The Kiddy Pool: Bedtime Stories, Morphine, and the Peace of God

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Bedtime battles also make me think of the ways we resist what is good for us, as earthly children and as children of God.

I started reading Maria Tatar’s Enchanted Hunters for a scholarly project. The book ended up not quite relating to my research trajectory, but I kept reading anyway, mostly because I have LOTS of time on my hand for tangents. Tatar’s work examines children’s literature and children’s reading practices, emphasizing the unique ways that children “get lost” in fantastical stories. She uses the term “enchanted hunters” to intentionally refute the assumed passivity of our youngest “bookworms.” As Tatar explains, “enchanted hunters” are “active seekers of those glittering portals to forbidden and enchanting lands. Enthralled by words and narratives, we roam the textual terrain, wondering at its beauty and wandering in its lush intellectual precincts” (27).  I love the concept of enchanted hunters (though I’m drawn to the nerdy bookworm as well), because I still experience (and now watch my daughter experience) the magic of good storytelling.

One of Tatar’s chapters deals specifically with the ritualization of bedtime reading (a late-nineteenth-century phenomena that exploded in the twentieth century) and the ways that we use books to discipline and schedule children. Tatar calls bedtime a contested zone in which children strive to stay awake and parents struggle to get them to go to bed. I documented the frustrations inherent in the going-to-bed process in my first ever CAPC post  but at my house and other houses—and apparently throughout history—that bedtime battle wages on. Today, Tatar explains, there are hosts of 1-5 minute bedtime stories intended to fulfill the bedtime story ritual while remaining on schedule; apparently Shari Lewis of Lampchop fame wrote a lot of these stories, which seems ironic given “The Song that Doesn’t End” I guess when it got to the end of the day, even Lewis and Lampchop were no-nonsense. The irony Tatar points out, though, is the use of stories that ignite children’s imaginations just when their desperate parents long for peace and quiet.

Today’s remedies, however soporific the stories, seem silly but benign by historical comparison. Tatar documents the use of monsters (like the bogeyman and the sandman) that steal or harm children who won’t sleep, again with the reflection that terrified children are unlikely to rest quietly. She also cites dangerous products peddled to sleep-deprived parents, elixirs like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a morphine-based formula that put babies to sleep, some to wake with addictions and some never to wake at all.  Yet even today, the popular book On Becoming Babywise, when applied without wisdom, has been linked to infant dehydration and failure to thrive. These examples represent a spectrum of historical and contemporary sleep advice, and all of them point to bedtime as a source of conflict. As Tatar claims, “It is then that adults and children can be most at odds with each other, as adults seek separation and children long for companionship and comfort” (42). Both of those desires are valid and real, but no parent (especially of small children) can deny the necessity of sleep, or the misery and desperation that sleep-deprivation can trigger.

I am in the privileged position, right now, of being able to look at these sleep conflicts with at least a little critical distance, since I am no longer in the throes of newborn waking. It takes only an illness or a tooth, though, or any number of milestones or transitions, to send us back to that foggy state. There is nothing like sleep-deprivation to remind me of my mortality, my “embodiedness”, since my mind and body and spirit all feel low when my sleep needs go unmet. Bedtime battles also make me think of the ways we resist what is good for us, as earthly children and as children of God. My toddler tells me she is “never tired” and she “stays up all night to play.” Some days that feels painfully true, but even when she is weeping from exhaustion, she will not admit her fatigue. Even the baby fights sleep, flailing in our arms until she is utterly spent. I wonder how often God looks upon His children and sees us—denying needs so evident to Him, kicking and thrashing against the gentle hand that guides us. I wonder how often He offers us the peace that passes all understanding, and we knock it away in a fit of tantrum, even though that peace is even better (so I hear) than morphine.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • duncan faber

    My kids love bedtime stories. Actually, we have 5 of them, so we started a new ritual. Bedtime audiobooks.  There’s lots of sites to download them, but we use one site in particular because the stories are all original and free. Here’s the link, if anyone is interested. http://www.twirlygirlshop.com/moral-stories-for-kids


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