Bedtime Rules

Trying to get young kids to go to bed (and stay there) can drive parents crazy. Whether your child is restless or fearful, here are some ideas to help you solve your bedtime blues.
What works at age 3 might not at age 6.

Shortly after Amy turned 3, she transformed bedtime into a game of Let's See How Crazy I Can Make My Parents. Five minutes after her parents tucked her into bed, Amy would be downstairs asking, "When's my birthday?" or "What are you talking about?"

Her mom and dad would answer her question, lead her back to bed, tuck her in, go downstairs, and wait. Five minutes later she'd be standing in front of them, looking innocent.

"What is it, Amy?"

"Ummm, I forgot to tell you something. I, ummm, saw a cat today."

And back to bed she'd go, until she thought of something else to ask or say, or a reason to be scared and call out. Sometimes she'd have a request, such as "I need orange juice!"

Think like a 3-year-old. After months of trying everything to get her to stay in bed, her father thought of a way to outsmart her. One night, while tucking her in, he leaned over and whispered, "When we leave your room, Amy, you can fool us by quietly closing your door, turning on the light, and playing with your toys. If you're quiet, we won't hear you. We'll think you're asleep, we won't get mad, and you can play until you fall asleep!"

Her eyes got big and she giggled. Dad continued, "If you make a noise, or open your door, then we'll have to put you back to bed and turn out the light. So let's see if you can fool us tonight, Amy. Let's see how quiet you can be."

Magic! From that night on, Amy delighted in "fooling" her parents. Every evening, they tucked her in and reminded her of their gullibility. Shortly thereafter, Amy would fall asleep on her own.

"Fooling" her parents worked because it appealed to Amy's 3-year-old imagination and to her desire to control her world. Pleading, threats, spankings, or bribes don't work because they fail to deal with kids at their level.

Set guidelines. What works with a 3-year-old won't work with a 6-year-old. A 6-year-old child's focus is on privileges. Nothing is more important than being able to go outside and play with friends, watch favorite programs on TV, and stay up as late as possible. Getting kids of this age to pay attention is a matter of manipulating privileges to show the link between freedom and responsibility.

Take, for instance, the parents of 6-year-old Philip. He was insisting that one of his parents stay with him until he fell asleep. If they balked, he would cry and scream until they gave in. They had tried reasoning with him, letting him cry it out, and bribes of various sorts. They even gave him a water pistol filled with make-believe "monster repellent."

Let the child solve the problem. A parenting expert suggested that Philip be given responsibility for the problem and, therefore, a chance to solve it. If, at bedtime, he wanted one of his parents to stay with him until he was asleep, a parent would stay. The next day, however, Philip was not allowed to watch TV and was put to bed one hour early.

It took several weeks before Philip suddenly announced that he didn't want any company at bedtime.

"I'm mad at you," he told his parents. "That's all right, Philip," they said. "If you're mad at us, and you don't want us around, we understand. Call us if you change your mind."

That was the beginning of Philip's new life, a life free from bedtime fears. If he was afraid, he didn't tell anyone. He handled it by himself. Which is what growing up is all about.

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