Giving Children More

By Teresa Pitman
Issue 84, Fall 1997

mother and sonWhen one of my friends discovered that I made lunches for my teenage children every morning before school, even though I am also rushing to leave for work, she was horrified. “They’re old enough to be making their own lunches,” she said. “You shouldn’t do things for them that they can do for themselves.”

Yes, they can make their own lunches–and other meals, too–and they often do if I am kept late at work or am busy in other ways. They also do their own laundry and help around the house. But making their lunches is one way I can give them more than they have asked for–and I’ve come to believe that this kind of giving is an important way of demonstrating love.

I first discovered this principle when my oldest son, Matthew, was about 13 months old and I was pregnant again. I was feeling tired and sick much of the time, and tending to my rambunctious toddler wore me out even more. By bedtime, I’d fall asleep exhausted, only to be awakened three or four times every night by his persistent requests for “rummies.” In the morning I often felt even more exhausted than I had when I’d gone to bed.

My friends, relatives, and physician all had the same solution: wean him. I knew I had to do this gradually, so I tried to distract him when he seemed to be thinking about nursing, arming myself with a repertoire of toys, songs, and games, as well as appealing snacks and treats. When I did nurse him, I would try to end it quickly, saying, “All done now!” And he did cut down his daytime nursing–only to step up the frequency at night.

Next I tried to discourage him from nursing at night by gently saying, “No” or “Nummies are sleeping now,” and rubbing his back, in the hope that he would go back to sleep. But the more I tried to push him away, the more desperate to nurse he became. After a few weeks of this, he was nursing five or six times a night, instead of just three or four, and I was worn out from all my efforts to distract him.

Finally, one night I said to him, “I’m going to nurse you so much you won’t be able to stand it.” During the day, instead of trying to distract him, I began to offer nursings frequently. If he so much as looked at me, I lifted up my shirt! Any sign of tension or fussiness brought an offer to nurse. At night I slept topless so that he would have easy access whenever he wanted to nurse. And instead of trying to keep his time at the breast short, I’d cuddle with him, talk lovingly to him, and let him nurse as long as he wanted. In fact, if he let go, I’d ask him if he wanted any more.

At first, I think he was amazed. He eagerly climbed onto my lap to nurse every time I offered it and asked frequently in between. The first night he probably nursed ten or 12 times, more than he had as a newborn. But after three or four days, a funny thing happened. Matthew began to say no sometimes when I asked him if he would like to nurse. Now that he knew he could nurse any time he wanted, he didn’t want to so often. That sense of desperation that had bothered me was gone. He nursed less frequently at night, and by the time his baby sister was born, he often slept all night without it.

I think that we are encouraged to give our children as little as they will accept, especially our babies. If they don’t insist on being carried around, leave them lying in a carseat or crib, people will say. When babies cry, plug in a pacifier first before feeding–and wait until they spit it out and cry really hard before you do. If you can distract your toddler with toys or crackers, then nursing is not necessary. The toddler does not really need it.

But I believe children deserve more than the bare minimum we can get away with. It is doing those extra things that convey love: picking up your child for a cuddle just because you love to see that smile. The fact that your baby will sit alone in a crib without crying or protesting doesn’t mean it’s a good experience. And when I respond only to my children’s pleas or demands for attention, doing only what they ask for, they feel that I am giving to them grudgingly, and that they may need to step up the intensity of their demands to ensure they get what they need.

Consider your relationship with your partner. If you ask him to kiss you and he does, that’s pleasant. If he does the dishes when you ask him–even if he does them with a few complaints–you appreciate it. But how much more valuable are those kisses given without being requested! Don’t you feel far more pleased when he notices, without your saying a word, that the dishes need doing, washes them all, and then takes you and the baby out for dinner?

I experienced another vivid example of this notion when Jeremy, my youngest son, was five. I had recently divorced my husband, and the four children and I were learning to get by independently. Jeremy had been sleeping alone for about a year, but when we moved into our new home, he wanted to return to my bed. I let him sleep there for a few nights, but then I thought he should go back to sleeping on his own. To help him make this transition, I would sit beside his bed and read him stories or lie beside him until he fell asleep. I also tried letting him sleep with his siblings or on a mattress on the floor beside my bed. He rarely protested but made it quite clear that he really wanted to sleep with me. I was often tired and frustrated, and sometimes he still crawled into my bed before morning.

This went on, I am embarrassed to say, for a couple of years. At that point–anxious to make my evenings easier–I suggested an alternate-night routine. One night Jeremy could sleep with me; the next night he would sleep in his own bed.

It worked . . . sort of. Jeremy would happily climb into bed with me and sleep soundly on the nights he was allowed to. Even then, though, he knew this was a compromise, something I didn’t really want. On the alternate nights, he would say (with a big sigh), “I guess I have to go to my own bed” and look at me sadly.

Finally, one night I glanced at his dejected face as he trudged off to his bed and realized what I was doing. I pulled back my comforter and said, “Come on.” He looked at me, stunned. Then his eyes lit up.

“You really want me to sleep with you?” he said. I nodded. He climbed into bed, snuggled up to me, and fell asleep with his face still glowing. I lay awake for a long time, thinking. I had heard the wonder and delight in his voice when I had invited him to sleep with me. Why had I spent so much time and energy trying to get him to sleep alone? It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to sleep with me–in fact, I probably rested better with him next to me–it was just that I thought he was too old to be sleeping with his mother. I was worried about what other people would think. When I saw how happy it made him, I resolved to welcome him into my bed every night for as long as he wanted.

Jeremy slept with me every night for more than a year. During that year he made remarkable progress. The divorce had been more difficult for him in some ways than it seemed to be for the older kids, and he had been having trouble making friends and settling in. But his happiness at being able to sleep with me seemed to rub off on all other areas of his life, as well. His schoolwork improved, he made a whole batch of good friends, and he started to participate in other activities.

Eventually, my son decided he didn’t want to sleep with me anymore, even though he will still occasionally return when it is cold in his room or when he’s not feeling well. He knows that he is welcome anytime.

And the lunches? Although my mornings are very busy, I continue to prepare the lunches for my children to take to school, despite having experimented with a different routine. A couple of years ago, we were visiting friends who had a schedule of chores for each child–a schedule that included making lunches. Each month a different child was responsible for preparing meals for the entire family to take to school or work. What a great idea, I thought. My kids agreed, so we tried it for a year. They took turns making lunch, doing an excellent job and giving me a little more free time in the morning.

Still, I did not feel happy about it. I finally realized that I wanted to make lunch for my children. I liked sending them off each day with a meal that I had lovingly prepared–making sure Lisa had enough lettuce on her sandwich, that Danny had crunchy, not smooth, peanut butter in his, and that everyone got a little treat. It was a small effort, but it was a way of expressing my love for them. So even though they were willing to continue doing this task, I decided to assume the responsibility again.

Now I’m back on lunch duty, meaning my mornings are more harried. That’s balanced, though, by the resultant feeling of contentment that I carry with me throughout the day, and by my children’s smiles as I hand out the lunch bags as they run out the door.

The lunch story has an interesting follow-up: Last April, I fell down the basement stairs and broke my ankle in three places. After surgery, I was in a cast, immobile for two months. Every day at noon , my 15-year-old son, Dan, rode his bike home from school to prepare my lunch and serve it to me in my room.

Yes, I feel like he loves me. Love is a verb, not a noun; and it’s giving a little more than we have to that makes it love in action.

Teresa Pitman is the mother of Matthew (20), Lisa (18), Dan (15), and Jeremy (12). She lives in Oakville , Ontario