Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

To sleep, perchance

Chance would be a fine thing. We have a recidivist in the house. After mastering the art of falling asleep by himself before Christmas, Busytot has suddenly backslid. Last night between eight and ten-thirty, he popped in and out of his room like a demented Jack-in-the-Box thirty times or so. At some point I stopped counting.

I know. It’s a phase, it’s his age, it’s natural to regress in other areas while assimilating the thrill of having fully boarded the toilet train. Ding-ding! Woo-woo!

The poor wee sausage can't be blamed for his immutably bouncy brain chemistry, an amusing asset in the daytime, but a major frustration at night. Once he’s down, he sleeps with a solidity that would put a log to shame. But he has one of those brains that lights up easily while he’s trying to settle down, causing him to spring from the bed with the telltale cry of “Hey, you know what?” and some random factoid about dinosaurs, zebras, or the latest improvements in bunk-bed technology.

He doesn't get it from me. I'm a sleep Olympian, no trouble dropping off and even less luck waking up. Out like a light. Getting Busytot off to sleep is like powering down one of those wall-sized Multivac computers – you patiently turn off all the switches and stand by as the lights blink off one by one, only to see a tiny flicker, hear that tell-tale rising hum, and watch the whole array light up all over again. And there is no chance of a relaxing parental evening on the couch once that happens.

He started out a fairly good sleeper. We didn’t Ferberize him (that’s the method where you let them scream for a given length of time --- by all accounts it works, albeit at the cost of several years off the maternal lifespan and rumoured adverse effects on the infant brain).

But we did apply a modified version, a sort of Montessori-like approach. We built a solid sleepytime routine into the evening, and assumed that he was capable of the hard personal work of learning to fall asleep by himself in bed, and that it would pay off.

And it did, mostly. He gets it, except when he forgets it.

Last night, the culmination of a week or so of escalating sleep resistance, was particularly grim. I decided a crackdown was in order. A velvet crackdown, but a crackdown nonetheless.

As it happened, Busytot's dad was downstairs reading Jane Mayer's article in the latest New Yorker about the outsourcing of torture, while I was upstairs performing it inhouse. I couldn’t figure out, amid the bloodcurdling screams, whether I was the Lynndie England hard-arse, or the brave victim who would not crack even under the harshest treatment.

Happily, it wasn’t me screaming (this time). I had managed to tap some previously unsuspected well of sheer indifference, and was able to respond robot-like to every bolshy break-out attempt and every shriek of “No! You bad Mummy! That what you NOT do!” or piteous moan of “I (sob) just (sob) want (sob) my (gulp) Daddy…”

It was easier for me upstairs than for poor old Daddy downstairs. He couldn’t hear the interludes between the shriekfests, where Busytot paused to quietly plot with himself about what to try next. Those villainous little soliloquies persuaded me that I was on the right track and that I wasn’t permanently damaging his psyche. Probably.

And then in a massive attack of parental guilt, I spent all day today fretting that all that screaming had worn indelible grooves of misery into his still malleable brain – even while teaching him that “no means no” and mummy means business. These are principles that, if not established early, may never take.

Funny thing is, Busytot’s father didn’t get where he is today by taking no for an answer. We have documentary proof, as he recently got his hands on some old school reports from the faux-English private primary school he was privileged to attend as a nipper (such, such were the joys). I won't name the school but if you've reader Peter Calder's excellent memoir Travels with my Mother, you may recognize it.

The report cards were not pleasant reading. One sadist wrote that the child in question was “reacting better to my teasing these days,” and reading through the rest, you felt a general teacherly frustration with a Child Who Knew Too Much. Nine out of ten report cards bristled with snide commentary on his insubordinate tendencies, which boiled down to a willingness to correct teachers in matters of fact. The tenth, apparently written by a closeted free-thinker, applauded a certain freedom of spirit and enthusiasm for the job, while noting that this was a child who would have no trouble doing whatever it was he decided was his "thing". The wee classroom anarchist is now a professor of astrophysics. Go figure!

School still seems a long way off for Busytot, but we checked out a local example the other day out of sheer curiosity. It is fantastic place, a private independent school that draws a little from all the best educational philosophies. Alert, happy children busied themselves in brightly lit, imaginative classrooms, working together at small tables, or roaming the room in search of inspiration.

Each room had a kid-created charter on the wall; a major commonsense tenet of the unwritten curriculum is the importance of turning out good citizens with civic (and civil) skills galore. It was my sense from talking to the kids that they’d make superb activists, and probably top-notch management consultants as well.

The location is nifty: a big old industrial building on the waterfront, cleverly refurbished, and with a view of the working port of New Haven. To get there, you pass a massive junkyard full of busy excavation equipment and then cross a drawbridge over a river that is home to tugboats. It's a Busytot dream commute.

Such a school is not to all tastes, of course. Another parent on the tour found it “Orwellian,” but we thought it absolutely utopian and dashed home to figure out how to live on bread and butter for the next mumble-mumble years so that Busytot could partake of this marvelous place.

The principle of handing over some of the power to the kids was especially alluring, and that’s pretty much how we have - for the moment at least - addressed the sleep intifada. The new trick is a cross between power to the people (him) and take back the night (us). Busytot now has a tiny, dim reading lamp on his bedside table so that he is free to peruse his favourite books while settling down for the night. And when he is ready, he can switch the light, and himself, off.

Perchance to dream.