Six weeks before our new baby arrived this spring, we put our eldest two children – ages 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 – into a bedroom together. We gave them three rules to follow: (1) no getting out of bed; (2) no craziness; and (3) quiet talking only. Things went surprisingly well for a while. The kids were pretty quiet after lights-out, and they fell asleep at a decent hour. And their being together in the early morning seemed to keep them occupied when it was still too early for anyone else to be up. We were pleased.
But then a few weeks after the baby was born, and more than two months after they’d moved into their new room, things started to go downhill. Big time. They were noisy and rowdy in the evenings; they didn’t fall asleep till very late (often more than an hour after bedtime); they came out of their room repeatedly for a host of reasons — to go potty; for a drink; to get “things they needed.” Because my husband and I were distracted by the needs of the new baby and sleep-deprived ourselves, we didn’t notice the situation creeping up on us. We were less likely at the end of the day, too, to be intentional about our parenting standards.
One evening, when I returned home from the grocery store around 8:45 to find our daughter out of her room for what my husband said was the fifth time, I suddenly saw the situation for what it was. Who had our family become? We had a problem here, and it wasn’t going away. It didn’t matter if we reviewed the three rules with the kids at bedtime or if we had them say them back to us; they were not going to abide by them. They just weren’t. Worse, I realized that they’d acclimated themselves to their time together in their room at night being unsupervised time, to the absence of Mom and Dad’s oversight. They could do basically whatever they wanted; it was a free-for-all! The disciplinary measures they were receiving for misbehaving were insufficient to curb the intoxicating pleasures of unmonitored life and general tomfoolery that bedtime brought with it.
I also realized that the overall rowdiness I was combatting all day long in our house was not simply a result of the transition we were all going through of adding another kid, as I’d assumed. A new tone was being set by the rowdy hour they were having together in the evenings (in addition to the early morning hour), and I was the victim.
So we had to take action. But how? Our disciplining the kids for their infractions was having zero impact on their behavior. As I was praying about it in the shower, I realized we had to back up and start over, implementing an entirely new regimen. We did it in two steps. Phase One: for three nights we separated the kids and had them fall asleep in separate rooms, moving our son back into his bed after both had fallen asleep. They fell asleep quickly and didn’t mind the separation as much as I anticipated; I realized how overtired their antics were making them both.Phase Two: we instituted a strict no-talking policy after lights out policy, which we enforced by leaving the door open a crack and sitting outside their room for half an hour till they fell asleep.
I was surprised at how angered our kids became by the constraints posed by phase two; my son went so far as to throw his stuffed monkey at me as I was sitting outside his door. He said I was acting like a king and he was a slave for making him lie quietly on his bed. I saw how engrained it had become for him and his sister that their room and behavior in the evening was their own terrain, and that parental obedience during that time was optional (at best). They were entitled to their post-bedtime freedom! Plus they didn’t actually know how to quiet themselves and fall asleep with another person in the room; they lacked that self-control. They weren’t yet old or mature enough to handle the freedom they’d been given, and we were all suffering as a result.
Within three nights, though, things were much better. I sat quietly outside their door and answered emails on my laptop or read till they fell asleep. Then I set up a baby monitor in their room so we could hear them after lights-out and continue to enforce the rules from anywhere in the house.
Again, as in so much of parenting (and life), it’s about accountability. Are the rules mandatory or optional? What can I get away with? Is anyone paying attention? If we want our children to follow the commandment of Ephesians 6:1 – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” – then we need to make it possible, even easy, for them to do so. Where we don’t, we are failing them. Where we don’t and then we become angry and exasperated at the situation (as my husband and I were prior to implementing the changes that we did), then we’re further failing them – even sinning against them.