Today we did a crafts project at Justin’s school, helping kids make snake puppets out of egg cartons. It required hours of preparation: making samples, priming egg cartons, cutting egg cartons, poking holes, and gathering supplies. The afternoon went well. Justin was a great teacher and everyone had fun decorating the snakes. By the time we cleaned up and drove home, it was six. By six thirty, Joan had made a simple supper and we’d eaten.
Finally, Justin could start his homework. He had a lot: the math he didn’t do yesterday because we were preparing for today, two language assignments and lines to learn for the school play. Feeling overwhelmed and tired, he wanted to put it off. I said he had to do it now. I promised him a game of Harry Potter Trivia when he finished and said I’d read a chapter of Mattimeo, the book we are slowly working through. Those were enough carrots to get him to begin.
As usual, there was a lot of stalling, wriggling, trips to the pencil sharpener, pee breaks, complaints, and dawdling. But slowly, painstaking, he did a good job, though it took well over an hour. At first, Joan sat with him. Later, I did.
After the spelling sentences and the dictionary homework, we worked on his lines for the play. Justin is a quick study. In five minutes he had them down cold. Then he wanted a break and I agreed. He started roughhousing with Emily. I looked at my watch. It was eight-thirty, bedtime. There clearly wasn’t going to be time for board games. Justin still hadn’t started his math.
Finally, after a few annoyed parental comments about being too rough and loud, Justin settled down on the rug with his multiplication and a pencil. He rolled around on the floor as he did the computations in his head. He was deep into the fourth problem when Joan came into the room and announced, ‘Okay, kids, time for bed. C’mon, I’ll rub your backs.”
Justin looked up, outraged. “But I haven’t finished my math!”
Joan countered. “You went to bed late last night. You had trouble sleeping and you were up for hours. You need sleep or you’re going to get sick.”
“But I HAVE to finish my math!” he panicked.
“Justin, sometimes sleep is more important than homework. You’ve been doing homework for more than two hours. You’re in third grade. That’s enough.” Joan was adamant. As a teacher, she’s our house authority.
“But I HAVE to finish my homework!” Justin wailed.
“Not tonight, you don’t. If you want me to wake you up early in the morning, you can finish it then. Now it’s time for bed.” She turned on the music the kids listen to as they fall sleep and went to tuck Justin in.
Emily announced sassily, “I’m not going to bed!” Then she raced to the CD player and turned it off. I turned it on. She turned it off. I yelled at her to leave it alone. She dived under the couch pillows, sobbing, “You hate me!” Clearly, this was not going to be a “good” bedtime.
I dragged Emily out from under the pillows and deposited her in the bottom bunk, under Justin. She lamented with great drama, “You hate me!”
“Emily, I love you, but it’s time for bed. You were both up late last night. You need sleep.” Then softer, “You know, I can be angry at you and still love you.”
“NO! You hate me! And I hate you because you hate me.” I sighed deeply. Tentatively, I reached out to rub her back. She let me. A good sign.
Both kids grew quiet and I thought I might get off easy, but then Emily remembered Mattimeo. “You said you were going to read to us tonight! You broke your promise. You ALWAYS break your promises.”
Oh God, not that again. Why did I ever tell them I’m going to do anything? “Yes, I did say I was going to read to you, but it took Justin so long to do his homework that we ran out of time.”
Justin’s voice rose sharp and angry from the top bunk. “Oh, so now it’s all my fault, is it? What is it with you adults anyway? You’re always telling me to do my homework and now you say I can’t do my homework. I’m going to tell my teacher that I didn’t do my homework because my MOMS wouldn’t let me!”
“Okay, Justin, you can do that. If I write her a note and explain, she’ll understand.”
Furious, he continued, his voice trembling with rage and distress. “I wanted to do my homework and you wouldn’t let me! Most parents would be happy if their kids wanted to do their homework and you won’t let me do mine! What kind of parents are you, anyway?” Then he started to cry. “I wanted to have a perfect record with my homework!”
“Okay, so get up early, we can skip the story, and you can finish your math.”
“Oh, so now we’re going to miss our story tonight AND tomorrow? That is so unfair! You’re going to have to read eight chapters tomorrow night to make up for all the chapters we missed! Why do you adults get to control EVERYTHING? Is it because parents are better than kids? Why are you the rulers of the universe? You tell me to hurry up and get up, then to hurry up and do my homework and then to hurry up and go to bed! It never stops! Why do you always have to be in charge?”
I stopped and thought before responding. The kids needed sleep; this was escalating into a full-blown war. I decided not to engage further. “This conversation is not heading anywhere I want to go. As your parents, we’ve decided you need sleep more than anything else tonight and I’m not going to stay up arguing about it. Sometimes when you’re really tired, you just have to sleep and let everything go. In the morning, things look different. I’m going in the other room now and I’ll come back and check on you in a few minutes.” Then in a softer voice, “I love you both. Good night.”
I left the room, praying for silence. Five minutes later, they were both asleep. And in the morning, Justin finished his homework and heard a story.