Dear Dr. Debbie,
My worst time of day is the children’s bedtime. My boys, 4 and 7 years old, are either fighting with each other or with me as soon as I say it’s time to put their toys away and get ready for bed. If it’s a bath night, you can add in about a dozen more arguments. By the time they’re finally asleep, I’m too exhausted physically and emotionally to get any housework done so I collapse on the couch or drag myself to bed. My husband’s job often has him working late or traveling, so I’m usually in this alone.
Just Go to Sleep
Don’t miss last week’s column Managing the unwritten rules of the playground — Good Parenting
The ideal bedtime is consistent and predictable, and most of all, pleasant, leaving no room for arbitrary arguments. A successful bedtime routine is an enjoyable part of the day for everyone if you include the three R’s.
Create a logical order to the tasks that need to be completed before your children go to sleep. This can start with an alarm going off or your verbal announcement that it’s almost time to put the toys away. Depending on their ages and personality, this can be 30 seconds to 30 minutes before the actual clean up time. The child whose age or personality has him changing focus frequently does not need as much advance notice as the child who could spend a couple of hours on a Lego project. If the children typically watch tv as a last activity of the day, time your announcement for the beginning of their last show.
If it’s been several hours since dinner, you might want to have a snack as the next part of the routine. A 4-year-old likes the same snack every night. A 7-year-old would probably enjoy fixing a snack for himself. Carbohydrates will raise then lower blood sugar, making them sleepy. (Choose whole grains for less of a spike and drop.) Proteins will help to dampen the effect so they’re not too groggy in the morning. My children’s favorites were warm molasses milk, parmesan popcorn and almond butter on apple slices. Now there’s real purpose to the tooth brushing — to clean off the just-eaten food.
Routinely reading a story before sleeping can stimulate the imagination and add to vocabulary at any age, as well as become a lifelong good habit. Decide on the limit — in time or number of books — and stick to it. The 4-year-old will probably choose two familiar books that you and he have memorized all the words to. The 7-year-old might be ready for a “chapter book” that leaves him dreaming about what’s to come next.
It works nicely if they can enjoy this time together with you, if not, stagger them so that the older one is doing an easy chore or reading to himself before you take a turn with him.
Consider that if what your family has gotten used to is about an hour of aggravation, it’s not unreasonable to invest in transforming this time to an enjoyable transition at the end of each day. A good bedtime routine is well-timed. Start well before their — and your — energy for the day is completed. A too-tired child starts to experience a rise in the stress hormone, cortisol. This can make him whiny, uncooperative and downright combative.
If your own energy is lacking, try to find a reserve tank to get you through the last lap of your parenting day. A quick pep talk with yourself might help, including a visualization of what you are looking forward to after the children are down for the night. (See the suggestion for a parenting mantra below.)
Bath nights need a little extra time to be worked into the routine, and more time if the boys get wild in the water. If they can’t get along in the tub, stagger this as well.
Hopefully, once a positive routine takes hold, you will look forward to the stories and snuggles as much as the children.
Use your evening routine to reinforce messages of love and appreciation. Some parents make a habit of telling each child something they were proud of or enjoyed about their child each day. You might retell a story about their babyhood, or remind them of the wonderful qualities they possess.
Your 4-year-old might enjoy going over a list of who he loves and or the people who love him before he goes to sleep. Your 7-year-old might enjoy a short recap of the highs and lows of his day and your help in looking forward to highlights, and encouragement if needed, for tomorrow’s agenda. This is also a great time to connect with back rubs and prayer.
Besides being overtired or frustrated that they were interrupted from their play, the main reason children resist bedtime is that they don’t want to leave you. Saying good-night is saying good-bye when you are a young child. The way you manage bedtime can assure them that they will be protected by their beloved parent through the night, and treasured for years to come.
In your own state of fatigue, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re doing. Are you parenting with a purpose or just getting by day to day? As an adult, you have more capacity for seeing things from someone else’s point of view (your children’s), seeing into the future (even if that’s an hour from now), and stepping back into the “big picture” of what this moment in family life is about.
Get a second wind from a good parenting mantra. To start a discussion with yourself about your parenting purpose, I recommend Lawrence Steinberg’s list of parenting commandments.
Find your strength so you can reassuringly share it with your children.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]