Why Sally Doesn’t Have a Bedtime

Would you believe that Sally doesn’t have a bedtime? Well, she doesn’t. She used to. We tried to put her to bed at 8:30 each night, and each night turned into a battle. “If you don’t go to bed when it’s your bedtime, you will be tired in the morning,” we told her. “No I won’t!” she insisted. So we would let her stay up, figuring that the next day she’d be tired and learn her lesson, and then she’d finally understand why she needed to go to bed at 8:30 each night. Except that it didn’t exactly work out that way.

I don’t remember when we gave up trying to insist on Sally having a bedtime. Maybe it was when I realized that there was no real reason she had to go to bed at a certain time. Maybe it was when we were just all tired of fighting a war with each other. Or maybe it was when we realized that giving Sally a bedtime simply wasn’t needed.

Every night we have supper, wash dishes, clean up a bit, play a game, sit around and read, and maybe watch a TV show. Sometimes we go to the Y or the library. Bobby goes to bed by eight o’clock, exhausted little baby that he is by then, but we three stay up. At that point Sean and I usually switch into work mode, me blogging or doing my graduate school work and Sean working on his own studies or grading exams. Sally plays games on the iPad, builds with k’nex, or looks at books. Sometimes we put a movie on in the background, often Planet Earth. The hours tick slowly by.

Then, sometime between 9:00 and 11:00, Sally announces that she is tired and wants to go to bed, and asks us to tuck her in. And then she does, just like that, entirely voluntarily and with no fuss. Last night it was 9:07. The night before it was 10:35. Sometimes she’s tired and grumpy in the morning, and when that happens I let her know that she probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and we talk about the importance of sleep and how we feel when we’re tired. But usually she’s fine. She’s pretty good at figuring out when she’s tired and regulating her own sleeping habits.

One reason Sean and I originally gave Sally a bedtime was that we valued the quiet alone time that came after the kids were in bed. Interestingly, letting Sally decide for herself when to go to bed hasn’t messed that up. She’s good at playing quietly and independently, and if she starts to infringe on our ability to get done the things we need to get done, we simply remind her that we are working and it’s late and encourage her to use good interpersonal skills (i.e., if you want our attention, ask nicely and be patient). Since we make a point to have more interactive family time earlier in the evening, though, this usually isn’t too much of an issue.

If Sally is still up when we’re ready to go to bed ourselves—whether solely for sleep or for sleep with a side of intimacy—we let her know that we’re tired and are going to bed. Since we usually don’t go to bed until around 11:00, she’s almost always already in bed. If she’s still up she usually either opts to go to bed herself or to play quietly in her room, and sometimes she simply takes the iPad into bed with her. We make it clear that we’re going to bed and don’t want to be disturbed, and it’s never been a problem.

I suspect that part of why this works for us is simply Sally, but I also suspect that a large part of it is that Sally doesn’t see staying up late as some sort of special privilege. Most kids have regular bedtimes, and if they’re allowed to stay up without a bedtime, it’s a huge special treat and they take it as a sort of challenge to see how late they can stay up. They’re not used to self regulating, because they’ve never had to. Instead, they binge. But Sally doesn’t feel the need to binge. She doesn’t see staying up as something special or going to bed as something to be avoided. Instead of trying to make her conform to some artificial bedtime, we’ve taught her to be responsible about sleep and allowed her to make her own decisions and self regulate.

Again, I’m not saying that this would necessarily work for every child, and even if it it would I’m not saying it’s something everyone has to do. There are lots of other tools in the positive parenting toolbox for making a set bedtime a positive and enjoyable thing. Indeed, I was originally skeptical the first time I heard someone tell me she didn’t give her kids a bedtime, and I set out to do the whole bedtime thing. All I’m saying is that as it has worked out for us, Sally doesn’t have a bedtime, and at this point in time we couldn’t be happier with that.

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