Dad’s world with Jonathan deBurca Butler

THE other evening, Fionn and I were doing our wind down to bedtime routine. 

This usually involves a bath, followed by a somewhat giddy session of jumping on the bed as he gets into his jim-jams. It is concluded with a little bit of telly featuring an episode of Shaun the Sheep and/or Peppa Pig.

We then go upstairs read some stories and the head hits the pillow. I’m not sure what bedtime experts would say about the jumping and telly ‘segments’ of this four-part routine but we’ve done it since he was a baby and it seems to fit him well enough.

Lately though, Fionn has been getting a little restless during the telly sessions and the other day it came to a head when he insisted on trying to pour his milk into my tea.

I had asked him on several occasions not to do so but in the end he was trying to do it so forcibly that I had to actually bat his beaker away. He got a little fright and started to cry but I was adamant and I made no apology for keeping his drink out of mine.

‘Who’s the baby now?’ you might ask but I’d reply that learning about personal space should start early. I was annoyed. So annoyed that when we went upstairs to do stories, I really didn’t want to do them. I sat him on my knee and I explained that I was now in a bad mood. He understood.

My problem was, there was no follow through.

For Fionn it was: ‘OK, you’re annoyed, so what?’

I waited for a minute and had a think. Fionn was still on my knee.

“Fionn,” I said, “I don’t think I want to do stories now and I’m just going to put you to bed.”

His little eyes started to well up, my heart sank but I persisted.

“Don’t put me straight to bed,” he said.

He was genuinely very upset now, and I could tell it was genuine because there was very little volume. He was just sad. The prospect of not getting a story read to him— a ritual that has now gone on for most of his life was somehow really hurtful for him.

At the same time, I was tired of not being listened to and there comes a point when you have to start letting your children know that with choice comes responsibility. As in, you can choose not to listen to me but there will be consequences.

We came to a compromise. Normally we would read three stories but on this occasion I told him I would only do one and then it was bed. He nodded. I read the story. I didn’t fly through it or read it like a memo.

I read it as I would normally, with different accents, lots of gesticulation and whatever extra animation was required.The fact that he was only getting one story was the punishment, so there was no need to double the penance by reading the story badly.

Was it easy? No, I was still annoyed with him while at the same time asking myself if I was doing the right thing. I hoped that if the punishment was fair, given out fairly and allowed both of us to keep a level dignity, it might actually work.

Punishment is a minefield. Even defining messing, playing and really annoying is difficult because it is so driven by mood and circumstances.

You’re not actually asking the child to act in any consistent way, you’re asking him to be able to read your mood.

Is that on? Not really, or at the very least it’s probably not fair, but at the same time it isn’t logical to teach children that people are consistent and the world is always level when so much interaction is coloured by a person’s mood. Being able to read people is surely a critical life skill.

At least that’s how I’m going to justify it.


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