Giving experts the Big Slammu

One sleepless mother finds that "expert" advice from parenting guidebooks, sensible and enlightened as it might seem, doesn't account for the mysterious nature of individual children.

By Beth Levine

Published March 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The bookshelves in our home look much like the bookshelves in most of my friends' homes. Dutiful, enlightened parents that we are, we've stocked up on every enlightened parenting book ever written. Each time my 4-year-old son, Levi, hits a developmental pothole, we race to our personal library of child rearing experts to read about how to handle, encourage, shepherd him through it.

Now here's the funny thing about all this: We are supposedly educated, intelligent people. So how come we don't simply admit that this expert stuff just doesn't work for us? It may work for others, but it doesn't for us. I have a sneaking suspicion that our son has been genetically bred to resist all rational thought. Case in point: Levi is suddenly not sleeping through the night. In fact, he is popping out of bed as fast as we can put him back in it. My husband, Bill, and I turn to the bookshelves. One expert suggests in cases of sleep problems that we create a chart to fill in every time Levi sleeps in his bed. When the chart is full, he gets a prize. It gives him a goal and a feeling of accomplishment, says the expert.

That sounds rational and enlightened, we decide. No screaming, no punishment. Just good positive reinforcement. Since Levi is enthralled with Street Sharks, a particularly repulsive subgenre of action toys, we decide he can work toward the next one he wants to collect: the Big Slammu.

Bill explains the deal. "If you sleep in your bed all night for a week, I will take you to the mall for a Big Slammu. OK?"

"Yeah!" says Levi. "Let's go get the Big Slammu now."

"No, you've got to sleep in your bed all night for a week. Understand?"

"Yeah! I sleep all night in my bed. Let's go get the Big Slammu now."

Bill sees he is getting nowhere. He makes up the chart in thick, red Magic Marker with a box for each day of the week. "OK. We'll draw a smiley face in a box every time you sleep through the night. When all these boxes are filled in, you can have a Big Slammu. OK?"

"Yeah! Let's go get the Big Slammu now."

"No. These boxes have to be filled in," Bill says evenly.

"OK. Let's fill them in!" Levi reaches for a marker to finish the job.

"No! You have to sleep through ..." From my perch in the other room, I hear a rhythmic thud-thud-thud, which turns out to be the sound of Bill banging his head against the wall.

Levi waits patiently until he's done. "Can we get the Big Slammu now?" he asks.

Miraculously, Levi does sleep through that night. He comes to us in the morning and asks, "When are we getting the Big Slammu?"

We repeat the details of our deal. Levi goes wide-eyed. "You mean, I've got to sleep in my bed AGAIN?" He is aghast, and shakes his head at the injustice of the world. That night he is back to his yo-yo act.

This has got to stop. It's not that we have anything fundamentally against having him in our bed; it's just that he insists on sleeping sideways so we inevitably wake up with his toe in one of our ears or his palm splayed across one of our faces. There have been more than a few mornings that have found Levi in our bed, Bill on the couch and me in Levi's bed. What's wrong with this picture?

Bleary-eyed, we return to the experts. If you are having sleep problems, find out what is bothering your child by role playing, suggests one. Use his stuffed animals. OK, I'll bite, I say.

That night, as we are having our good night story, I pick up Levi's stuffed Elmo doll and oh-so-innocently ask, "Elmo's daddy has been working late in the city a lot. How do you think that makes Elmo feel?"

Levi screws up his face in deep concentration. "How did his daddy get into the city?"

"By car."

"What kind of car?"

"A red car. How did Elmo feel? Was he mad? Sad?"

"My friend Adam has a car."

"But how did Elmo --"

"Paul does too. I think it's green," Levi adds helpfully.

CAN WE JUST FORGET THE CAR? Apparently not, as Levi takes me on a verbal tour of the entire nursery school parking lot.

"Well, that was really successful," I tell Bill when he returns that night in his red car that is not Adam's and not Paul's and certainly not Melanie's which is a minivan and why don't we have a minivan, Mom, because you know, Mom, it would be really neat if we had a minivan, Mom. Mom?

Pushing onward, we decide that Levi is having bad dreams, which, all experts agree, are very common at his age. One advises to let your child feel in control. Make up a basket and tell your child that it is a dream catcher that will take away all his bad dreams. OK. So I pull out a toy bucket, tie a big ribbon around it and present it to Levi at bedtime.

He looks at me as if I am slightly dense. "Mama," he explains very, very slowly and patiently, "you can't catch dreams. They aren't things."

I'm beginning to realize that the problem with all these experts is that they promise quick, unambiguous fixes but there is nothing quick or unambiguous about children. Each child has his own quirks and moves in his own mysterious way. The advice that works for one kid may miss completely with another. If these experts don't know my child, me or my husband, how can they possibly know for sure what is going on in our hearts and home?

In the end, the advice that makes the most sense comes from the most obvious source: another mother who has been there. Forget dreamcatchers, puppets and the like. She gets down to brass tacks: "If you don't want him in your bed, is it OK if he's in your room?"

"Sure, why not?"

"Then let him sleep in a sleeping bag beside your bed."

Oh. Huh. Now why didn't I think of that? There is no complicated psychological problem going on here. It's quite simple: He wants us and we want sleep. Find a solution that meets both our needs.

Nowadays, Levi starts off in his own bed so we can at least read and have ... uh ... other intimacies in our own room, but in the wee hours, if he needs us, he's got us. And he can sleep upside down like a bat, for all we care; Bill and I no longer wake up clinging pathetically to our respective edges of the bed. Everyone's happy and, best of all, horizontal when horizontal behavior is called for.

I am not going to toss the expert books out entirely. They are good for general guidelines, for background information, for spurring my own inspirations and OK, sometimes they do hit the mark. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, when something is going on that is unique to our son and our situation, I am going to turn to my new panel of experts on this game show called Stump the Parents: other parents, and that rarely-used commodity -- my own common sense.

It's 3 a.m. and Levi calls to us. I spread out the sleeping bag and guide him into it. (It's an occurrence, by the way, that is happening less and less often.)

"Good night, sweetie," I say as I clamber back into bed.

"Good night, Mama," he replies. He waits a moment, letting the soothing darkness lull us. Then he adds, "Can I get the Big Slammu tomorrow?"

Only if I can have one too, I think to myself, as I slip gratefully back to sleep. Heck, I'm so happy, I feel like giving the whole world a Big Slammu.

Beth Levine

Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman's Day, Family Circle, Sesame Street Parents, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday.

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