Before I had my second daughter, multiple friends and family members tried to warn me what would happen after the new baby arrived: "Just don’t freak out—there’s a big difference between having a newborn, and having a newborn and a 2-year-old."
"Thanks," I’d snap. "I can handle it."
I suppose I did handle it because, eight years later, we are all still alive and relatively sane, but I did not manage it well. Just remembering the obscene levels of sleep deprivation I endured makes me feel skittish.
Those early, fuzzy years have been haunting me anew after reading about a recent recent study from Harvard’s Maryam Kouchaki and the University of Utah's Isaac H. Smith showing a correlation between a person’s energy level and their ethical behavior. As the day wears and our energy wanes, so does our resolve to act ethically.
In discussing the implications of the study on the workplace, Kouchaki writes, "people were 20% to 50% more likely to be dishonest in the afternoon …because they were depleted of the resources they needed for self-control. Gradually increasing fatigue from unremarkable activities can lead to systemic moral failure. Even ethical people can’t avoid it."
What does this mean for exhausted, strung-out working parents?
With the exception of the two days my husband and I went to New Orleans for our 10th wedding anniversary, I don’t think I slept through the night, or sufficiently in any 24-hour period, until my youngest was three years old. Add to that monotony of things like endless games of Candy Land, diaper duty, doling out a constant stream of Cheerios one by one—often after a full day of work—and it’s a wonder I didn’t hatch a Ponzi scheme or develop an afternoon shoplifting habit when my kids were young.
It may not be considered unethical to feed your kids Rice Krispies treats and V8 for dinner, but don’t think it’s considered fine parenting. I’ll admit, I may have served such fare once or twice after a particularly tiresome day, and yet I know I’d never consider such a meal for their breakfasts (and Rice Krispies are breakfast food!).
Kouchaki elaborates that the "findings suggest that mere time of day can lead to a systematic failure of good people to act morally." Maybe the world shouldn’t have been so hard on Britney Spears after photos emerged of her driving with her infant on her lap. What time of day was that?
But now we know, and knowledge is power (once you get over the terrifying significance of it). Don’t beat yourself up for ethically questionable choices you made in the past—you were likely very tired. However, here are few recommendations to help keep yourself in line, even in those early evening hours when you are tempted to just go ahead and let your kids tie-dye their guinea pig:
Set non-negotiable rules with your kids. You’ve got less of a chance of being walked on later in the day if you instill sacrosanct rules from the outset. Just like my kids know that they aren’t allowed to cross the street without me, they know that there is no snacking after 5 p.m. and that they can’t go on the computer without my permission. Rules are great!
Get that kid to sleep through the night. There’s not a lot you can do about diaper duty, and it’s often hard to deflect, or even resist, a game of Chutes and Ladders (an "unremarkable activity" if there ever was one), but the cumulative effect will be much less if you’ve clocked a decent amount of sleep at night. Still wrestling with cry-it-out vs. attachment parenting? Dr. Harvey Karp's books have some well-respected, pediatrician-recommended tips for helping everyone in the family get more shut-eye.
Remember what’s important. Conserve your energy and don’t give in to the pressure—or guilt—to be the Best Parent in the World. No one can do it all, and you will exhaust yourself even more trying to keep up with everything the media tells you is important. Love and safety should always top the list. Infant yoga sounds great, but not if the quest for it is going to land you in solitary confinement.
Stay away from online gambling after 4 p.m. You should probably stay away from it throughout the day, but who am I to judge?