Sunday, July 29, 2012

Choices, Consequences, and a Peapod

Jeff and I do not subscribe to any one system of child rearing. We’ve gleaned ideas from multiple sources, incorporated some ideas into our parenting repertoire, and discarded others. One of the main ideas that we have kept is the idea that children should be taught from a young age that choices have consequences. (One system that clearly articulates this idea is Love and Logic, although we do not go as far with it as they do.)

In keeping with our desire for Alexa to develop good decision-making skills, she is allowed to make age-appropriate choices. She chooses her clothing from a pre-selected set, she often (but not always) chooses what she’ll eat for meals or snacks from a selection that I offer to her, and she frequently is offered the choice to walk or be carried, to have help or to do it herself, or if she wants Mama or Miing-Miing or Daddy to change her diaper.

Just from the choices I’ve listed, you may notice one key element of this strategy: Alexa does not choose from infinite options—she chooses only from options that are acceptable to us. She does not have a choice in whether or not her diaper will be changed, only in who will change it. She does not have the option not to go where Mama needs her to go, only in whether she’ll walk or be carried.

The other key element of this strategy is not immediately apparent: Once Alexa makes a choice, she is stuck with it, within reason.  If she chooses leftover gnocchi for lunch instead of leftover pizza, she is not allowed to take two bites of gnocchi and then switch to pizza, or to take two bites and be done with lunch and ready for her snack. Instead, she is told that she needs to eat the lunch that she has chosen, and if she chooses not to eat, then that’s okay, but if she eats anything at all before supper, it will be the lunch she chose. (We do not hold food over from one meal to the next; undesired breakfast gets tossed at lunch and so on, but she isn’t allowed a snack between meals until she’s eaten the meal.) I say that she’s stuck with her choice within reason because there are exceptions—if she’s never had a food and chooses to try it, we allow her to eat something else if she realizes that she doesn’t like it; the one time that she chose to wear her rain pants instead of cotton pants, we allowed her to change when she realized that she didn’t like how they squeak (although we wouldn’t allow her that option again; instead we remind her that they squeak and ask if she’s certain, and so far, she’s always changed her mind when given the opportunity).

As Alexa has grown and developed, the range of choices we allow her to make has increased, and it will continue to increase as she continues to grow and develop. In this way, we give her experience in making choices and safely expose her to the reality that choices have consequences. Our expectation is that by allowing her to make age-appropriate choices and deal with the consequences herself, she naturally will begin to think ahead and consider the consequences before the choice is made. Of course, we’ll need to prompt her to do that at first, as we do when we remind her that the rain pants squeak, and as we’ll eventually do when we remind her that taking a jacket on a warm day means that she’ll have to carry it herself, and not taking a jacket on a cool day means that she’ll feel cold.

And we do deny Alexa the right to make certain choices. She does not choose whether or not to take a bath, whether or not to have her diaper changed, whether or not it’s time to go to bed. If I cook dinner, that’s what’s for dinner, period. When we offer Alexa a choice, she has a choice; when we do not offer her a choice, then it is a foregone conclusion that things eventually will unfold as we have directed—whether that means that her diaper is changed while she screams rather than while she cooperates, or whether that means that she obeys after a spanking instead of obeying without a spanking. This, too, is a lesson that it is important to learn at a young age: We do not always have a choice in what happens to us, but we have a choice in how we respond to it and often in whether or not we make it more difficult than it has to be; even when we do have a choice, the consequences of one choice often are severe enough that it feels as though we don’t—consider the consequences of defying a legitimate order from a police officer, for example.

At the same time, there are things that we, as parents, have to recognize that we cannot force Alexa to do, even at her young age. We cannot force her to eat—we can deny her the ability to eat by withholding food, but we cannot force feed her if she is determined not to eat, at least not without the risk of physical harm. This reality is a primary reason why we developed a strategy for handling the situation when she refuses to eat meals!

We also cannot force Alexa to sleep. We can force her to stay in her crib (at least for now, until she develops the ability to climb out of it), and we even can force her to lie down, if we’re willing to stay with her and physically hold her down. But there’s no point to that, even if we were willing to do it, because she will not fall asleep until she’s ready. We sometimes can’t force ourselves to sleep, much less force her to do so!

And that is the problem I’ve been considering for the last few days. Alexa falls asleep easily in her bed now, after some sleep training using a method written about by Jodi Mindell and recommended to me by a friend who just happens to be a sleep expert. But we’re going to be traveling later this year, and Alexa’s crib cannot come with us. Alexa is sensitive about where she sleeps, and in the past, she’s always slept with us when we traveled. (We had a travel crib, but she never would sleep in it and now she’s too big for it.) Sleeping with us is not a workable solution anymore, however; lately when we’ve tried to bring her into our bed after a nightmare or after she wets through her diaper, none of us are able to go back to sleep—the last two times we’ve tried, we’ve ended up putting her back in her bed two or three hours later, after all three of us have lain in bed awake and fidgety. So we’ve had to come up with another solution.

Alexa's Peapod
Our solution of choice is the Peapod. This tent is lightweight and folds down to almost nothing, making it perfect for air travel. It has an inflatable mattress in its own zippered compartment, which provides a comfortable sleep surface. It has walls and a zippered flap, allowing both easy access and safety, since we’re concerned about Alexa crawling out and roaming around an unfamiliar environment in the dark. And the walls all have large mesh sections, allowing for breathability and enabling us to see in and Alexa to see out.

Sounds perfect, right? Alexa thought so—she crawled in, brought her babies in, even lay down in it. And then she realized she was sleepy. Out she came. We asked her if she’d like to sleep in the Peapod. “No! No sleep Peapod!” she wailed. Ok, ok, no sleep Peapod! We decided to let her get more accustomed to the Peapod during her awake times before asking her to sleep in it.

Why the Peapod went away
A few months have passed since then. Her response to the idea of sleeping in the Peapod: fear and wailing. We eventually put the Peapod up, because we were getting nowhere and the cats wanted to claw it. Alexa had not seen it or heard it mentioned in several weeks. But I’ve been thinking about it. We need this to work. Just yesterday, I posted on my Facebook status, asking for advice. This morning, Jeff and I were discussing the replies, trying to decide what to do.

Alexa must have heard us.

When it was time for her nap this afternoon, she didn’t want to sleep, although she obviously was ready. I followed our normal naptime routine: change her diaper, say goodnight to Daddy, and rock while Mama sings, then prays, then sings some more. Finally, before she falls asleep, she gets put in bed.

Today, when I told her to say goodnight to Daddy, Alexa said: “Peapod!” She started trying to get into the closet, where the Peapod has been living. Jeff and I asked if she wanted to sleep in her Peapod today. “No sleep Peapod! Peapod?” Translation: “No, I don’t want to sleep in it, but I do want to play in it!” Nope, not an option.

We continued with the routine. As I put her in bed, she suddenly started crying. “No sleep! No sleep!” A few seconds later, she realized that I would not be taking her back out of bed anytime soon, and she changed strategies. “Sleep Peapod!”

Time for a quick consultation with Jeff. It was obvious that she was stalling; she’d let us take her and her babies out of bed, put the Peapod in the crib (we’ll get her used to it in a familiar sleep location before we move it to the floor), put the babies in, and then she’d announce that she didn’t want to sleep in the Peapod after all. We knew she’d do this, and we didn’t want her to develop negative associations with the Peapod and never choose to sleep in it again, but we very much wanted her to sleep in it. We decided to preserve some choice at this point, not to force her to sleep in it, but make it clear to her that if she chose to sleep in it at naptime today, she would stay in it during all of naptime today.  We made that decision as clear as we could to a two-year-old, and she insisted—“Sleep Peapod!”

Peapod in the crib
So out came Alexa and the babies, in went the Peapod, in went the babies, and—“No sleep Peapod! Sleep bed!” Just as expected. Nevertheless, in went Alexa. “No sleep Peapod!” We rubbed her back for a minute, told her we loved her, and left the room. A quick consultation in the hall decided that we’d follow the same routine we did when we accustomed her to her bed. At this early stage, that meant that if she was still crying in five minutes, we’d go in and comfort her for a few moments.

Five minutes later, Jeff went in to reassure Alexa that she was safe and we were close by. He found all of Alexa’s babies—maybe 14 of them today; she sleeps with as many as we’ll allow—on the floor. Apparently she’d had a bit of a temper tantrum. He put her babies back in the Peapod, told her that if she threw them out again, they’d stay out, comforted her for a moment, and left.

To our surprise, we didn’t hear another peep from her for almost two hours—a normal nap time for her. Jeff went to get her, and I found her a few minutes later in the playroom, happily playing in her Peapod.

The goal: For this to be real, not pretending!
This is a great start! Our strategy for building on this progress is to put her in the Peapod in her crib for naptime every day—no more choices about that for now. Once she consistently falls asleep in it without protest, we’ll start zipping the flap. Once she’s used to that, we’ll move the whole thing to the floor. When she can sleep in the zippered Peapod on the floor for naptime, we’ll have her sleep there for a few nights. After that, we’ll offer her a choice of her bed or the Peapod often enough to keep her used to it, and if she doesn’t choose it, we’ll make the choice for her as necessary.

So today was a double-win day: Alexa had a lesson in accepting the consequences of her choices, and we got her started on a path toward sleeping in the Peapod. Choices, consequences, and a Peapod.


  1. Love how you do the choice thing :-) And glad you've made progress w/ her sleeping in the peapod.

  2. Thanks. I think the choice thing is quite possibly the most powerful parenting tool we've acquired so far, especially since we're doing it in conjunction with helping her to realize that sometimes she really does just have to obey.

  3. I love the choice thing. If I can ask, what is your method for eating when she decides not to eat? Feeding my daughter is the absolute biggest problem we have with her. She just doesn't want to eat sometimes, even when I KNOW she's hungry.
    And we tried the Peapod on an overseas vacation when our daughter was 12 months old. It was a complete disaster and I ended up with her in the bed with me and hubby on the floor. Not optimal. You are definitely doing it the smart way. We will have to try again with our daughter a month or two before our next trip!

  4. Hi, Heather,
    The way our schedule usually works out, we only eat at the same time as Alexa at supper. At breakfast, I've found that if I try to make her eat when breakfast is ready, she won't eat. But if I allow her to stay in the playroom, where she is while I prepare breakfast, then soon, she'll come into the kitchen on her own saying that she's hungry. That's when I feed her breakfast. Usually I've already eaten by then, but Jeff is still in the shower, so I sit at the table with her while she eats. If by chance we are eating together, like we do on the weekends, then she stays at the table until Jeff and I are done, whether she eats or not.

    At lunch, she eats around 11 or 11:30, because she sleeps at noon. That's just too early for me, so I sit with her while she eats, then I eat lunch later. So if she doesn't eat, I just put her plate in the fridge and get on with getting her ready for her nap. If she refuses, she doesn't get extra playtime out of it, just a more drawn out diaper change/say good night nap routine.

    At supper, we eat as a family. If she refuses to eat, she sits there while we eat. I will admit to fudging a bit at supper, though--no one wants to be woken up in the night by a hungry child! So sometimes, if I know she wants something like fruit, which is a healthy dessert, but she needs to eat some dinner first, sometimes I'll do the "five more bites and you can be done" thing even though I know that 5 bites is nowhere near enough to be a meal. But even when I really want her to eat something, anything, we do hold out for her to eat some of what was put in front of her, because we believe the principle is worth the effort. And if she really refuses to eat, we provide the opportunity to fill up on milk instead :)

    I will say, though, that I'm not sure we'd use this method if Alexa was underweight. She's at a healthy weight right now and growing well. If she was underweight, we may feel more of a need to just get her to eat, even if it did mean preparing a separate meal for her. This method also works well for us because Alexa isn't picky--even when she's refusing something, she almost always has eaten it well in the past, so we know that she just doesn't want it, rather than not liking it. And she almost always eats if she's hungry--I can count on one hand the number of times when I've been confident that she was really hungry, and yet she refused to eat. Those times were much more difficult for me as a mom than the times when we'd simply allowed her to snack too close to meal time, or to fill up on milk.

    But to answer your actual question :), we eat when we need to based on our schedule. If it's a time when Alexa should be eating with us, she sits with us until we're done, whether she eats or not. That does help cut down on the "I'm hungry but I'd rather play now" refusals, if that's part of what you're encountering. And, as difficult as it would be for the whole family, if that became a problem, I may consider the "Eat or not, but if you refuse to eat now, there isn't another chance--it's now or not until dinner" method. I'd have to think about that for a while first, but I can see myself going there eventually if it became a real problem. (Again, assuming she isn't underweight--then I'd have to consider whether she could afford to skip meals.)


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