid covered in marker is still the kid who was covered in childbirth. She may be a little more autonomous. She may be a little more rebellious. But her most important questions remain: will you hold me and protect me, will you nurture me and feed me with your love?

3.     We are avoiding our own pain. Sometimes, we don’t want to feel the disappointments we have with our own parents. Touching our own painful history can hurt, so we avoid it. Yet, by avoiding it, we also avoid admitting to ourselves just how important a parent is in the life of child.

So, tonight, when our children walk out of their rooms covered in marker, let us see the message written there between the lines: “Momma, Daddy, I’m especially fond of you. There is no one else like you in my life, and I just want to know there is no one else like me in your life.”

And as we wipe away the ink on their legs, let us also wipe away a little bit of our own self-rejection, a little bit of our own pain, and let us step fully into one of the most sacred roles we will ever live.

Parent.

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