Dear Dr. Ray,
Our four-year-old daughter fights going to bed nearly every night. We are exhausted and to the point where we allow her to stay up as long as she wants. Help! ―No good nights
The word “fight” means different things to different kids. To Eve, a bedtime fight means lying in bed nagging and whining until either you or she wears down. To Dawn, bedtime is not a real fight until she has to be pushed into the bedroom with a bulldozer, only to chew her way out through the wall six minutes later.
Since bedtime battlers fall on a continuum from soft to major league, we’ll cover strategies to deal with the whole range. Today, we’ll quiet the Eves of this world. Next time, we’ll lay to rest the Dawns.
Just what is it about sleep that arouses kids so much? Some don’t want to miss a thing; they know the real fun starts after they’re in bed. Others consider nighttime boring; they just sleep through it. Still others don’t want to be apart from the folks―really.
The most straightforward approach to easing bedtime badtimes is to reexamine Eve’s bedtime. Like grownups, kids need differing amounts of sleep. Unfortunately, none need nineteen hours. It may be that pushing your daughter’s bedtime back a half hour or so would put it more in “sync” with her biological clock, making her more ready to wind down and less ready to battle. Of course, if she’s a quartz model and doesn’t slow until 3:00 A.M., there are limits to your flexible bedtime.
Bedtime rituals also can help ease kids into sleep. Brush teeth together; tell each other a story; ask your daughter what she’d like to dream about; say prayers together; talk about the chocolate cake you’re having for breakfast―just kidding. In essence, you’re pairing good time with bedtime. Some kids will actually tolerate, even enjoy, going to bed if it means getting your undivided attention for ten to fifteen minutes prior. I once knew a kid who begged for morning and afternoon naps just to have a chance to repeat the nightly routine.
The above ideas won’t work for all kids. Sometimes all the savvy parenting in the world can’t circumvent the need for firmness. Let’s say that little Petula battles bedtime mostly through words and whining. She nags for twelve drinks of water, six bathroom trips, complains about the position of her stuffed animals, and pleads for every known relative to rescue her. Seldom will she leave her room, however. She may wander over to the doorway, but she won’t venture out. Thus, she can still be considered in the mild resister range. I know, that’s easy for me to say. I live in another state. To quiet her nightly monologue, work at becoming oblivious to it. No matter how much she drones, don’t go near her bedroom. There’s no way she can be afraid of the dark. Two 650-watt floodlights are illuminating her room and half the backyard. Seven dead bolt locks anchor the closet door; no monster could ever get out of that closet. A 55-gallon drum of juice is sitting next to her bed, with a Porta-John beside that. She could live up there for six weeks if she had to.
So what happens the first night you don’t answer the pleas? After forty-five minutes of nonstop wailing, Petula checks her watch, “Hmm, 9:15, where’s Mom? She’s usually up here ten or twelve times by now. Oh well, I’d better start knocking stuff off the dresser.” Stand firm. Get out of earshot if you have to. Turn up the television. Crawl under the basement steps. Park the car at the end of the street and take a nap in the back seat. But don’t give in. Even if you answer only once every six nights, you’ll just prolong Petula’s stamina. No question, it’s hard to be resolute. It’s even harder to battle at bedtime every night.
There’s a bright side to hearing your daughter ceaselessly plead, “Let me stay up later.” At least she’s at home. Twelve years from now, she won’t be home when she calls you ceaselessly pleading, “Let me stay out later.”