The Bedtime Dance

We all know the drill. It’s been a long day, everyone is tired and it’s time for the kids to go to bed. Every step of the process feels like herding cats. Once there is more than one child in the home, the steps to this dance become even more complex. It makes tired parents want to hop up on a horse and lasso those kiddos right in to bed!

As I have witnessed our bedtime successes and struggles over the years, I have a theory on why this time of day is so hard: There is a mismatch in what parents and children want at that time of day. Parents are tired. We have made it through dinner and know that clean up, lunch packing, our own chores are all still waiting for us. If we can just get the kids to bed, we may even get a chance to relax before it’s time for us to go to bed.

What about the kids? They may not have had much time with us if they have been in school or childcare. They have some food in their bellies and your focused attention. There are no phones or computer distracting us and they finally can have some quality time with mom and dad. No wonder they want to keep that going as long as possible. Add in some books and cuddle time, and now they are relaxed and ready to really connect, just as we are halfway out the door.

So there it is. Parents are ready to say goodnight and get some time to themselves, children are in a calmer place and want more time with their parents. This mismatch of needs creates anxiety in both parent and child and can lead to endless bedtime struggles. From running away when it’s time to brush teeth to a litany of requests for water, hugs, more light, less light, missing teddy bear, and more.

It really is a dance. One way to approach this is to be crystal clear on who is responsible for what steps in the routine. Think of it this way: If you were about to perform on Dancing with the Stars, you and your partner would both know who will step where and when they will do that. You would have agreed upon it ahead of time and practiced a great deal. There may be a few missteps along the way, but you wouldn’t let it derail you. You would just keep moving right along with a smile on your face. Now lets try that at home.

Learn Your Routine. Most families have a general order of steps in getting ready for bed. Does everyone, even your youngest, really know the steps or are they only in your head? It would be hard to perform a dance if you didn’t know the steps. So lets make sure all of our little stars have the script. Create a routine chart. Take a picture of all of the steps in your bedtime routine. Little ones love to do this. You can “play” bedtime at another time of day and walk through the steps taking pictures along the way. Make a sign with all the pictures and with the step written underneath. Older kids will get a kick out of this too. Ask them to be a reporter writing a story about bedtime. They can even take the pictures themselves. Other options are drawing the pictures, cutting them out of magazines or using clipart on the computer. Whichever way you do it, make it fun.

Set The Stage. Your poster is up and ready. Make sure each cast member knows the order of the steps and can identify them on the script. If you child is old enough, make sure they can get to their pajamas, tooth brush, etc. Another helpful tool is to make sure everyone is clear on how long the dance takes. If bedtime is at 8 p.m., make sure you have enough time for all the steps. If one step takes much longer than planned, the time for other parts of the routine will have to be shortened. This is not a punishment. It’s a clear limit that every family member is aware of ahead of time.

It’s Showtime! This is one of my favorite parenting tools ever. LET THE ROUTINE BE THE BOSS. This is a key component of Positive Discipline parenting. If we all know the steps to our dance, we, as parents, don’t have to get on our high horse and step into lasso mode. When your 3 year old goes running off to play instead of brushing teeth, you have a script on the wall showing her the steps. Take a deep breath and say, “What needs to happen next so we can get to book time?” or “Lets look at our chart together, what comes next?” It is interesting to watch what happens when we stop nagging and start treating our children as partners in the dance.

Tips for a Winning Performance

1) Remember that mismatch of needs at bedtime. Be mindful of that as you set up your bedtime routine. Make sure there is ample time for connecting and cuddling. I find this is often a time of day my 5 year old likes to share deeper thoughts and feelings she is having. This often caused the show to end a little too late. We realized by starting the bedtime process a few minutes earlier, we could fit this in and still meet all of our needs. We also have asked her more thought provoking questions at dinner in hopes of creating another time for her to share and connect.

2) It’s not all about the steps, your emotions matter too. What makes for a great performance? The love the performers put in to the show. Since our children are longing for more connection time, make sure bedtime is a time when you are truly focused on them. Let the phone go to voicemail and really stay present. If we rush through the steps with no feeling or don’t pay attention as they are happening, we lose that moment to connect. Our children miss it and will try to make up for it by extending bedtime even more.

3) Treat your dance partner well. If you are respectful to your children, they are more likely to do the same. Take a 4-year-old delaying bedtime by running away. When you ask what needs to happen next, use a tone of curiosity. If you can leave out the judgment, you will invite your dance partner to come back to the dance with respect. I know the question you are dying to ask: What if they don’t come back? There are a many options: You can go over, put your hand on them, and point to the chart. You can take their hand, lead them to the chart, and ask them again. You can pick them up in a kind, gentle way and carry them to the chart. You can wait in the bathroom and say; “I will be in the bathroom when you are ready to brush your teeth.” You can show them the clock and gently remind them that we need to brush teeth and finish getting ready for bed so we can have our cuddle time. As long as these are done with both kindness and firmness (another key component of Positive Discipline), they are all fine options.

Encore! Celebrate your success. Tell your child how much you appreciated the teamwork. Give yourself a pat on the back for staying calm and present through the routine. This time of day is a challenge for many families. With some commitment, practice and encouragement, you and your family can have a bedtime dance that will steal the show!