I am a 37-year-old doctor. My seven-year-old son idolizes me. I get very little time with him, so I do indulge him. The fallout, however, is that he doesn’t listen to his mother or grandmother, and pays no attention to their efforts to involve him in activities. Everything for him—fun, entertainment, outings, even studies—is pegged to my availability. How do I explain to him that his father is not Superman?
Children do build fantasies around a parent, particularly one who is not present a lot. Perhaps to make up for the limited time you spend with your son, you’re “dazzling” him with your company and spending what people like to call “quality time” with him—which means an overdose of toys, games, treats, excitement, interaction, all concentrated in very little time. For a child, this is like overeating rich food.
I’m guessing that this is largely what he associates with you—unbridled fun—and this gives him an unrealistic notion of what you are about. And so you seem to have become Superman, as you call it—someone who swoops down out of the sky, does impossibly great things, and leaves in a swoosh! No wonder your son is finding it difficult to enjoy the more steady, regular and available on-the-ground relationships with other family members.
Suit up: A real superhero doesn’t overindulge his children.
Kids need more ordinary time with their parents, rather than so-called quality time. Quality time is a concept that overworked parents have coined, not one that children really relate to. We’ve decided that it’s “quality” we’re giving our kids, this highly-concentrated tablet of relating and connecting! Of course, it is better than no time with your kids, but quality time is a highly overrated concept, and has a very limited role to play in your child’s life, if your idea of quality is concentrated excitement.
For instance, a child may be doing his homework on his own while you read quietly in another room: This is ordinary time, when you are not constantly interacting with him, but are available if he needs you. The time when you are available to your kids, but not necessarily fully engaged with them, is very precious time for your children—ask any child.
Assured, steady involvement rather than an overdose of “quality” inputs is one of the cornerstones of parenting, and nothing can change that, whichever way you slice it. Lifestyles and career choices of the last 50 years may have forced us all to think up “quality time”, and it may work in a limited way—maybe in corporate situations—but not with friendships, marriages, parent-child relationships or any other significant human interaction.
To get back to your son and his expectations of you. While you must be a very busy doctor, no doubt, perhaps it is time to:
u Consult your family about this, and consciously decide to cut back on your time away from home (which would perhaps translate directly into a cutback in earnings, and that’s your call).
u Make conscious efforts to be just a steady presence when you’re with your son, rather than a larger-than-life dad, a Santa Claus figure. Or, to extend your Superman reference, maybe it is time for you to become Clark Kent for a while. While he may protest initially, you’ll see that once he is assured of more steady time with you, he’ll calm down and become a sunnier child.
Bedtime with my six- and four-year-old boys is always a struggle. Some of my friends have kids who fall asleep by 8.30pm. Then, husband and wife get some adult time. In our house, the kids are up till we are up, so now both my husband and I end up having to go to bed by 9.30pm with them. But that, too, is a battle: getting them to wind down and get into bed. They go to sleep after much struggle. How do I get a grip?
Well, you may have friends with angels, but rest assured that there are plenty of other parents like you trying to get a grip on the bedtime battle. Many factors in your day contribute to bedtime becoming chaotic. Children this age are curious and active. And going to bed seems like an arbitrary, boring activity! But the fact is that children this age need, ideally, 10 hours of sleep. And parents of children this age need a couple of adult hours together, minus the kids!
Our children participate in so many activities in overstimulating environments these days that, by evening, many of them are hyper. Winding them down is difficult if you announce “pack-up time” at 8pm. The winding down process has to be started early. And, for this to happen, the first thing that needs to fall into place is a routine, a realistic routine. Overpacked and variable schedules do nothing for calm bedtimes. Our kids’ lives will become calmer when we become realistic about how many activities we schedule on any given day, and up to what time in the evening.
Children thrive on routine—not routines that are suddenly thrust on them, but ones that are gradually and artfully introduced by parents, from the beginning of the day really. In her book, Sleepless in America, writer Mary Sheedy Kurcinka says: “A good night’s sleep begins in the morning.” The emotional reserves necessary for children to cope with their day are the result of a good night’s sleep, which can only come from a well-planned day, she says. “Well-rested children are more patient, cooperative, flexible, tolerant, and able to inhibit.”
You’ll have to work it out backwards. Ask yourself, what time do I need to put my children to bed for them to have 10 hours of sleep? Once that hour is fixed, the next thing you need to do is have a cut-off time after which physical games, shouting, etc., are replaced with quieter routines such as reading aloud, music, talking about how the day has gone—you don’t need to make this all very grim and grown-up; it can be age-appropriate, happy conversation, but a low-key one.
Many kids protest strongly about going to bed because they haven’t had enough time with you. If you become fully available to them in a quieter mode on a regular basis, you may find that they will wind down and go to bed without such a fuss.
Also, do tell your kids that you and their dad need time together, grown-up time. This is something kids need to learn at an early age. If you can make the transition to a quiet, cozy bedtime, you’ll be doing yourself and your kids a big favour.
(Send your queries to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org)