Please, I beg you, put your adorable child to bed. Wait, what? You're going with him? My recent column sparked a lively debate on childrens' bedtimes...
Short People Got No Reason To Still Be Up
The time at which people choose to put their kids to bed can tell you a lot about them. Exactly what it tells, besides a lot, is unclear. There are all kinds of reasons people keep their kids up super late or put them to bed early. It could be habit. It could be that one parent gets home late and wants to see the kids—I’m sympathetic to this, though I don’t believe it’s a sustainable daily plan, or that it’s about the kids as much as the adult.
It could be a deep-seated philosophy, or a groovy, mellow approach to life, or an authoritarian streak, or, you know, they could just be people who make weird choices. Some people are annoying, as you well know. It’s not one size fits all.
What is clear is that even among parents who are raising their kids similarly, with the same guiding principles and rules, there are radically different choices made in the Bedtime Galaxy.
Sometimes my kids are tucked in early because I’d like to begin drinking wine early on a given night. Sometimes I want to catch the end of Hardball and hear what Megamouth Matthews has to tell me. Sometimes I don’t want to provide any more healthy snacks for the day. No, you cannot have two more cheese sticks and a bowl of dry Puffins. If our refrigerator door doesn’t collapse from exhaustion and fall off its hinges, it should be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute.
Sometimes I put them to bed on the early side because my nine-year-old son gets into the shower with his socks on. Yes he does. He tosses these balls of suds onto the bathroom tile with two wet, woolly slaps. This creates a small, exciting flood—Whoa, he says—that he will step over as he leaves the bathroom, and I feel suddenly weary and need him to be in another room for ten hours.
Sometimes they’re allowed stay up late because they’re watching a good movie, or we’re hanging out with family friends. Maybe there’s a big NBA game on, which we all happen to love, and we let them see a quarter or two. Or let’s say they’re being particularly sweet and docile and it’s a pleasure having them up and about the cabin a little longer. Now that kind of added value I really enjoy from time to time.
But for the most part, our kids understand that lights-out rolls up around the same time each day: 7:30ish. They’re allowed to read in their beds for a while and rarely protest. It’s as if they understand that much beyond that time, we’re all no good for each other. We’ve been a loving, companionable family for the past 12 hours and now it’s time to part ways for a spell. Let’s go ahead and make these hearts grow fonder, shall we?
Our kids are only in elementary school, but I’m told by the world that as they grow, there will be so much homework, so many extra-curricular odysseys in the evenings, that the family will become a constantly moving, unrelenting, tentacled organism living in full service to the non-stop appointments/achievements of the kids. Homework struggles at night, after long workdays, after dinner, sounds like a tragedy. The point is, it seems impossible that I will be able to put them to bed at 7:30 for much longer, not when they have science-y things and baffling TERC math to do, not when they have basketball, ballet, chess, squash, and harps to play. We’re going to need some kind of garret to send them to so they can go up there and accomplish all of these enriching and stressful endeavors well into the night, because otherwise, what happens? The whole family all goes to bed at the same time? Like pioneers? Do we all share a bed and blow out an oil-soaked lantern together? When do the adults have enough privacy to create the humans we’re letting stay up until 10 p.m.?
As for parents who routinely enable late bedtimes and evening loosey-gooseyness, I don’t always understand what the reasons could be. I used to be surprised when friends that I otherwise shared child-rearing commonality with would subject themselves to the company of their own toddlers after 8 p.m. I’d become distracted with thoughts like, Why is that kid still awake, walking around, needing things at 8:30? I mean, he’s cute but what’s the deal here? Can’t you see that the “burst of energy” your toddler is displaying is in fact a form of exhaustion and over-stimulation which you’re inflicting directly on him and indirectly on us? What did we do to deserve this? Are we still friends? The child isn’t crying because he’s “not tired” and “just not ready” for bed, he’s crying because you let him careen around in a fugue and “entertain himself” right into a state of pre-psychosis. Where are you going—wait, you have to go lie with him in his bed until he falls asleep? And then you fall asleep too? Oh. I see. Ok, cool. We’ll let ourselves out…
As a rule, I like rules. But I often let my kids stay up too late when the social situation suits or requires it. When they were babies, I was aware that I was imposing a kind of physiological torture on their developing rhythms, and a delayed penalty upon myself, as their cumulative crankiness would come to clobber me. So bedtime, within a half-hour margin or so, barring extenuating circumstances, remains one of my steadfast rules. My reasons for this are obvious to me, though not always to my kids on the occasions they ask to stay up late. That part doesn’t matter because, well, they’re kids. A primary motivation is the fact that my children never sleep any later in the morning regardless of what time they go to bed. (Also, neither do your kids. Not unless they’re teenagers, in which case, you’ll need cattle prods and smelling salts to rouse them.)
For example, we might spend an evening out at a Celebrate Brooklyn concert, picnicking, talking, cured-meat-and-cheese-eating with friends, unable to actually make out any of the music, while a gang of our kids runs wild for hours, eats multiple treats, gets virtually breaded in Prospect Park’s smoky dirt-dust, and then get tossed unconscious into their bunks at 10:30 p.m. At 6:59 a.m. the next morning, they will be standing over our bed in the dark. Sure thing, why not get this day STARTED!
Summer is traditionally a period marked by lax bedtimes, even for a stickler like me. Often we’re on the beach all day, early morning until evening, doing what are generally acknowledged as plum-tuckering-out kinds of things: bruising sessions of body-surfing, swimming, biking, scootering, sun-baking, kadima-ing, knee-skinning, tv-tagging. Then, a late dinner, caterwauls for ice cream, some show watching, and holy crap look it’s 9:15 and the four of them have been up so long they’re asking for a second dinner because the first was three hours ago. They’re each handed a pile of peeled carrot bullets with Newman’s Ranch and sent to brush their teeth. Off to bed then, a bit of reading with headlamps, then salty, sunny, ocean-slammed sleep. Don’t get the wrong idea here: There will be no acknowledgement of such an extended day. They will rise and start over again in pre-dawn, wired to wake with the birds. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is why children are petite, vulnerable and adorable. If an adult stood over me and asked for lightly-toasted-toast-with-no-crust-on-the-toast and a cup of milk before sunrise, I would eliminate that person from my life.
Every night, right after we put the kids to bed, I miss them for a while. I miss my physical access to kissing them and hugging them and smelling their sweet little heads, which I do so persistently that they spend a lot of each day wrestling me off them. I miss talking to them and hearing them talk to each other, and I routinely use that first period of freedom all day long from work and kids to feel guilty about something I may have done or said to them, some small thing I regretted doing before tucking them in. As a result, I go stand by their door and eavesdrop on the conversations they have in the dark, right before sleep. Sometimes they’re brief, groggy back-and-forths, but sometimes I get to hear things so sweet that it makes me feel like my heart has burst outward, three feet in front of my body. Often, later, I’ll sneak into their rooms and look at them, which usually helps assuage any regrets from the day. There they are, fine and cozy, relatively undamaged to the naked eye by my inadequacies. What a glimpse of pure paradise—watching your children sleep. See? I just like to get that blessed experience underway as early as possible.
All of which is to say, there’s no real accounting for why parents do these things differently. I don’t know why everyone speaks so loudly to their children in public these days either—for all nearby parties to admire. Tell Mommy what you think about that, Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota, that’s right, yes. Oh baby Bushwick is so smart, isn’t she? Yes you are, baby Bushwick.
The running of a family and a household hangs very much on these kinds of choices, and it comes down to what kind of scene you want to set. Nobody is going to come along to identify which way is right and which is wrong. I mean, of course one way is right, but we all know that we’re all right already so it gets hard to figure. Personally, I feel that not having someone around at 10 o’clock who could ask me to peel him an apple or wipe his butt because I “do a better job” than he does is ideal. But you might be fine with this kind of task into the P.M. double digits. I’m far less equipped to be a kindly and open mother when my child embarks on an art project at 8 p.m. With pom poms and Mod Podge glue. It’s possible some parents are lonely.
It’s possible they’re bored when the kids are not underfoot, needing them. Maybe they like doing kiddie origami at night—when I’m eating a Hanco’s sandwich and watching Parenthood instead of doing more parenthood.
Perhaps they think other folks find their kids as charming and essential to the scene as they do. Here, a gift: my terrified four-year-old at the 8 o’clock movie. No sitters available! Look, some parents are able to remain patient longer and later into the day than others. And undeniably, certain kids are just flat-out easier than others. These kinds of characters might be awesome to hang out with at 9:15 on a Tuesday night.
I don’t know. I’m not a pediatrician or a childcare expert of any kind! But if you’re a parent struggling with choices like these, I direct you to a helpful text that details the latest philosophy and scholarship regarding sleep theory for children. It’s called “Go the F*ck to Sleep,” and you can find it wherever books are sold. You’ll have time to read it tonight, as soon as you put your kids to bed.
This essay first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on January 23, 2014.