My nine-year-old son, my last child, came to me last night and announced, “Mom, I’m ready for bed.” This is part of his bedtime routine. I understand the importance of routines and have been almost militaristic in establishing routines, including bedtime routines.
“Have you brushed your teeth?” I ask. I know the answer is yes, but this is part of our routine.
“Yes,” he says. “Look.” I look. He gives me his I-need-to-poop face, trying to bare his teeth for me without smiling, looking like he’s in pain.
“You didn’t brush the fronts. Try again,” I say. My little man stomps off for round two. I listen for the sound of the toothbrush, and five seconds later he is back.
“Now look, Mom.” I pull his lips up, down, and back for inspection.
“Well, this is better, but not good enough. Bring me your tooth brush.” This time the stomps are accompanied by wailing: “Not again! That makes three times!” Maybe three is the lucky number, like the last trip to the dentist which turned into three trips in order to fill all the cavities resulting from not brushing well enough.
He hands me the toothbrush. “What’s in your mouth?” I ask. He opens his mouth to show me a peppermint candy. He moves it to his cheek. “I just found it,” he says. Where he found it is anybody’s guess, and I don’t ask; I don’t want to know.
“Spit it out.”
“Mom! I just put it in!” He protests as peppermint spit flies out of his mouth.
“We are brushing, Son, not eating. Spit it out.” I hold the garbage can under his chin. He slowly releases the candy from his mouth, watching as it tumbles onto used tissues and Q-tips. He looks up at me. I hold up the toothbrush and he opens wide.
For the third time tonight, his toothbrush enters his mouth. This time, though, I make sure it is actually touching his teeth, cleaning off the peppermint residue. Last night it was cracker residue. The night before that, popcorn.
I ask my little man why we have to do this every night. He shrugs. It’s the best answer he can give with a mouth full of toothpaste, but his lips form a smile. I suspect he likes the one-on-one attention he gets from me every night for just a few minutes. His bedtime routine will soon change: he’ll become a teenager, like his older brothers and sister, and not want any extra attention from his mom. He’ll eventually brush well enough that I don’t have to inspect his teeth every night. He’ll learn to say goodnight in the kitchen before he heads up to his bedroom in order to avoid the nightly kiss on the cheek.
For now, though, his bedtime routine includes a cursory brushing or two of his teeth, and a thorough brushing courtesy of Mom. We finish with a song, a hug goodnight, and that kiss on the cheek as I pull the covers up to his chin.
I know that all-too-soon he’ll wipe that kiss off his cheek, but I think I would give up his willingness to accept the affectionate kiss on the cheek if he would just learn to brush his teeth.