I Know Stuff . . . And My Toddler Spits in My Face

I know all the stuff so that I SHOULD know what to do, but none of this knowledge prepares me for managing the mystery that is a Toddler.

My charming 2-year-old son (almost 3) is on a sleep strike. Our previously routinized bedtime has turned into at least an hour of chaos. This has morphed into a boycott on naptime.

I know stuff as a child psychologist. I know stuff as a parent of three, with this darling as the youngest.

I don’t know what to do.

Full disclosure: My husband is also a clinical psychologist trained in children and adolescents – we met in our graduate school program. So we are actually TWO child psychologists as parents. We know stuff. But right now, it feels like we are complete novices.

Routine? Down to the minute. It’s how we survive as a family of five, and my husband and I are natural creatures of routine. Guess what? Routine means nothing when the Toddler breaks all its rules: throwing books during story time, leaving his room without any regard for the natural boundary that is the door, saying “I don’t want to [insert part of routine that he has done for many months].”

Fears? He says he is scared and I believe him. His mind has grown to understand fear and that he is alone in the dark. Addressing fears? I do this for a living. I help many families with this in their children. Comfort; nightlights; talk of bravery; I handed him my own pajama shirt so he could feel close to me. He handed it back and said, “I don’t want this.” He’s not buying what we’re selling -- he just wants US to stay in his room all night.

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Not happening.

Basic behaviorism? We are so darn good at this – we can do rewards and consequences in our sleep (if we got enough sleep). This is how we figured out how to get him to wait until after 6 a.m. to come in our room every morning – a prize box. He found an electric Shimmer and Shine toothbrush he desperately wanted. We implemented a sticker chart to earn this toothbrush considering the extent of his motivation. Our first night was an abject failure as we yelled “DON’T YOU WANT YOUR STICKER?” while he thrashed his determined body in the hallway.

Today at so-called “nap,” I stood on the other side of his door as he cried and kicked. This is after Daddy did a 20-minute pre-nap routine and I laid with him to rub his back and help him relax. As I held the door and stayed calm, I thought, “I have no idea what to do.” When he quieted, I opened the door and he asked for a kiss. I leaned down close to pucker up, and he spit. In my face.

It reassures me to know I am not the only parent to feel stuck; sometimes there is just not an answer or quick fix in this wide, weird world of parenting, and kids do change quickly. We may just have to accept long bedtimes and non-naptimes right now until he gets to the next phase. It’s not an “answer” we like in our culture of problem-solving and outcomes and effectiveness.

Parenting is the last area to try and feel “effective” – I learn over and over that’s a futile road to guilt and feeling like a failure.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It means we lose some of our grown-ups-only evening down time that is so precious to us. But when there’s a choice between heightening power struggles (toddlers always win) and let's daresay, “leaning in,” maybe acceptance helps us get through to the other side just a little bit saner. And let's not underestimate the value of sanity.