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The stickiness of sticker charts

December 1, 2009

The kids seem to have kicked the night-waking habit, thanks to the siren song of sticker charts. And though seven hours of uninterrupted sleep is required for my basic sanity (who knew?), sticker charts have proved to be, well, sticky. Unlike my friend Sue’s daughters, who see the glossy stamp by their name as prize enough, Col and Rose are hustlers for rewards.

I wish “behavior modification” was as easy as it was for my 85 year old friend Alberta instructing her dog Chuck to “go lie down.” If stinky, arthritic Chuck tarried a nanosecond on the way to his bed, Alberta would hoist a rolled up newspaper threateningly above her head. And Chuck’s overgrown toenails would tap-tap across the linoleum as he limped a bit faster to his bed. And as much as it often feels like I’m spending the day with unruly canines (“leave it!” I’ll call to Col as he’s headed right for the unidentifiable puddle of muck), if I were going to stoop to the newspaper trick, I might as well just spray the kids with water bottles for their misdemeanors.

The tricky thing about sticker charts is the whole reward thing. I mean, isn’t it best if Col and Rose sweep up their ticker tape parade of paper shards from their recent “scissor work” for the pure joy of being helpful? And then there’s the nature of the rewards. Rose’s first 3 nights of staying in her bed all through the night netted her a smoothie from a local coffee shop. Turns out Dan treated himself and Col to a smoothie too, and well…$12 later, maybe not such a good idea. Or my snafu of promising the kids a ride on the Polar Express Train for ten stickers, when we actually bought the non-refundable, non-changeable tickets a month earlier, and my parents were scheduled to take the kids while Dan and I had a date, and we sort of needed them to get those ten stickers. Sticky.

Did we miss a week there? Always slightly behind the curve, are we.

But there’s this other shred of hope that they’re learning some self control, some delaying of gratification. I picture them waking in the night and weighing their options on the balance scale of their mind. The Polar Express train ride plummets one metal pan to the ground. And back to sleep they go.

Col recently told me this convoluted story about how sometimes he wakes in the night and goes out to the living room couch and has a little rest. “And then when I’m done with my couch nap, I turn on my light and go back to my room and play.” (Col, 4 years old, is completely unreliable. He told my parents that there was a birthday at his preschool and everyone got cake except him. This was after mentioning to them that the teachers hit him. “They hit everyone!” He relayed cheerfully. His clever grandparents called him on the fib and Col admitted “I just like to say things different sometimes.” God forbid he’s ever on the witness stand).

But then, last night at 2 am, lo and behold, I found his lean body all snaked out on the couch sleeping. And I suppose the temptation to wake us up in the night gets him as far as the living room, and then he thinks better of it and hops up for a “couch nap.” He’s like the reformed bank robber who still likes to wear the ski mask around the house on weekends.

But now that we’ve got night-waking licked (can you believe I said that? It’s like last night when we saw three fat raccoons hump-backing down our street and I said “why haven’t they found our chickens?” And Dan looks at me like: blasphemer!), we’re onto new, exciting issues here; namely the very early waking of a 2 ½ year old girl. What tugs her eyelids open at 5:00 am is a mystery of science, but she’s consistent. And so am I. I haul Rose back to bed, insert her back into her cave of blankets, pat her down in a way that I hope is soothing but may win me a contract with airport security. And at this point she and I both know that there will be no more sleeping.

I burrow back into my bed and place the pillow over my head in that precise location that shuts off my mind. Minutes later Rose is back by my bedside, wondering if “da sun is up,” which means free access to nursing. I scoop her up into our bed, all big-eyed, warm and fluffy like an owl chick puffed out in the night. She scritches around, her fleece covered limbs scratching my bare back in a not altogether unpleasant way. Dan groans, scoots away from us and annoyingly goes back to sleep. Rose snuffles around like a truffle-hunting piglet trying to push past layers of soil, and if she were a teenage boy she’d start chanting “Boobs! Boobs! Boobs!” But that little Rose, she plays her cards right and asks to “hold you hand Mama?”

And I replay the wise words of writer and Zen teacher, Karen Maezen Miller from her manifesto How to Make Childhood Last:

Let your children wake you up. Better yet, let them drag you out of bed. How much of your life – how much of their lives – do you spend in this ceaseless struggle to get more sleep? Give up already. I promise you, one day too soon the house will grow empty. Then sleep will once more evade. Seize the day! Seize the night! This divine mission to bring us into full awareness of our lives is the reason your child has come. So crack a lid and get this party started. If you could just once see the exhilarating potential they wake to every day, you’d know why children don’t want to waste a minute to slumber.

I love these words, and Karen’s inspiring book Momma Zen. But I also sort of want to ask Karen, “did you mean even at 5:00 am?”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Crayton permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:28 pm

    Rachel, I love your blog! Amy had sent me a link to your newspaper column but this is even better. I love reading about the Rockies, another family who butchers their own meat, and your mom adventures.

    Chris Crayton (Murphy, NC)

    p.s. did you really say that you were done with night waking?? are you crazy?

    • December 1, 2009 9:15 pm

      Chris, so glad to hear you’ve been reading!

      We’ve been enjoying some South Carolina whitetail, courtesy of the Chambers family.

      And smite me for even implying night waking was a thing of the past.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    December 1, 2009 10:35 pm

    Thanks for this, Rachel. I went to the blog link for the 5 Ways to Make Childhood Last. I have printed it out and will keep a copy on my fridge and posted at work. These are good words to live by, and I clearly need to be reminded of them everyday. I get too frustrated and time is passing me by too quickly – I need to step back and take a breath. thanks, as always :-)

  3. brigid permalink
    December 2, 2009 1:05 am

    I think Karen would allow for some wiggle room on the 5 am piece. My youngest is 4, but a few months ago they were in our bed every night and NOT sleeping. the girls would roll into one another and then fight. Argh. Several nights Scott and I went and slept in their beds.
    Yet, somehow, my sweetest memories are of holding a sick baby all night alone in and oversized chair. Watching Claire’s chest rise and fall marveling at how she has morphed from baby to child overnight- the shape of her beautiful square baby teeth, her wispy blond hair wrapped around my finger, reading novels after putting children back to sleep at 3am, a shot irish whiskey at 4 am to help me fall back to sleep because I was desperate- The naps I took with the girls while tandem nursing next to an open window in May, nailing Isaac’s window shut at 3am because he was scared of the witch from wizard of OZ coming into his room, Kathryn’s toddler night terrors about Swiper the Fox. Yet, for all those wonders there were days I thought I would crack from lack of sleep.

  4. December 2, 2009 11:52 am

    I’ve considered some kind of reward thing for the getting up too early issue, but for other stuff, the books I’ve read and parenting classes I’ve taken claim what it sounds like you’re finding: that doing something for a reward wipes out intrinsic motivation. So then kids don’t learn to do the “right” thing b/c it’s “right” but just because someone is looking. And then they do something else when you’re not!

    I do think sleep might be a different category, though. If I could just get myself to bed earlier…

  5. December 2, 2009 3:15 pm

    Yeah, we are locked in a very unsleep conductive game of musical beds in which every member of the family must wake in a different bed then they went to sleep in. At this point I’ve just come to yield to the whole upside down dysfunctionality of it. But then there’s days when I can hardly string to two half-sensical sentences together and I think, “Damn, a good night’s sleep would be really, really nice.”

  6. December 2, 2009 4:00 pm

    Oh Katie, that reminds me of when Rose was a night-waking baby and Dan and I would start the night in bed together, Rose was in the kitchen, and Col in his room. By the morning Rose was in our room, I was in Col’s room and Dan was on the porch. Somehow it all made sense at the time.

    Sleep! Isn’t this a basic need? Or a right? Or something?

  7. Barb permalink
    December 2, 2009 4:34 pm

    I used to think a lot of the restlessness came before or during some kind of growth spurt. It was clearer when they were infants – they’d get fussy for a couple weeks then be “stable” for a while. kind of.

    but by toddler and kid time it’s much much harder to tell cause there’s all that emotional and intellectual and spiritual growth going on! Like after a week or god forbid more of 5 a.m. risings, will Rose have morphed into some new stage of toddler being that we don’t really see or understand?

    I think Col must be full of tall tales cause he lives in the mountains. And if no one has mentioned it lately, the pics are always beautiful. Thanks.

  8. December 2, 2009 4:40 pm

    I didn’t say you have to like it! I only mean you can’t fight it, because the fight never ends.

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