It’s Not All Mary Poppins

A bit of a mystery…

Lily comes in wailing. She’s been doing that for the last little while. The sudden reversal, however, is not the mystery. It’s not unusual for a previously chipper child to suddenly evidence reluctance, even outright distress, at drop-offs. Parents love to speculate why this happens — a visiting gramma, a cold, some disruption of the routine — and sometimes they’re right. Very often, however, it’s just another of those inexplicable vagaries of young children. Something set them off, obviously, but we will likely never know what it is. This particular one usually goes away by itself in fairly short order, so long as all the adults stay calm and upbeat in the child’s presence. Don’t make a big deal of it, and it won’t be one. It will pass. As so many things do.

The more I work with young children, the less I worry about the ‘why’ of things. Sometimes it’s obvious, and I’m happy when it is, but mostly we have to respond to things without knowing the ‘why’. And you know what? It works. You hardly ever really need to know why.

Why do we want to know why? Because it gives we adults a feeling of control, or, in this case, competence. If we know why something is happening, we’re three-quarters of the way to solving it, right? Weeellllll… maybe… Thing is, you’re never going to be totally in control (which is not an excuse for out-of-control children, ahem) and, more importantly, knowing why has essentially NO correlation to competence. You can be 100% in the dark about why something is happening, and still be a very competent parent.

I am a competent caregiver, and sometimes I have only the foggiest inklings of why something is happening. But I am also a very experienced caregiver, which means I don’t sweat it. My own curiosity would looooove to know what on earth is going on in that wee mind, but if I never find out, it doesn’t mean I’m one whit less effective and competent as a caregiver.

Kids are weird, is all.

Just like the rest of us…

So. Lily. Coming in wailing. In fact, I do have a theory: she’s tired. She comes in wailing, and stays whiny as long as she’s awake. She needs 100% of my attention. I must hold her at all times. If I so much as look at another child, the low-level whine ratchets up a notch. If I set her down, she moves up to full-bore wailing. If another child inadvertently bumps into her, in the bumper-car way of a semi-coordinated, oblivious toddler, she wails louder. If I serve apples for snack and she wanted Cheerios, she wails. (She ALWAYS wants Cheerios, and, sadly for her, I serve them only intermittently.)

In short, she is one miserable little camper. Miserable in herself, miserable to be around.

But put her down for a nap, and, after some initial wailing, she settles in for a substantial snooze. And when she wakes? Lily’s Evil Twin has left us (praise be) and Delightful Lily is back. Delightful Lily, let it hereby be related, is the cutest, funnest, nicest, just the most damned engaging child you’d ever want to meet. I adore Delightful Lily. The Evil Twin… not so adorable. At all.

The contrast between Tired Lily and Rested Lily is dramatic. Doctor Jekyll had nothing on this kid.

So I’m pretty sure I know the root cause of this particular behaviour. Even better, Lily sort of gets it, too. For the last week or so, when she arrives, wailing, she will lie her head on my shoulder and say (in a long, drawn-out, truly annoying whine), “Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaap!”

Well, okay then. Good to know we’re on the same page, sister.

Here’s where it gets weird. So I put her down, for the nap she asked for. I give her her soother, tuck her in and say, “Have a nice nap. When you wake up, you will feel SO MUCH BETTER!!” Because she will.

And Lily? Now that she’s all settled in for the nap she demanded?

She cries.



So I go into her room. “Lily, do you want to have a nap?”


This seems clear enough, but I’m canny enough to know that it often pays to ask the opposite question. If I get a “yes” to it… well, it’s just not so clear anymore, darnit.

“Do you want to come upstairs?”


That seems clear enough. Let’s double-check.

“Do you want to play blocks with Rory?”

“No! Nap!”

Okay, then. She doesn’t want to come upstairs, she doesn’t want to play, she wants to nap. All-righty, then. Napping is good. We can do that. So I leave the room, and…

she wails.

Is that not so weird?

Toddlers are weird.

And this one is also tired, so… I walk away. We both know what she needs, but I can’t do it for her. And in a few minutes (5? 10? 15?) all is quiet.

Ninety minutes or so later, she wakes, cheerful, happy and ready for her day.

But what a noodle. She’s tired, she knows it. She doesn’t want to be up and playing, she wants a nap. So I give her the time and space and comfy spot to have that nap, and she OBJECTS!


December 6, 2010 - Posted by | Lily, sleep | , ,


  1. My son is nearly four years old and the “WHY” of parenting drives me crazy sometimes.

    You’re absolutely right, that you feel like if you can give the behaviour a explanation, a reason, a rationale….anything, then as parents, we feel better, like its not our fault, that its beyond our control, or simply that we can understand why yesterday he smiled and laughed and played nice and today he’s the devil incarnate… must be teething, or a growth spurt, or he’s tired or hungry or or or or…..

    In reality, he’s just having a grumpy day, we all have them, for some reason, or no reason at all, but we don’t expect children to have them, we expect them to always be happy.

    Children… they’re weird 🙂

    “We expect them always to be happy.” I suppose we do, don’t we, in that we accept cheerful as the default, and see miserable as the aberration… which mostly, thank heavens, it is!

    Comment by Tammy | December 6, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hmmm… toddlers are very weird indeed. I’m impressed that she knows what she needs, though. My 5 year old similarly has begged for bedtime since he’s been able to talk. On the rare occasions that we keep him out late, he will ask over and over to go home and go to bed. My husband and I get teased by our friends for having a child that keeps us in line.

    It’s also amazing to me how irritability and whineyness usually mean “tired”. Even in very little babies… And it’s amazing to me that what they often really need is a quiet space alone instead of being held or kept up until they tip over. Why I’m amazed by that, I don’t know… It’s just so simple.

    I’m impressed, too. I know lots of adults who haven’t figured it out. 😛

    When my children were little, I sort of fell by accident into the realization that irritability and whineyness mean tired. I’d try this and I’d try that, and when, despite all my efforts, the child kept on with the misery, I’d become exasperated. “Fine then, if you’re going to cry anyway, you may as well do it in your bed instead of in my face.” I’d put them down… and they’d fall asleep! Like, 95% of the time!!! It is so simple, and yet it probably took me two kids and five years to figure it out. You all think I’m so wise? I’ve just had decades more practice… 😀

    Comment by rosie_kate | December 6, 2010 | Reply

  3. My toddler does this too — cries or whines at nap time or bed time even though she’s asked for the nap/sleep and seems to know it’s what she needs. I’ve decided it’s just part of the emotional processing for her and I’ll cuddle her or lie quietly with her until it passes and she falls asleep.

    Oh, I remember the days of cuddling with a warm and sleepy toddler. So sweet. I didn’t do it routinely, mind you, not wanting to create a child who couldn’t ever fall sleep without my presence. But for illness or particular periods of stress, or just when I wanted that lovely maternal satisfaction, it sure was nice. Obviously, I can’t do that for daycare kids, since the other three or four children can’t be left untended for that long, but if you can, once in a while, it can be lovely for both of you.

    Comment by Charity | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  4. Think of it as practice for when she turns 13.

    Oh, I’m so glad my own children are all comfortably past the age of thirteen! Thirteen was tough on my girls, and fourteen was the worst. After that, they got steadily nicer again. The boy was less fraught all round, but fourteen/fifteen were his worst years. Sooooo glad that’s over!

    Comment by jwg | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  5. Maybe she’s not objecting… maybe she just needs to cry herself through her tiredness into sleep, if you get my meaning?

    It’s as good an explanation as any!

    Comment by Lex | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  6. And the true reason for her being so tired is proabably that her parents DO NOT let her wail herself to sleep when she’s tired, they probably give in to the pitifulness. If they would only learn how to implement the patience they use in other areas of their lives, they would see, like you clearly understand, that the wails and tears will NOT last forever, nor will the child be harmed by putting herself to sleep amid sniffles and tear-stained sheets.

    Oooh…the aggravation of parents and grand-parents who Cannot Allow the child to cry, even for 10 seconds to see if he can solve his dilemma on his own!!

    Indeed. It is my policy to try strategies which avoid/minimize crying at first, but if that doesn’t work? In the long run it’s far more important for the child’s health and happiness to be well-rested than it is to avoid tears of protest. If a child needs to cry in order to learn to sleep, well, that is what they need to do. What parents so often don’t understand is that the crying will not last forever… unless, that is, you give in to the tears. Then tears become part of their coping mechanisms, and will occur more frequently and with less provocation than a child whose parents put sleep ahead of protests. It’s a health issue.

    For Lily, this is also becoming a quality of life issue. As long as she’s this tired, she’s unhappy. The sad irony here is that by trying so hard to avoid her tears, they are creating/prolonging her unhappiness.

    Comment by Liz | December 9, 2010 | Reply

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