Friday night we went out to eat with the kids to AJ’s current favorite watering hole: Cracker Barrel. While my favorite foods are spicy Thai curries, the rest of my family prefer blander fare. Well, Jen likes Italian and TexMex quite a bit, but the kids? Oh, mac-and-cheese or boiled eggs is about as sophisticated as their palate gets. So, southern-style cooking is just fine for AJ and Elisabeth.
But it’s not the cooking that draws AJ there. It’s two simple things. No, make that three: First, an endlessly fascinating commercial enterprise with toys easily accessible to his grubby fingers. Second, a checker-board with rocking chairs right by the fireplace. (Our Cracker Barrel ritual requires a game while the drinks are coming.) Third, rocking chairs. After dinner, we tour the store, with a stop at the toy section. We pay our bill, and AJ gets to help with the transaction. We admire the pretty music boxes, and then traipse or tow each other outside for a 10–15 minute rest in the rocking chairs. Even Elisabeth is into it now, picking the pint-sized chairs for herself to enjoy. Usually, there’s nobody out there except for a random smoker or two, so we have the “front porch” all to ourselves. A Cracker Barrel jaunt is at least a two-hour affair, if not longer.
Why these three ingredients pull on AJ’s attraction I’ll never fully know, but I suspect it has to do with this: shared ritual.
Healthy families, I think, hum with numerous shared rituals—even if they’re small and not even recognized as such. From initiation into the joys of properly dunking Oreos (unlike the tragic experience mentioned in my previous post), to Christmas rituals, birthday rituals, dinner rituals, and on and on and on; these formalized ways of doing things (that differ from family to family) give a sense of identity, facilitate bonding, and provide a touchstone of familiarity for kids with brains and bodies in constant flux.
(Mom and Dad need rituals, too. The night-time greeting with a quick kiss on the lips, repeated affirmations of love and affection, and the warm hand on the hip as we fall asleep at night, keep us centered and tighten the bonds even when and despite inconstant emotional states from day to day.)
I think all this, and yet I was a coward Friday night when our most-excellent server shared with me her personal approach to nighttime rituals with her kids:
“Give me a kiss and go to bed.”
Elisabeth has been on an emotional, whining, crying kick lately. She’s wanting to stay up later and later, and her naps are being cut shorter and shorter. So, Friday night, while Jennifer escorted AJ to the restroom, Elisabeth started bawling, and there was nothing I could to to settle her down. Our excellent server (I’ll call her Dee, which is not what her name-tag advertised, to keep her anonymous) came by and talked to Elisabeth in the affectionately cooing way all moms have with babies. I appreciated it. But Elisabeth couldn’t have cared less.
Dee, a mother of three, ages 5, 7, and 12, astutely remarked, “She’s tired.” Yes. She is. But, I mentioned, even though she was going straight to bed the moment we got home, she’s been resisting sleeping lately. So it was going to be a fight.
Inspired by my revelation, Dee confided that in her house, bedrooms were for sleeping and changing clothes. Nothing else. All the toys were in the playroom in the basement. So, her kids’ rooms are sparse. (I imagined a gray monastic cell with a cot on the floor, for some reason.) And she doesn’t believe in none of this night-time ritual business. No playing, no stories, no prayers, no “ni-nights” and giggles. It’s all give-mamma-a-kiss-and-get-to-bed. “Now!”
I said nothing, but agreed that I could see her point. After all, she’s working the night shift to help make ends meet. Who am I to tell her that sounds heartless? She really didn’t seem heartless. Her “system” works for her. Plus, I avoid arguing with anybody with the power to covertly add phlegm to my food. I just nodded and smiled.
But since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about this off and on.
Nighttime rituals are taxing sometimes. It’s late, I’m sleepy, I still have many things I want to do before I, myself, go to bed (like ego-surf my paltry blog stats). Life would be easier if I could get back the 30–to-60 minutes I lose each night once we start putting the kids to bed. But, you know, you don’t have kids to make life easier. If I had hoped to be a lazy parent, I should have gotten a cat or a guppie instead and spared my children the agony.
Elisabeth hasn’t been around long enough yet to grow her own set of rituals, but it won’t be long, now. With her, it’s mostly warm the bottle, entice her to climb the stairs, change her diaper and clothes while tickling her, sing her the ABC song, and after she’s inhaled her bottle of milk, repeatedly command her to lay down while she cries out the next half-hour.
AJ is now fully able to commence his nightly prep-work by himself, which gives us all a nice half-hour break at the end of the night. After he’s gotten his PJ’s on, pottied, and brushed his teeth, he usually waits in his bed, reading a book, while he waits for me. (How cool is it that my 4–1/2–year-old boy reads books in bed?)
Over the last couple years our bedtime rituals have evolved from simple, repeated “I love you’s” to: turn the lights down, close the door, tuck him in under his blankets, lay down with him, invent a story featuring a little boy or a little girl, go through a Q-and-A session about the story (AJ asks most of the questions), listen to his just-invented story (remixing several elements from the story I just gave him), review the events of the day, say our prayers (he prays first, and I follow suit), kiss, hug, say “I love you” (multiple times), cuddle for a few moments while he starts to get drowsy, and as I leave the room, we exchange a set of hand signals that feature blown kisses–the “I love you” hand sign, and a “sparkly heart” thing AJ invented.
Skip a step, and I’m courting emotional disaster.
Interestingly, Jen’s rituals with him are completely different. And he’s okay with that.
Some, reading this, may think I’m totally coddling and spoiling my kids. Maybe I am. But I work long hours with a long commute, and we keep the kids up late so I can maximize my time with them. These nightly rituals are a hugely important bonding time for us. Without them, I’m sure my son wouldn’t feel as close to me as I think he does; and my affirmations of love would sound more hollow in my ears—especially after he disobeys and I am forced to discipline him. No matter what mayhem AJ caused during the day, he still gets his daily dose of dad at night.
I look forward to experiencing our rituals as they evolve and mutate. They should never be writ in stone, because families’ needs change, and kids and parents need new and changing rituals to cope with the changes. Echoes of older rituals will provide the connective tissue into the future, and can always be reinvigorated with new meaning.
About a year-and-a-half ago, AJ took nightly walks with me, and he still talks about the nights we walked to the water tower to lay beneath it and look at the stars. We’ll be doing that again, soon, I think.
I’m interested in hearing about your rituals. Feel free to post a comment and share them.
[tags]BlogRodent, kids, children, rituals, bedtime-stories, childhood, toddlers, growing-up, family, family-rituals, parenting, parenthood[/tags]