I’ve learned to hate driving. “Anger” is not too strong a word.
For a little over five years now, I’ve been driving the same stretch of road to work. It’s a weird commute in metro Denver in that it’s not with or against traffic, but cross-town. That means there’s never a good time to drive it because there are always lots of cars. And lots of traffic lights.
I’ve been on this commute ever since we moved into our new home, which is closer for my wife and her work. I suppose my twice-a-day pilgrimage is a simple sacrifice for my family, but it’s done something to me.
It’s not that I have now learned to hate driving from some lecture I attended. I’m an angrier person because I’ve learned by experience the pressure points on the drive. For instance, I know which lights I need to speed up on in order to make the light sequence. I know where the speed traps are. And I also know which lane goes the fastest on specific stretches of the road in high volume times.
And knowing all those things by experience, or habit, has made me angry at anyone who doesn’t share the experiential knowledge I’ve learned through habit. In short, I’ve learned that habits can shape my character, for good or ill.
Simple, repeated patterns in my life can shape my character, whether I want them to or not. That revelation got me thinking about positive patterns I could instill in my life. If the negative pattern of my commute made me an angrier person than I was before, surely there are repeated patterns we could place in our lives that would make us nicer, or more selfless, or more hungering after the most important things.
And so, I’ve attempted that shift from negative to positive patterns on my two girls. (I know, it’s good to experiment on others first. But I jest.) Most dads know that their kids crave expected patterns. Kids don’t revel in novelty; they revel in the safety of a communal habit. And there is no more expected pattern than the nighttime bed routine.
Let’s start out with the simple steps: bath, brush the teeth, and use the potty (it’s amazing how infantile our vocabulary becomes with small kids, and how unashamed a man can become in using the word “potty”). These steps are innocuous enough, but they create a “shift” in the evening that signals to kids it’s time to calm down, at least a little.
I only say “a little” because my girls like to do their ceremonial post-bath, pre-jammies dance. You get the idea.
From there, though, we put on jammies and get to the heart of the evening. We read books. “Let’s read five books tonight, daddy.” “No, how about two.” “Four!” “Okay, we’ll read three.”
After book reading, both my girls want mommy and daddy then to sing several songs. I thought when my oldest was littler that she’d want to sing with me, but she never has. She always wants me to sing over her. Rather than joining in, she wants to receive the blessing more than participate with me. Either way, I think that’s meaningful.
The last thing we do is pray for our girls and then give them what in church terms we might call a “benediction”: I place my hands on their heads and actually pronounce a blessing upon them. Then I tell them I love them, and walk out the door. The older one must have the door cracked.
Phew. When it comes to physical and emotional stamina, most dads will know that that bedtime routine is much more exhausting and demanding than my regular commute. But this is pattern is different. Better. And through it, I’m hoping that this pattern shapes my girls’ character.
Without needing to sit them down and explain the family values, I think—I hope—we are teaching them that reading is fun, that singing brings joy to life even when it’s hard, that God matters, that their parents love them, and that it’s good to desire more ultimate things than the immediate pleasures our entertainment culture gives them. I want them to want night-night time more than the iPad and Dora the Explorer, which means that the pattern has to carry greater meaning than those rival patterns. And it could never teach them that if it weren’t a pattern: a pattern with deep meaning and regular rituals.
Of course, storytelling can be a part of your family’s bedtime routine; here’s how. And sometimes bedtimes might include tucking a recently lost tooth under a child’s pillow—here are some thoughts on making that experience a bit more fun.
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