Intentional vs. Intense (or What Sleep Habits Have Taught Me about Parenting)

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One thing I learned through goal-setting and 2014 planning is how easy it is to cross the line from intentionality to intensity.

Here’s what I mean.

I see so many parenting articles on the internet. We’re given so much advice and warning. One day we are told to make sure we praise our children enough and the next day we’re told to reign it in. In one article we’re told children need more free play outside, and in the next we’re warned of disease-carrying misquotes and kidnappers who find us via social media. There’s a part of me that wants to say, “Look, kids have turned out fine without all this planning and fretting and stressing. Why can’t we get back to those days?” But I know that’s too simplistic. Culture changes, and we’re afraid that if we give our children time to play outside for hours, they won’t be where they’re supposed to be in math. Or if we skip preschool (heaven forbid!), they’ll be socially stunted and academically behind. Forever. Until college (except they probably won’t even get into college).

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately. Where’s the balance? Where can we find peace?

The answer has shown up in one of our current parenting situations. Liam still doesn’t sleep through the night. Or in his own crib at night. We’re working on it. This process has taught me so much about parenting.

At first, I spent all my time fretting over Liam’s sleep. I was terrified that he would be less intelligent, less socially adept, or spoiled. It consumed all my thoughts as the next naptime or bedtime approached. I tried to be proactive and became intense about sleep. But then I found a better way.

I eventually created a plan. We’ve taken concrete steps to him sleeping in his own crib and to discourage night wakings. And we’re seeing little bits of progress (for example, now he always naps in his crib and starts the night there, which is huge!). But there are those days where I get tight and upset and fearful. I wonder if he will even sleep longer than 3-4 hours and that quickly spirals into “Will he develop into a normal child?”

Like most parenting decisions, our current sleep issue boils down to the difference between intentionality vs. intensity. The word “intentional” sometimes gets a bad rep, but I think that’s when it is confused for intensity. Intentionality is rooted in purpose and vision and dreaming. Intensity is rooted in fearfulness and anxiety.  Intentionality is freeing because it gives you a vision; intensity is bondage because it keeps growing and growing.

We all want to be intentional with our money–to know what we have and how much we make and where it goes. But we also all know people who are intense with money–who are stingy or constantly talking about it or miserable about spending a dime. Money is at the forefront of every decision, and life becomes stressful. The same is true with intense parenting.

It’s so easy for me to cross the line into intensity and make decisions out of fear–fear of missing out on something important, fear of how my child will turn out. I can become so busy preventing any potential problem that I miss living in the present.

In almost every aspect of life, I’ve found that it is important to be intentional. By this, all I mean is have a plan, a vision. It helps to write it out. Our vision for Liam’s sleeping is that he will stay in his own crib at night eventually and be able to soothe himself back to sleep as soon as possible. I don’t tag on anything too strict like “by next month” because at this point, that would just discourage me.

A vision of what I want for my home and family helps me figure out concrete steps (when there are some, and there aren’t always concrete steps!). It can be frustrating to take concrete steps without some sort of vision. For example, I tried cleaning my closet without having a plan and managed to get rid of a few things, but the mess always came back. Once I decided I wanted a lovely, clean, welcoming home, it was easier to get rid of clutter to make that happen. I have been able to take concrete steps to change what we own.

A vision–or having intention–helps me. With my baby’s sleep, it’s been life-changing. Instead of focusing as much on daily successes and failures, I implement changes and then look at overall progress.

I hope this will play out in our lives this way: our vision is a happy, healthy, home in which the child(ren) know and love God and love others well. I want them to be equipped to fight injustice and be brave and live as image-bearers of God in the world. This vision keeps me from getting hung up on Liam’s refusal to eat solids right now, or, in the future, the paranoia of not getting into the right preschool (or college!). The intentionality of the vision keeps me from being intense in the details. It also keeps me from the trap of comparison.

Intensity parenting is rooted in fear; intentional parenting is rooted in love. Intensity sees every second as crucial, every decision as black and white. Intentionality enjoys the journey because there is a plan and a goal–a framework.

And with parenting, as with the rest of life, we need a purpose–an aim, a design–so we don’t worry when each individual brush stroke fails to be perfect. It’s not about each stroke;it’s about the overall picture. It’s not about each unexpected stop or wrong turn; it’s about the overall journey and destination.

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