Some children are happy with very little. Some spend a lot of time being miserable, no matter what they have. If you are asking yourself, “Why do I have an unhappy child?” you’ve come to the right place because I’m going to tell you a story that you’ll likely see much of your own struggles in. This story has a lot to do with one of my favourite books. This book of mine is not a light book that rests easily in my hands at bedtime. It’s not a book I can turn over at the corner to keep my place. It’s not even a book that I can leave around and spend the next day hunting for where I might have put it, like under the bed or on the side of the bath, a perilous place for any book, by the way. No, my favourite book is over 2000 pages long and over 100 years old, and it’s not just a book; it’s the Bible. Not that Bible, no, but certainly a Bible of its time. Titled “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” it is a veritable cornucopia of knowledge with pearls of wisdom, many of which have long since been forgotten. Take, for example, this pearl.
“To yield to all the whims of a child and to pick up its toys when thrown away in mere wantonness, etc., is extremely foolish.”
Ok, so what really makes an unhappy child
There are more, but I’ll save those for another time. Let’s take a closer look at this one. Ok, how many parents actually do that, cater to all their children’s whims? Actually, I know quite a few, and it’s one of the things that I’d like for people to change, and ironically, it’s also what I do for a living, so if you’re asking yourself, “Why do I have an unhappy child?” then you’ll want to pay close attention.
Firstly, we parents tend to think life is nicer for our children if all the worries and boring things like chores and obligations are wiped out of their way as much as possible. Life should be about play and fun, enjoyment, and entertainment, so parents, believing they are doing the right thing by their child, start revolving their lives around that child and all those entertainments. But therein lies the story I want to share with you—a true tale of woe—the tale of a little boy we shall call Tim.
Why is my child unhappy? The tale of Tim
Tim’s family consisted of Mom and Dad and two-year-old Tim. Tim was born one chilly January evening after a very protracted labour that ended in a C-section. The mom mentioned to me that she felt the bonding process was off to a shaky start as her child was whipped away from her while she came around from the anesthetic. It was a good couple of hours before she could be re-united with her son, who, in the meantime, had been fed a bottle in the nursery. Problems with breast feeding quickly ensued, not so much because the baby couldn’t get it but because there were the normal initial latching problems that mom perceived as being due to her son having been previously fed.
Whether or not Tim had been bottle fed, the possibility undermined mom’s confidence in her breast-feeding abilities to the point that Tim had a harder and harder time getting latched on. As he became more and more frustrated, she responded by questioning her abilities further and feeding him less at the breast and more with pumped milk delivered in a bottle. Once Tim came home, he had a hard time getting settled. He never seemed to sleep for more than a half-hour at a time, days included. During the day, he was equally unhappy, whining for attention despite mom and dad’s quick responses. The only way he could be quieted was to be put in the swing, which became a much-needed lifeline. Mom and Dad both agreed that Tim was never a happy baby, despite their best efforts.
Tim was utterly miserable
By the time Tim was around the five-month mark, his sleeping and general demeanour had not improved. Mom was, by that stage, understandably completely exhausted. As a couple, they called in a sleep consultant, who encouraged them to try and let him cry it out in short increments of five minutes. The first night was a nightmare and mom nearly went spare. She called for support, and the consultant reassured her that he would go to sleep soon and that she was doing everything right.
The second night, things improved considerably. Tim was a bit fussy initially but dropped off to sleep remarkably quickly and stayed asleep. Mom reported, perhaps not surprisingly, that she felt like a new woman after the months of exhaustion. Things were so much better at night, but Tim’s miserable demeanour persisted during the day. Despite carrying him around a lot, trying to figure out consistently what he needed, and responding quickly whenever he was unhappy, success in terms of Tim’s happiness continued to elude them. As a result, mom and dad felt increasing pressure. What was wrong? Why was Tim so hard to make happy?
Tim screamed all the time. The morning was the best, when he was simply difficult, but by early afternoon, things had deteriorated badly. He hung on his parent’s clothing and demanded things. He would point at articles in the room and shout, and mom and dad would go rushing to get whatever item it was that he was screaming for.
Tim struggled with his parents all day. They couldn’t put a diaper on him without distracting him with a toy. Most days, mom relished the opportunity to do the groceries alone and have a few minutes of peace and quiet, but that didn’t happen often. Most times she took Tim with her, running to the bakery as an initial step, desperately hoping he wouldn’t make a scene. At nap time, they had a few minutes of respite, but then Tim was even worse when he woke up. The only way they could quiet him was to take him out to the park in the stroller. “It’s so hard to get anything done,” she complained. At dinnertime, the crankiness wouldn’t dissipate. They’d have to make the meal with Tim attached, as they found it difficult to put him down even for a moment. Then they’d put him in a high chair but not strap him in, hoping to avoid another fight.
Tim didn’t even eat properly. He snacked and spent the entire meal getting in and out of his highchair. “Perhaps that’s what two-year-olds do?” said mom as she talked about the importance of making sure he had snacks when he finally became hungry.
Nothing made Tim happy
Tim, for his part, ate his dinner alone, and to increase the chances of staying put and eating, mom turned on the TV. The best time of the day was after dinner. Dad would bathe him, and Tim enjoyed playing in the bubbles and, for a moment, being a regular two-year-old. At 8 p.m., though, it was bedtime, and the wars would start again. Yet every moment of the bedtime routine was negotiated. Who would bathe him, and how many stories would he get? In what chair would they be sitting while they read those stories? “I don’t understand why he’s so difficult,” said Mom. “Maybe he’s bored?”
The “he must be bored” scenario ranks right up there with the “it’s just a stage” line. Bad behaviour is seldom a stage, and if any parent thinks so, then I’m afraid they will be in for a rude awakening when their child’s behaviour fails to cease and, at sixteen, they tell their mom to “F— off,” taking the car. Yes, the behaviour might cease temporarily, but that’s generally because the behaviour changes and becomes more sophisticated as the child matures. It goes underground and manifests itself in adolescent behaviours that we’d all prefer not to see.
The bottom line is that poor little Tim was one unhappy camper. Mom and Dad had been led to believe that there should be no limit to providing for Tim’s wants and desires. Indeed, they had been brainwashed by society at large to believe that Tim’s wants and desires were indistinguishable from his needs. Thinking they were being responsible parents, they continued providing for his “needs” in the face of mounting odds, their effort being oddly indicative of their level of parenting commitment.
By misunderstanding Tim’s needs, the parents turned themselves into slaves for their own little King Tut. Little Tim did indeed rule the roast, barking orders from his mini throne.
Unfortunately for Tim, being the master of his own destiny wasn’t quite as appealing as it first looked. He strove for hours every day to get mom and dad to regain control of the situation and him. He demanded more than he’d ever demanded before, picking random objects for his servants to bring him and insisting on minute-by minute control over his poor parents’ lives. But did it bring him happiness? No. Unfortunately, little Tim was as miserable as ever. At least, he was until his parents decided to do something about it.
Finally Tim’s parents figured it out
This tale of woe, I think, makes my point. I’m happy to tell you that Tim’s parents finally figured it out. What did they figure out? Well, they finally understood what it was that Tim really needed. Leadership. That’s it. They had to be the captains on the ship and not Tim. They had to know what they were doing and provide a clear path forward for their son. They had to be his rock. All of the behaviours subsided as soon as they stepped up to the leadership plate and demonstrated that they intended to stay there. Tim is now a normal little boy whose “whims” are never allowed to run the family. As a result, everyone is a lot happier, including Tim. Oh, and have no doubt that Mrs. Beeton, should she have known, would have been so pleased!
Do you have a child displaying behaviour issues like biting, temper tantrums, picky eating, or sleeping problems? If so, go to Annie the Nanny’s parenting services page.
Did you know that Annie the Nanny was on CTV mornings in Calgary for years? Here’s a clip of her talking about how much choice to give your toddler.