Advice to young mothers
NOTE: This is a letter my mother wrote back in the seventies responding to another mother’s request for help. -Tim Bayly
Dear Mrs. (Jane Doe),
Thank you for your letter. Your question has been much on my mind because I would like to be able to help you. I’ve been asking God for wisdom in being able to express my thoughts clearly and practically, for I do think your question is an important one. You do need to find some answers, too, if your family is to be a healthy, happy, secure one.
I would like to ask you if you could conceive of planning your day keeping your little girls’ needs in mind, but not conceding that their needs are the only primary concern.
Another question is, what would you consider your little girls’ needs to be? They are still very young. Your 1½-year-old is still what I would call a baby. At their ages, their needs are quite simple.
They do need healthful food, adequate sleep, comfortable clothing; they need to know that you love them – – – but let’s stop here before getting more involved.
You can be inundated with information on your children’s needs offered in books, magazines, radio, and TV specials which may be more harmful than helpful because there are many contradictions in the information and goals that are contrary to our Christian desires and purposes. You may feel more confused as a result, and what is worse, guilty regarding your children—guilty because you are not super-human; why, you ought to be able to sort out all this advice and emerge with a formula that is foolproof for your job of parenting!
But, the basic fact is that you are the boss; no one else can do the parenting for you. You must make all the important decisions affecting your children.
Children need limits.
They need to know that ignoring those limits causes immediate consequences.
At six to eight months a child has begun to, or at least is capable of beginning to, understand the meaning of “no.”
A child who senses her parents’ uncertainty or discomfort in setting limits is going to keep trying to get her own way. What she needs is to know that this is impossible because you and her father are the ones in control.
Your responsibility is to develop secure children.
Our security as Christians is in looking to our heavenly Father for guidance and being obedient to His commands. We are part of His family and, as children, we accept the fact that we are under our Father’s discipline. Don’t you think God wants us to model our families after His?
I often feel that young parents operate out of a sense of guilt where their children are concerned. I don’t understand this, but wonder if it could be caused by an unrealistic expectation on their part as to how they should feel toward these children they have produced.
Perhaps an unplanned pregnancy could be a reason for guilt, or delight at having a weekend free from your children, or the thought that it would be delightful to be able to hand them over to someone else for a whole week or even an evening. Perhaps you don’t want to play one more game, think up another activity, change another diaper, wipe any more sticky faces & fingers, respond when they wake from their naps, read another book. Well, I don’t know of any parents who haven’t had such thoughts—those emotions are quite normal & healthy – – – – unless you add a weight of guilt to them. The important thing is how you handle such feelings. I’m convinced that the most constructive way to deal with them at times is to satisfy them, if it’s possible.
If your children demand your time, that’s unhealthy. It is healthy for them to know they can’t have or do whatever they want. Limits are frustrating to them because you are interfering with their wishes. But that is healthy and you must not feel guilty about it. There is no reason to spend all your time with your children; that is unnecessary & unnatural. But they do need a set period of time each day when you give them your undivided attention and are at their disposal (maybe 15 or 20 minutes each day). Perhaps you are giving them so much of your time that it has gotten tiresome for them as well as you. Just as you want some time free from them, they need (but aren’t old enough to realize it) time free from you and I think from each other as well.
Do your best, when you are together, to include them in activities you all enjoy. If you aren’t enjoying parenthood, you are beaten before you start. However, I think some changes in your daily routine will make a big difference in how you feel about parenting. You need to be able to see the look of joy on your little girl’s face when she brings you a flower she has picked herself, or made the face on a gingerbread man, or discovered a nest with eggs in it, or helped you sweep the kitchen floor. – – – – – – So many thoughts are bombarding me and I’m afraid I’m not coordinating them very well, so how would it be if I try listing some of my thoughts and ideas?
- Make a schedule for your day; remember routines are so important for your children (like first we dress, then we eat, then we nap, etc.). Uncertainty about what is going on in their lives puts them under stress, some authorities say.
- Work on feeling comfortable in saying “no” to your children—they want and need an outside authority.
- The first areas where parents have the responsibility to provide security through exercising wise control are in their infants’ eating & sleeping habits. I would say reading is a must in your learning the facts about your infant’s dietary needs, and these facts are very important for you to know—not just for those first months but all through those important body-building years. Your doctor should be giving you a list of the basic foods to be included in your baby’s diet as she grows from infancy through the pre-school years.
Expect your children to eat what you prepare for them. Be patient, but don’t make the mistake of deciding “she, or they, won’t eat this or that food.” If it takes them a while to get accustomed to an essential food in their diet, provide substitutes until they learn to eat a variety—but continue to offer the essential one, and perhaps a good rule would be to expect them to have at least one bite of whatever you serve them. Don’t allow your children to take control of choosing what they want to eat. I think it is one of the earliest ways of indicating to them that they are the center of family life and they are in control. You might let them choose between several vegetables if more than one is being served, or between an apple or banana for dessert – – – -.
I know insistence on eating what has been put on the child’s plate can be carried to extremes, but in my observation the extremes have been so much on the opposite end that it becomes a constant pattern of seeing parents who have become slaves to their children’s self-indulgent behavior.
- Sleep—rest—is also essential. Do your best to provide the essentials that can make bedtime a happy time.
A comfortable bed—clean, sweet-smelling, dry and with room to stretch out in (even though they may settle in a curled-up heap in a corner of it.) I also suggest you always provide a mattress pad under the sheet, for a comfortable sleep. Have you even slept on a bed with just a sheet over a plastic-coated mattress? In other words, naps and nighttime sleep should be pleasant times, shoes off and clothes at least loosened for naps—cool as possible in summer. Of course, then develop bedtime rituals like reading, rocking and singing together, perhaps a special toy kept only for taking to bed, etc. that they look forward to as something to do now, rather than what has to be stopped now because it’s bedtime – – – work on that – – – be creative and don’t get discouraged if they don’t respond positively at first.
We always saved our Bible reading and special Christian stories for their bedtime—and simple prayers, by all of us. Our oldest son told me when he was older that the Bible reading and prayer time was a strong source of security for him at bedtime, and whenever we missed it he felt like an anchor had been pulled up and left him sort of adrift.
I would also suggest that your Bible reading be the Bible itself—not Bible story books, although they are fine reading. Familiarity with the language of the Bible and seeing you reading from it (very short portions, or one chapter each evening) has value in itself. There are many influences that are not discernible at the time that build character and desirable attitudes later on. The warmth of a family gathered, snuggled in the lap of someone who loves you, hearing the beauty of the words read, familiarity with the book that is the source of those words even when they aren’t understood—all of these are good experiences in children’s daily lives.
Getting back to comfort in sleep—it’s good to check on them after they have gone to sleep to see if they are comfortable, then make any necessary changes (adjust covers, etc.) so that their sleep will be of maximum quality. Don’t worry about the possibility of disturbing them when you check. How do we feel when we wake up from a night or nap that has been miserable because of conditions that could have been corrected? I think this can be very important in establishing a happy attitude toward sleep for a young child.
If you provide a buffer for unexpected noises during sleeping hours it certainly helps prevent them from awakening before they are rested. A radio or stereo with music, a fan’s hum, or something pleasant and loud enough to muffle sudden noises is good protection. Perhaps you would like your younger little girl to be content for a while in her bed after awakening. If you think this is a good idea, put a few toys at the bottom of her crib after she has gone to sleep.
For the two- to four-year-old, keep up your routine of bedtime being a good time. Again, they are not in a position to know what they need in terms of rest or sleep, but you are. Furthermore, in this area, what you and your husband need certainly should be a deciding factor in what you decide they need. In order to be at your best as parents, you must have time free from your children’s demands. You need some quality time for each other and you should make plans for this—expecting them to fit into them. (Around 7 or 7:30 is a sensible bedtime for small children.)
Children the age of your girls should never be left unsupervised, but they should be expected to entertain themselves for reasonable periods of time without any adult being involved in their activity. I doubt if you feel boxed in because your cooking is limited to one room. If your girls can’t understand your expectation for them to play without your involvement for parts of their day and are always demanding to be involved in whatever you are doing, then provide an area for them to play in and insist that they recognize the limits you set. It might be in a dining area, by the fireplace, maybe a corner that you have helped them box off as a “house,” but somewhere other than where you are.
Tell them that for this particular period of time they may play together but are not to interrupt you—and expect them to obey now. If they are unable to entertain themselves or too undisciplined to cooperate, then I suggest you decide on a room, area, etc. that can have a gate at the door and allow them to play there several times each day (of course it needs to be a child-safe room). Remember, discipline is not the opposite of love. Control and guidance are a necessary expression of your love—don’t give up on this.
I’m afraid I may be inundating you and if so please forgive me—this is a subject I guess I get carried away on. Don’t let it confuse you even more.
May I mention a couple more things? One is that parents being consistent is the key to having “unspoiled” children. Two, you must make decisions—do not allow your girls to decide what is right for them. If you fail to take a stand, you’re on dangerous ground.
Finally, and most importantly, trust God as you nurture your girls, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes—unintended ones, I mean; to make a wrong decision is better than making no decision. God, who knows your heart, will even sanctify your mistakes if your deepest desire is to honor Him.
I hope you don’t feel I’m giving you “the final word.” I would like to help you—especially if you doubt the wisdom of some of my ideas or have questions. If you don’t agree, that’s O.K. This has been an awfully long letter; I just hope it will be of some help in adding more joy and lifting the heavy responsibility in your really wonderful assignment as parents.
Your friend in Christ,
Mary Lou Bayly