Q. We are the proud parents of a beautiful, well-adjusted 7-year-old boy, an excellent, possibly gifted, student.
He is a classroom leader, well-coordinated, loves sports and has many friends. At home he is very affectionate with us all, and the affection is returned. His older half-sisters, his father and I worship him.
His sleeping habits are a big problem, however. He has always been a poor sleeper, waking up several times a night since he was born except for a few weeks or months when he slept through the night.
He now wakes during the night and wants either his father or me to sleep in his bed. We know this is a bad practice, but we don't know what to do. He is very loud in his protestations, and soon resorts to hysterics if he doesn't get his way.
His father and I are exhausted. We decided to have him bring his pillow and blanket into our room to sleep on the floor beside our bed if he wakes up and can't get back to sleep. We thought if he was the one inconvenienced, he would get tired of it soon, but it only worked for two nights. The next two nights were a disaster.
He says he can't get to sleep and quickly gets hysterical, and then I spend the rest of the night in his bed.
We are being held hostage by this very stubborn little person who will do whatever it takes to get his own way. He doesn't always get it during the day, but it's hard to think clearly in the middle of the night.
A. A child who "doesn't always get his way" by day -- and always gets it by night -- is in for some serious comeuppances in life.
As much as you love your son, you can't give him so much power. It's not only hard for him to handle, but it sets him on a pedestal. Sooner or later it will topple, and your good relationship will topple with it.
You can't let him do whatever he wants, no matter how adorable he is, any more than you can do for him what he should do for himself. The more you indulge him, the less adorable he'll be and the more you do for him, the less confident he will be. It's as important for a child to learn independence as it is to learn values, and home is where he learns these lessons best.
Before you make any changes in his discipline, however, take your son to a pediatric allergist who is familiar with poor reactions to foods as well as inhalants. This checkup is particularly important if your boy rubs his nose a lot or has red ear lobes, wrinkles or dark circles under his eyes, or dry, patchy skin -- some of the many chronic or intermittent symptoms an allergy can cause.
Look back to those few weeks and months when he slept through the night, to see if you can remember if anything in his room or his diet was different. Mold, dust mites, a kapok pillow -- or the pussycat who sleeps on his bed -- may be making your son feel a little asthmatic in the night, and consequently a little scared. According to the Gesell Institute of Child Development, New Haven, Conn., a sensitivity can even cause a child to have night terrors.
Reaction to a food -- especially milk, or a milk product -- can also make a child sleep badly. You can check out this and other trigger foods at home, by following the elimination diet test outlined in "Conquering Your Child's Allergies" by M. Eric Gershwin and Edwin L. Klingelhofer (Addison-Wesley, $18.95).
Even if your son is allergic, however, he has a bad habit to break -- and so do you. You just can't take his wants so seriously.
A 7-year-old is young enough to sleep with a teddy and a night light, but old enough to sleep by himself, and to understand the reason. It's a discussion best held in the light of day, without fussing or fanfare.
Tell him that you and his dad have talked it over and decided that he doesn't have to sleep at night, but that you do. From now on he's welcome to turn on the light and read or to listen to tapes or the radio quietly, but that he'll have to stay in his room, and go to school in the morning, even if he's sleepy.
Start this regime on a long weekend, so you can sleep in for the first few mornings, and don't back down, even once. He'll shriek -- perhaps louder than you've ever heard him -- but you handle him the same way you'd handle a much younger child. You or your husband will go to him after about 10 minutes, tell him he's going to be fine and quickly leave the room, acting a little more businesslike every time. You'll probably have to go through that routine a dozen times a night for four to five nights, but if you don't negotiate at all, and don't let your daughters intercede, he should come around within a week.
Congratulate him when he shows even the slightest improvement -- a thoughtful little thank-you note is particularly effective now -- and let him hear you brag about him to his sisters.
There may be some slip-ups but stick to your resolve. In a month or so he'll be so well-adjusted, you and your husband can distribute your children among your kind friends and take a well-deserved weekend away. Alone.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.