With all of the hype about consistency and boundaries, it's easy to forget that our children are people too. All children, even newborns, are, in fact, already people. We are born with personalities, likes/dislikes, uniques needs, things we find comforting/irritating, ways of expressing all of these things and a biorhythm. Too often we get sucked into the idea that we have to tell a newborn/infant or toddler when to sleep, when to eat, when to get cleaned: the idea that we have to set a schedule for them. But if we take a different point of view, if we allow ourselves to realize that the baby isn't actually much different from ourselves (save the fact that the newborn needs us to actually fulfill all of their needs for them), we start to see that it's ok to let them lead.
Trying to make any person, even a baby or toddler, sleep when they are not tired, is a futile and frustrating exercise. It eventually leads the caregiver to one of two things:
1.the realization that by looking for clues that baby is tired and putting them in a comfortable, safe environment for sleeping at that moment leads to peaceful sleeping,
2. an increasingly aggressive search for some "method", some way of imposing sleep on an unsleepy person.
So why do we insist on imposing nap schedules?
Trying to make any person eat when they are not hungry is likewise an exercise in futility and simply leads to frustration all around.
So why do we insist on having "meal times" when everybody is required to eat at the same time?
Trying to make a person eat food they do not like or do not want is actually kind of mean. I mean, do you regularly eat food you don't like or don' t want to eat? Probably not. Not often anyway and not by choice. Perhaps if you are at a work event and that's the only choice you have. But if it becomes a regular event, I guarantee you will find a work around: some way to make sure you have something you like to eat and want to eat in spite of the circumstances.
So why do we insist on forcing children to eat what we've decided to serve without any input?
Why do we insist on acting like prison guards? A friend of mine recently commented that, having served a short sentence, she realized how easy it is to get used to being told when to sleep, when and what to eat, when to exercise, when to learn, and when to socialize. The experience created a sort of inertia in her. Coming out to the real world again was therefore stressful because all of a sudden she had to make decisions for herself again.
So isn't that what we are doing when we impose caregiver-defined schedules on our young ones? Aren't we taking away their sense of agency? Aren't we telling them that it doesn't matter what they want, that an adult has not only the right to decide for them , but that they don't even need to pay attention because there will always be someone there telling them when it is time to eat (hungry or not), time to sleep (tired or not), time to take a break, time to get clean etc? Then we get annoyed when it becomes the time that we've decided they are supposed to be self-sufficient but they have neither the desire nor the ability to make those judgement calls for themselves.
Aren't we just setting ourselves up for disappointment and feeling like we have to become helicopter parents, following our children to college to make sure they get up on time for class? Perhaps, it's time to forget the schedules and to give our children the experience of being people first.
I know, you're saying, "but what about structure? what about family meals? I 'm not going to be a short order cook? I need my time to get things done!"
Here's my point of view:
1. Children already have built in structure. They will want to eat, sleep, play etc. at roughly the same times of day until they reach a new developmental stage. At that time, things will shift but they will shift into a new predictable rhythm. You just have to be willing to flexible, to shift with them as they grow. This also teaches them about being flexible with their wants, an important lesson for later in life.
2. Family meals are indeed important once a child is in school and spends the majority of time away from the rest of the family. It's great if you can get your young child to sit with you while the rest of you eat. They may not be ready to do that though. Reacting punitively simply makes them not like meal time. Besides, often the very young need to eat long before the rest of us are home and dinner is ready to be eaten. Making them wait is does not help them develop the ability to recognize the feeling of hunger and satisfy it. It is possible to introduce things like family meals as your children grow into needing them. If you children have siblings, it's not unheard of for parents to explain to an older child that something is not age-appropriate yet for their younger sibling.
3. There is no need to be a short order cook to satisfy everybody at the same table. First, taking a poll of who would like what to eat, allows you to get a sense of what will be consumed and what will be left. That doesn't mean that you should take orders and make separate meals for each person. But you can use it to put together a meal that has something that each person was looking for or for serving a more flexible meal. This might look like serving spaghetti with the sauce on the side for those who don't like sauce, undressed salad so each person can decide which dressing they want, or providing the makings for sandwiches but allowing everybody to choose their own bread product, sandwich fillings and condiments. In my house before we were ever parents, we often ended up making 2 separate meals anyway because my husband wanted to eat something I can't eat due to food intolerances. So why would I make my child eat something he doesn't want when I don't make my husband or myself do that?
4. You'll get more done if you spend less time trying to jam your child into a mold. If you let them lead, they will sleep better and longer which in turn allows you to do what you need to do. If you give them food they want at a time when they want it, you will spend less time preparing food that gets thrown on the floor and then cleaning it up which in turn gives you more time to do what you need to do.
Remembering that they are people too will make your day go much smoother and teach them to be self-sufficient people as they grow.