New Year’s Eve With Kids Is Hell. Parents Need to Accept It.
Fatherly's resident parenting expert talks about making the new year special with your kid and building boundaries for preschoolers that make sense.
Our son is 2 and he’s acting out and testing boundaries with us. What started as saying “No” all the time has escalated to full-out meltdowns. I have no problem being the disciplinarian, but now, I find myself giving into the meltdowns because the experience is so miserable and I have limited time with my kid so I want to enjoy it as much as possible. Am I being short-sighted and setting bad examples?
Life is short, Ben. And you shouldn’t be spending most of the time with your kid being a disciplinarian. That’s just shitty. Is he testing boundaries? Hell yeah he is. But I think there are ways to question how you react to the boundary-testing that might help.
Honestly, addressing his behavior is partly about questioning your own expectation. And it’s totally OK to do that in front of your kid. It doesn’t make you look wishy-washy as much as it models thoughtfulness. That’s not the case when you simply set a boundary “just because.” Enforcing rote and unconsidered boundaries isn’t particularly helpful and sets up a wacky power dynamic.
The idea that I hear most from people way smarter than me is: Make sure the boundaries you are setting make sense and play into larger values that are important to your family. So, if your kid asks “why?” you should probably be able to answer that question in a way that’s not “because I said so.”
This does a couple of things. First, it allows you to cut the kid some slack more often and say yes rather than no. That will cut down on tantrums and make you feel better right away. But it also helps your kid start to connect the “nos” to actual values that are important. It gives them a reason for behaving the way you’d like them to behave. Yes, I know this might sound a little froo froo and hard to connect to everyday life. But it works.
Another thing to think about is how you’re reinforcing and praising the good behavior. The idea is to make a big deal out of the little moments of compliance. Like, a really big deal. Yuge celebrations. And in your exuberance, add a physical connection like a hug or a high five to lock that behavior in place.
This is part of the “Kazdin Method” from my favorite dude over at the Yale Parenting Center, Alan Kazdin. I’ve been using it with my sometimes violent 5-year-old, and it works incredibly well. Because what you’re trying to do is get your child to a place where they understand why they are doing what they do, get praised for doing it, and do it habitually.
And the more joyful and consistent and chill you are in providing that structure, the more likely you kid is going to respect you and react to you the way we want them to react. That’s the key.
I have a third-grader who really really wants to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. My wife thinks it will be OK, but I’m not so sure. I’d rather that she go to bed at her regular bedtime. But I kind of feel guilty about being such a hardass. Can you help?
Your instincts are totally sound, Dustin. And in fact, if you were to insist that your kid goes to bed at her regularly appointed hour on New Year’s Eve, there wouldn’t be too many consequences to exacerbate your New Year’s Day hangover.
Speaking of that hangover, probably the last thing you want to do while recovering is dealing with a cranky, over-emotional 8-year-old. And that is surely what you will have if you let your daughter stay up past midnight. More than that, she will likely be out of whack for her next bedtime, which means that the short-lived joy of swinging a noisemaker and yelling “Happy New Year!” will have a ripple effect that lasts into 2019.
The fact is that kids need consistent sleep. And they need it consistently. That’s why you have a strict bedtime (and hopefully a solid bedtime routine to go with it). When bedtimes shift, sleep is affected. When sleep is affected, kids can become unmoored from whatever reason they manage to hold on to on a day-to-day basis.
The holidays are well known for inserting chaos into kid schedules. After all, there are midnight masses and parties to attend. There’s no school, so it feels logical to push bedtimes later. But all of this shifting makes for serious stress.
That said, I’ve been where you are. I, too, have wanted my children to get in on the ritual of ringing in the new year. Happily, there are outlets like Netflix that offer countdown cartoons for kids, so they can have the joy of the countdown before bedtime. Does it feel weird? To us, maybe. But not to kids.
Beyond that, you can start participating in New Year’s Day rituals. There is no end to the number of things you can eat, drink, or wear (and so on) on New Year’s Day to make the coming year a lucky one. My family eats pork, greens and black-eyed peas for instance. And frankly, wide-awake kids will probably have more fun playing superstitious games for good luck.
And that’s what I leave you with, Dustin: Good luck and a happy parenting new year.