Hungry, Tired, and Overwhelmed

Do me a favor.  Take a good look at the photo above. That's my sweet Katie, having just woken up from an unplanned afternoon nap.  She looks thrilled, doesn't she? What do you think would have happened if I had said right then, "Katie, go clean your room." Do you think she would have been thinking about our obedience lessons and promptly decided to "obey cheerfully"? Of course not. And at that moment, I never would have asked her to do much of anything.  She was just waking up, a little out of it (she doesn't usually nap in the afternoons), hungry (she had missed lunch) and she just wanted me.  I put the camera down (that face was just too precious to not preserve!) and then I  just held her. Loved her. Talked with her.

I expect obedience from my children. When I ask them to do something, I expect them to do it.  We don't argue about it, I don't beg them to do what I want, I don't bribe them. I give a command and then they do it.  That's the expectation and we are continually working on making it happen (without grumpy faces and dragging feet). It has taken a lot of time and intentional effort but the work has been more than worth it.  Not only is our home a more peaceful place, but also, our kids are being prepared for the rest of their lives when they have to follow the expectations of others (professors, bosses, spouses, government, and God Himself) even when they don't want to. Teaching this skill is one of the most important things I can do for my kids.

Because I expect obedience from my children, I have to do my part in the process as well. I can't just stand there like a militant drill sergeant, barking out orders, unaware of the physical and emotional limitations of my children.

My second point about child discipline was this:

We must have realistic expectations for our children, based on their age, ability, level of tiredness, and level of hunger.

If I expect my kids to obey a command I give them (or expect them to fulfill known expectations) then I have to be careful that they are able—at the present moment—to fulfill them.  This means that I have to take a number of factors into account.  I have to quickly assess the situation:

Is this expectation age-appropriate? Have they ever done this before? Do I think they can do it without me first teaching them? How tired are they? Are they fully functioning or are they too tired to make good decisions? Are they hungry? Could their lack of food (or drink) interfere with them being able to obey? Are they sad, scared, or overwhelmed?

You see, I want to set my kids up for success.  I try very hard to give only commands that they are able* to fulfill. I want them  to be able to obey so that they can feel the joy of rising to the level of expectation.  If I give them a command that they are not able to meet, they will feel defeated, frustrated and even ashamed. That is the opposite of what I want them to feel. I want them to feel empowered, capable and proud. I don't want to have my expectations higher than their ability level—a level that can and will vary from child-to-child, day-to-day, and even moment-to-moment.  It takes a watchful and discerning eye and heart to assess the physical and emotional state of our children at any given time.

*As an aside, notice that I didn't say, "I try very hard to give only commands they want to fulfill." That is a very different statement. I expect a lot of things out of my kids that they don't want to do. That isn't the issue.  The concern here is that I only set expectations that they are able to fulfill.

So what does this look like in our home?

  • I try to work  through some of the harder expectations in the morning, when they are fresh and full.  This includes school.  If I make the mistake of leaving school (especially the harder subjects) until after lunch, it is very hard for them to concentrate, do their work without complaint, and to sit still during times when I need them to be attentive.
  • For those expectations that have to be met at night when they are very tired, I try to make it part of a regular routine.  People are habit-driven.  When something happens in the same way every day, it is much easier to do. Because of this, our bedtime  expectations are consistent.  The kids get their jammies on. The older ones brush their teeth and Katie comes to us for help. They go to bed at the same time every night with few exceptions. Routine makes it easy for them to obey—they know what to expect.  If they never knew what time bedtime was coming, it would be hard to hear, "It's time to get your jammies on" if they were in the middle of something. But because we are consistent, they usually just say, "Oh, is it almost seven already?"
  • Routine works at other times as well.  For instance, our kids know that two kids help set the table and the other two kids help dad clear the table.  It is rarely an issue because they expect it. On the other hand, if I threw out a brand new expectation—"Kids, you need to wash, dry, and put away all the dishes!"—I am sure I would meet bewildered eyes and probably even a few tears! We build up expectation slowly.
  • If a child is overly tired and/or hungry, I lower my expectations.  This doesn't mean they can be sassy to me or say unkind words to a sibling. It just means that I am not going to give commands that I know they are emotionally/physically unprepared to meet.  I would never tell them to clean their entire room right before bed.  If I did, I know that with at least two of my kids we would have total melt-downs! I am sensitive to who they are and what they are feeling.
  • If I know my kids are tired or hungry, I extend a lot more grace when the kids don't obey. I usually voice the issue and then repeat my expectation: "Katie, I know it is nighttime and I know that you are tired, but you still need to do what Mommy asked."
  • I am more likely to help my kids obey.  I work alongside them.  If they need to do something (like clear a Lego path to the door!), I say, "Come on Levi, let's get these Legos out of the way so you don't trip on your way to the bathroom."  And then we work together.
  • I set my expectations according to age and ability.  Asking Katie (age 3) to clear the table and asking Alaina (age 8 ) to clear the table are two very different things. I know that I will have to come in after Katie cleans and redo it properly.  I still give her the job, though, so that she can practice obeying, practice being part of the family team, and practice working in the kitchen.
  • I pray very hard for wisdom and discernment so that when I am in a situation I can rightly assess if disobedience is a willful choice or if it is out of physical/emotional overload.
  • If a child breaks down crying and we are in a "battle of the wills," I work to de-escalate the situation.  Rather than giving discipline right then and there, I most often will pull the child up next to me or on my lap, hug and cuddle them, talk them down, and then decide what to do. After I have sensed they have calmed down and are secure in my love and affection, I will say something like, "Are you feeling better? Do you think you are ready to obey? You are? Great! I'll help you!" I keep my expectation (in this case cleaning up the mess that was made), but I let it be fulfilled in way that they are emotionally able (after some calming down time next to me and then often with my help).

As parents we have every reason to expect obedience out of our children (both obedience to direct commands and also to understood expectations). However, we have to be loving and gracious and meet them where they are—even if where they are is tired, hungry, and overwhelmed!

For another great article on this subject, see SimpleMom's Applying the HALT Method: A Checklist for Proactive Parenting. One of the issues that the guest writer mentions is kids being lonely. That really struck a chord with me as my little Levi's love language is quality time and I can always see a quantifiable difference in his behavior if I haven't been spending enough time with him.

Can you think of times in your home where discipline was an issue because of the physical and/or emotional state of the children? Is there something that you can do to prevent it in the future?

3 thoughts on “Hungry, Tired, and Overwhelmed

  1. KateC

    Janet, without going into particulars, I just wanted to say that this post came at the perfect time for me. Thank you for your wise words.

  2. Kellie

    This is probably my favorite of all your posts so far. It is so practical. But here’s my question: What do you do when they DON’T obey like you expect?

    1. Janet Post author

      It really depends on the situation and the behavior in question. If it is something that we do every night and for some reason someone (that would usually be Katie!) isn’t obeying, we would give her another chance, being very firm. If she still doesn’t obey, then we actively discipline her. If someone was just breaking down and crying and is obviously completely overwhelmed, we would probably say something like, “You aren’t coping right now. We just need to get you to bed.” We tend to be more loving and give extra cuddles and if needed, we deal with it in the morning. If they break down during the day and they just aren’t coping, we do a lot of “You need to sit on your bed until you are ready to join the family again.” It isn’t a “time out” in the normal sense, but a time for them to calm down. The ending point is their choice — whenever they are ready to rejoin the family with a good attitude and ready to follow instructions. We don’t ever accept any back-talking, nor have we ever. So it really isn’t much of an issue. The thing is, we have to look at each situation individually and ask the following questions to ourselves: 1)Is this direct, defiant disobedience? 2) Is this just sluggish obedience? 3) Is this a bad attitude? 4)Was my expectation appropriate? 5) Am I part of the reason? (Meaning, is this something I sometimes expect compliance on and sometimes I don’t?) The answers of these questions all play into the equation. We would correct all the situations, but with very different methods depending on what was going on. Only if the answer to question 1 is yes would there be swift and direct punishment (as opposed to gentle correction, reminders, “can we try that again?”, a stern word, etc.) Does that help?


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