On Saturday night, Kevin and I went to our friend’s 40th birthday party and left our kids home without a babysitter. We have left them before for short stints – Jacob is 12 and Kathleen took the babysitting course – but never for a whole evening. We fed them, gave them the rules around treats and answering the door, and said goodbye.
Two hours later the phone calls began.
Kathleen: “Could the neighbour come over?”
Me: “Yes. If her Mom knows that we are out.”
Jacob: “Could I go for a bike ride with the boys?”
Me: “No. You are the babysitter.”
Jacob: “But you’re not paying me.”
Me: “The answer is still no.”
Although we thought about turning the phone off, as we were having a really good time with friends, we didn’t want to cut our kids off completely. Besides, we felt like we were handling the calls well. We were good parents for encouraging independence.
But later in the night, the calls took a little twist – Kathleen made little whimpers and Jacob was annoyed. They both wanted to know:
“What time – exactly – will you be home? We can’t fall asleep until you are here.”
And the mother guilt set in… It is not often that we are out on a gorgeous night, outside with a live band, and fun people, dancing. But it is not ever that we have asked our kids to put themselves to sleep. What was the right thing to do?
They were calling every 20 minutes, and I wanted to go home to make them feel better. Kevin thought I should tell them to “Suck it up, buttercup.” The latter was the general tone at the table. One father of three told me this, “Offer your daughter five bucks to put herself to bed and not call.” I was shocked. But then another father, who hadn’t heard the first bit of advice, told me this, “Tell her she’s fine, and if she goes to sleep and stops calling, you will give her twenty bucks in the morning.”
When the phone rang again, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bribe Kathleen like that. I reported back to the table that the kids would probably call again. I was bombarded with feedback:
“It is okay to motivate your kids with cash.”
“Money makes the world go ‘round.”
“Would you go to work if you didn’t get paid?”
I was torn – I want my kids to be happy and safe and secure, especially my little girl who should be fast asleep by 10:00 pm. But I also want them to learn independence and resilience, and in learning these skills, they might be faced with discomfort and anxiety. So what was right in this situation?
This parenting dilemma is perfectly articulated in an article in this month’s Atlantic Magazine called, “How to land your kid in therapy.” (If you read one article this summer, make it this one.) Lori Gottlieb turns to many of the parenting experts out there to examine current trends. Gottlieb argues that today’s parents are more motivated by what’s best for them than by what’s best for their kids. She writes: “In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do—and some letting go.”
I am not a parenting expert, but I can tell you that I am satisfied with what I did. I decided that night that my well-being included a fun night out, and the kids’ well-being included the experience of getting over their fears and putting themselves to sleep.
So on the next call, I reassured Kathleen that she was okay. She told me she knew she was okay, but she would just prefer me to be home. I felt that – don’t-manipulate-me-little-kid-feeling. And then I offered her the ten bucks to go to sleep and not call again. Jacob immediately got on the phone.
“What deal are you offering Kathleen?” I filled him in.
“Okay, Mom. For $20 bucks each, I will make sure she goes to sleep and doesn’t call again.”
Can you believe that?
Jeff Blume, a family psychologist with a busy practice in Los Angeles, told Gottlieb: “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient. If we want our kids to grow up and be more independent, then we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.”
When we finally got home, both kids were, indeed, asleep. Except for the 40 dollars, we felt like we had done the right thing by not going home early. (But I figure the $40 dollar bribe is still less than what I would have paid a babysitter.)
We found them sleeping together in our bed – so they obviously took comfort from each other and maybe even collaborated. That made me feel good. And when we went to pick up Kathleen to move her back to her own bed, we also found that she was clinging to a frying pan. Now that made me feel full of confidence in her future.