A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens.
Rather than a treasured end to the day, bedtime is a time of dread – a routine that goes on forever.
"Daddy, I'm scared."
"I need a drink of water."
"I have to tell you something I forgot to tell you."
"Daddy. Daddy. Daddy."
I mean forever.
What not to do
Do not read just one more book or give an encore rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Once the official bedtime has arrived – whenever you decide that may be – anything you do other than disengage is a mistake. As soon as bath time, story time and whatever other nighttime ritual you have is over, interaction between you and your child must end. And since they won't end it, you must.
What to do
The standard definition of bedtime is a child is in bed, the lights are off, the room is quiet. I would offer a different definition: Bedtime is the end of meaningful contact with parents.
"Goodnight, my darling, darling."
"Goodnight, biggest Daddy."
Then after the three hugs and the three "Goodnight Daddy's" that are a part of their standard goodnight ritual, it is bedtime.
"Daddy, just for tonight. One more hug."
But bedtime – the end of meaningful contact with parent – has arrived. "Goodnight my darling," says Evan's father as he leaves his son's room.
"But Daddy, just for tonight. Please. Daddy." But, because it is bedtime, Evan's father is no longer there. Daddy has been replaced by what I like to think of as a robot parent, who is there for genuine emergencies, but no meaningful contact. So when Evan comes to his father with yet another, "Do spiders attack more in the dark?" all Evan gets is a robot-like, "Go to bed." Not angry. Just stated. Nothing more. Definitely not "Evan, how many times do I have to tell you to go to bed?" Which will invariably get, "But Daddy, I can hear them. You have to come sit with me. I can hear them."
The hardest thing about bedtime for kids is the separation. But if you make it consistently clear that once bedtime has arrived they are on their own, they will learn not to try very hard to get your attention or your company, because they will never succeed.
A note: This definition of bedtime does mean that if they are in their room after bedtime, and maybe the light is on, and maybe they are doing a quiet activity – not bothering anybody – that is okay. Kids have different patterns for settling themselves down for the night. This bedtime definition allows for those differences. Overall, it is a definition of bedtime that can make for much more pleasant evenings.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.