Dear Dr. Dan,
My wife and I cannot seem to resolve a parenting issue that we have debated about for many years. In short, I believe we should establish a firm bedtime for our young children. My wife has never supported this idea (we have argued frequently about it) and has always used the phrase “your father wants you to go to bed” as a way to inflict guilt on me.
Our children typically blame Dad for wanting to send them to bed earlier than they would like. I believe I am exercising judicious parenting by setting limits on how late they stay up. My frustration and anger keeps building, and I would like to find some common ground, but we can never get past the shouting to discuss a compromise.
There are a few ways to address this problem and none of them have to do with bedtime. My first question is, what is the real reason you and your wife have been arguing about this for so long, and why this issue?
Like most marital arguments, this one appears to be about control. And like most marital arguments about control, probably each of you feels the other has more power. Inevitably, these issues break through the surface around the children.
So let me offer you some questions to think about: Why have you been debating this for years? Do you have a sense about why you are both holding on to this issue? Perhaps you two could talk about the overall quality of your marriage.
If the roots of the problem are not too deep, often if you take a few minutes each day to be alone with your spouse and just talk about your lives, and possibly go on a weekly date, that can be helpful. Sometimes, between the children and the demands of life, spouses simply lose touch with each other. However, if these simple things don’t help, please consider marital therapy.
But there is more that can be done to help your family. Whether your children go to bed earlier or later will not affect the quality of their lives or their character. And while you are arguing over bedtimes, think about what you are role-modeling for your children.
Part of the reason you and your wife fight is because you love your children and love or loved each other. You want your family to be whole, healthy and safe. So what happened to the love, and what can we do to turn it into something that can make your family healthier and happier?
I have often thought that opposites could solve our problems. If we feel like we need to be heard, perhaps we should try listening. If we feel tight, withholding and judgmental, we should be more generous. If we feel we need love, we should give love. And if we tend to think about the small picture (like bedtimes), perhaps we should invest some time and energy working on the big picture (like hunger or homelessness).
Arguing about bedtimes is an act of a closed heart. Making plans to help feed the homeless is an act of an open heart. Steven Post agrees. Post is professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, and President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. He says there is ample research that correlates generous behavior to better lives.
Most parents want their children to grow into adults who are kind, generous, openhearted and make a contribution to the world. So what will contribute to that end?
In Philadelphia alone there are about 24,000 homeless people. One-third of them are children. These are people who are hungry, ill, cold or scared. These are people who also feel alienated and alone. Multiply this number by hundreds, and you will get a sense of the people in our community who could benefit from our help.
Therefore, I would like to see all four of you do something active to help people in need. For example, as a family, you could collect food for your neighborhood food bank and then help distribute it; or you could help cook or distribute food at a program such as MANNA, which distributes meals to homebound people with AIDS; or “adopt” an animal shelter.
If you do this as a family, you will feel a part of the larger world, and you will feel better about yourselves. You will also be teaching your children lessons they desperately need to learn – about freedom and responsibility, their intimate relationship with the larger world, and, most important, what it means to open one’s heart and experience unselfish compassion and altruism.
Post said, “If we can open ourselves to others, it can help us be less self-absorbed. And through that, we paradoxically learn deeper and important lessons about who we really are.”
Research at the institute has shown that when adolescents are exposed to altruistic mentors who demonstrate care and generosity to a group who needs help, the children become more generous, feel better about themselves, and perform better in school.
These are the shortest days of the year. They are dark times both literally and metaphorically. The mood of the world seems dark and prone to violence.
You can’t stop war and hunger, but your family can bring some light into these dark times. With your commitment and love for one another, you have the ability and responsibility to bring more light into the world.
If you do, you will all rest better at night – whenever you go to sleep.