What do you do when the bedroom becomes a battleground where unpleasant scenes are reenacted nightly between you and your child? As you look at the clock and see the time approaching you begin to feel tense and anxious just thinking about the struggle ahead.
You have tried bribes. You have tried threats. You have made promises and you have withheld privileges. You have commanded and ordered, or maybe you have pleaded. You may even have resorted to some forms of physical punishment. Sometimes your methods work, but more often they don’t. You long for your child to simply go quietly and peacefully to bed every night at bedtime. It doesn’t seem that it should be such a difficult thing.
This is not an easy problem to solve or parents would have solved it. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I would like to share a few thoughts about what was helpful to me when I used to put our young children to bed.
When our children were young I would watch them very carefully and try and understand what was going on in their heads. Their little minds fascinated me. Often they surprised me by how insightful they were. They frequently expressed intelligence and understanding beyond their age. I saw that I could reason with them and they liked it when I explained things to them, like my reasons for wanting a certain kind of behaviour.
I treated them like little adults because I knew that one day they would be adults and I wanted to have a good relationship with them when that time came. But at the same time I was aware that they were little children with the specific needs of children, one of which was that they needed to be secure in my love for them.
The other day I was in a store where a little boy of about three touched something and it fell and made a clattering noise. The mother scolded him and when he started to cry she tried to console him by telling him she loved him. Something seemed incongruent to me about this and I have wondered about it since. I have concluded that our children do not need to be told so much as showed that we love them. It seemed to me it would have been better if the mother would have recognized all the emotions her son was experiencing and then addressed those. For one, he was startled. Secondly, he was afraid of the possible repercussions. Thirdly, he was sad that he had disappointed his mother. She might have said, “It’s alright darling. I know it was an accident. Let’s pick it up and put it back. Be a bit more careful next time.” This would have done a couple of things. It would have given him a way to “fix” his blunder and it would have assured him of his mother’s love because she was there to comfort him and help him in his time of distress.
When our children don’t go to bed easily, it can be helpful to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Going to bed means being away from mom and dad. It means being shut up alone in a room. It means missing out on things. Maybe the child even suspects that the parents want him out of the way so that they can do something fun without him around. There are a lot of reasons, maybe more than these, why they don’t want to go to bed.
My husband tells me about being put to bed at 6:00pm and being wide awake for hours in his room. To me there does not seem to be much point in putting a child to bed when he is not tired.
When our children were little I watched them to determine when they were tired enough to put to bed. Usually it was around 8:00 or 9:00pm. I could tell because they looked and acted tired–drooping eyes, more sluggish movements. Sometimes they became a bit cranky as well and then I’d say, “It looks like it’s bedtime. You sound like you’re tired.” They might try and impress me with their good behaviour a bit longer, but it didn’t last.
We had a bedtime routine. Some people have snacks and teeth brushing. I wasn’t big on either. We dressed them in their jammies, sometimes after a bath, and then sang a song or read a story and prayed with them and tucked them in. We might answer a few questions, linger at the door a little, then turn out the light.
I realized that there had to be a certain amount of willingness on my part to “linger.” It’s like they had an appetite that needed to be satisfied with my presence. If you know your child well, you will know when they are extending this time beyond reason. Sometimes I would lie down with them and chat a little bit. I might explain that I would stay with them for a little while. I did everything I could to make bedtime a pleasant experience.
If they came out of the room I would tell them firmly that it was bedtime and they needed to go back to sleep. I would let them get a drink of water, or go to the bathroom, whatever their excuse was, but in the back of my mind they were going to bed, after their particular routine. I knew where the line was and they eventually did too. We never bribed or made promises. We just laid out our reasonable expectations.
Bedtime is such a precious bonding time that I always tried to preserve the feeling of closeness as I put the children to bed. At the door I’d say, “Sleep well. See you in the morning. I love you.” They would snuggle in, their eyes sleepy, and I would smile at them and close the door, but not all the way. I wanted to be able to hear them and they still liked to feel connected.
Although the time of day that I put the children to bed might not always be consistent, depending on whether we had company or were doing something special, the routine was consistent, as well as the goal of making bedtime pleasant. A few extra snuggles, another story. A bit of conversation, until they felt secure. That was our way of helping our children make the adjustment at bedtime.
This is not a formula that will work for everyone. There were ingredients in my relationship with our children that made this effective in our home. The children were already trained to understand my boundaries. They were secure in my love. My husband and I were consistent in our parenting and they knew that we would stick together and stick by our word. I believe it was our word, and our love and understanding of them, that motivated them, not the anticipation of rewards or the fear of punishment.
Training a child for bedtime probably involves some parental training too. I had to ask myself, “Is it really so important that this child goes to bed now?” “Is he sleepy?” “How much sleep does he need to be rested in the morning?” If I just want him to go to bed so that I can do my thing, he will know this and I should not be surprised if he resists. Wouldn’t you?
I always wanted my children to feel that they were first in my life, but they had to recognize that I had a life as well. I could say, “Mommy needs some time to read now,” or, “I’m going to do some sewing.” That way they could picture what mommy was doing. My husband and I did quiet things after the children were in bed, so as not to distract them while they were falling asleep.
Parenting is challenging, but I believe the key is taking time and understanding your child so that you can appropriately meet their needs. Bedtime does not need to be a dreaded occurrence. With a little insight and planning it can be a very natural and pleasant closing to a day.
Photo credits: David Costillo Dominica/FreeDigitalPhotos