Christian Curmudgeon Condemns "Go the F*** to Sleep"

I’m not a prude.  I swear.

I was raised in a devout but non-legalistic home.  There was a stretch in grade school and junior high when I swore like the sailor who made other sailors blush.  Even today, there are one or two of the lesser expletives that escape my lips on rare occasions.  I enjoy sharing a glass of wine, a beer, or a Long Island Iced Tea with friends, or (more rarely) a cigarette or two.  I laugh at crude jokes, enjoy high school gross-out movies much more than I should, and find the florid foul language of some movie and TV characters hilarious.  I’m not saying I find these things harmless.  Not at all.  But I do find them funny.  While I’m no rebel, I’m no Ned Flanders either.

So it’s with some curiosity that I find myself concerned by Adam Mansbach’s book, “Go the F*** to Sleep!”

I thoroughly understand the sentiment.  I put my daughter to bed every night that I’m home.  She’s a tenacious fighter, a headstrong spirit, and willing to cajole and manipulate, to lie or feign hunger or thirst, whatever it takes to keep her daddy in the room a little longer.  I am a flawed and sinful parent.  I get angry and overwhelmed, ashamed and defeated, exhausted and at the end of my rope all in a single night.  So when I first saw the book title, and saw a PDF of the first couple pages, I laughed out loud and thought it a clever and harmless bit of bonding between parents over their shared exasperation.

I’m no longer so amused.  The book is now a Grade A cultural phenomenon.  You can hear it read aloud by Samuel L. Jackson.  If you’re only familiar with the title, some of the complaints might seem overwrought.  So if you don’t mind the language, you might want to listen before we go any further.  Because there have been complaints.  Our own Karen Spears Zacharias refers to the “violent language” of the book, language that “demeans children.”  Eric Metaxas, of whose book “Go the F*** to Sleep” appears to be a parody, argues:

I’m concerned that vulgarity has now officially entered the mainstream of our culture and I think people have to respectfully stand up and say “no thanks.”…I think we always have to ask ourselves: What kind of a culture do we want to live in? Because if we don’t think about that, and we don’t have the guts to speak up in a gracious and civil manner, then things will inevitably continue to slide in the same direction…Besides, a book with the title “Go the F*** to Sleep” is only one short step away from a hypothetical book written by a husband about his nagging wife, titled “Shut the F*** Up!” Couldn’t that be hilarious?…Also, can’t we admit that “Shut the F*** Up!” could slightly encourage spousal abuse? Don’t we think “Go the F*** to Sleep” might conceivably encourage child abuse? Not even slightly? Really?

On the positive side, there’s something good in knowing that other parents get flustered and feel like failures (the narrator eventually exclaims that he’s “a sh*tty-*ss parent”) when they can’t get their kids to sleep.  It’s good to laugh and commiserate.  But I find myself persuaded by the criticism:

  1. The book invites parents to imagine expressing their frustration in a series of ripe expletives.  That’s part of what makes it funny, of course, the juxtaposition of thoroughly foul language with the idyllic scene of a parent whispering a bedtime story to a little one.  It brings to mind the famous “Landlord Pearl” videos from Will Ferrell.  Karen’s right that the sad reality is that many parents do speak to their children this way.  It seems like every time I go to the mall, a carnival, or the aquarium, I hear parents cursing not only in front of their children, but at their children.  I find it appalling.  I’m also concerned — even though I sometimes laugh — at the extreme crudeness of the language in popular entertainment today.  Comedies intended for young people in recent years have shown a woman unknowingly using semen for hair-styling product; a young man masturbating with an apple pie in one movie and throwing his pubic hairs out a window and into the mouths of wedding guests in another; and high schoolers imagining their beefy female gym teacher in lingerie in order to prevent climax while engaging in sex acts with their girlfriends.  As Eric says, When do we say enough is enough?  Is there some point when thoughtful people — and perhaps especially thoughtful Christians and other people of faith — should stand up and call for less crudity and less coarseness in our public culture?  Should we object to this book — which tells a toddler to “Shut the f***up and sleep!” or “F*** your stuffed bear, I’m not giving you sh*t!” — before it gets worse?  The scary thing about a slippery slope is that no single step further down the slope seems like a big deal — but eventually you look back and realize you’ve descended a long way into the muck.
  2. It’s also hard to hear language like that (along with the author’s “a hot crimson rage fills my heart”) and not feel an implied menace or threat of violence.  Child abuse has long been, and remains today, a deep and pervasive problem in American culture — indeed, in human culture.  A healthy culture constructs moral, social and psychological barriers to violence against children.  For some people, because of their personality and upbringing, those barriers are thick and all but invincible.  For others, they’re precariously thin.  I think some of the folks who are saying “Of course no one would ever do that” are overestimating the goodness of millions upon millions of parents, or underestimating just how thin that barrier can be.  In fact, given the right (or wrong) circumstances even for them, the barrier might be far thinner than they believe.  For some people, it’s wafer thin, and it only takes a little bit more to break it down for their first act of violence against their children.  And let’s not pretend that verbal violence does not, even slightly, degrade the barrier against physical violence.  That’s usually where the road to physical violence begins.

More neutrally, I wonder if a part of the different responses to the book comes from the different ways in which we experience cursing.  If you’re in an environment where those words, when they’re spoken, carry a threat of violence (a testosterone-fueled environment, say), then you’re more likely to perceive that this book has a menacing aspect.  If you’re in an environment where those words are 99% of the time used in harmless jest (say, between computer nerds in a cubicle village), then the threat will probably seem remote to you.  But remember, those words do carry an implied threat in many places, and it’s not only computer nerds or the enlightened literati who are going to read this book.

My little girl.

Finally, this is going to sound almost unbearably self-righteous, so please know I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone else.  But what ever happened to the Philippians 4:8 principle?  “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

As one friend pointed out, it’s a remarkable and precious thing that my daughter so desires my presence that she will do just about anything to keep me in the room a little longer.  She takes comfort in having me near.  Even when she’s just lying there, reading a book, it matters to her to have me there.  It won’t always be that way.  Someday she’ll want to hide from friends when she’s with me, but right now she delights in pointing out her daddy.  Someday she’ll want to shut the door to her bedroom, blare the music and pretend that I don’t exist, but right now she wants to be with me as often and for as long as possible.

Rather than imagining cussing her out for her deceptive, scheming ways, isn’t it more pure, more lovely, to reflect on the tiny miracle that my daughter loves me and wants me beside her in the dark?

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Eric Metaxas on National Pride and the Destruction of History
The Idol of Love
Yes, Your Child is Difficult
About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Peter

    Forget the book “Go the F**k to Sleep”, a pathetic, soul-less, allegedly rebel, ‘children’s book’. Don’t waste your hard-earned money, instead read a BANNED book like “America Deceived II” by a real rebel and the “World’s Most Hated Author”, E.A. Blayre III.
    Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

  • Angela Edgerton

    Do you think you might ever write something that I don’t like? Or something that makes me bristle and want to leave snarky, self-righteous comments? :) I find that I spend more time than I’d like these days contemplating my son’s witness to profanity and crude behavior in the media, at the pool, even at his very reputable pre-school, and what such exposure might do to him. He’s not quite three years old and has such a sweet, loving disposition that the idea of him being steeped in such ugliness just about undoes me. But we can’t protect our children from the least refined realities of the world, nor should we. Our job is to educate, to explain, and to equip them for its inevitable onslaught, and to show them that not all is lost – that there is still salt and light to be found.

    I agree that it’s nice to commiserate with other parents, and I can completely relate to being exhausted at bedtime with a full night of work still lying in wait for me as he wails for “just one more noses!” (rubbing noses). I think all parents can relate to being angry at having our plans and schedules compromised by what seem to be (in the moment) the inferior and inconsequential needs of a little mind that can’t conceive of just how important grown-up agendas are! ;)

    But at the end of the day, after he’s well into sleep and I’m half way through an assigned paper that seems completely irrelevant to my career, I begin to miss him – because he IS relevant to every part of my existence. I reframe my priorities. I sneak upstairs and look at him for a long time while he sleeps (not in a creepy way, mind you)and I remember that this is just a season in both of our lives. I won’t always be a student, and he won’t always be a toddler. I will, however, always be his mother and I don’t want the day to come when I feel regret for time and opportunities lost in my short-sighted and self-important treatment of him…it’s a good way to keep those impulses in check, though not a perfect science by any means. Anyway, thanks for your post and for giving me a reason to wax maternal.

  • David H-T

    You and Eric are too good! I appreciate that, and strive to be more like you, but I’m a real live flesh-and-blood Dad who sometimes gets mightily exasperated! I’m also a shrink who knows these feelings are part and parcel of what it means to be a parent. I think both extremes–too crude, and too holy–maybe are unrealistic. Here my take on the book. Take care, man, David

  • Dale Jensen

    Excellent article, and I think that the Philippians 4:8 principle is what really nails it. Is this funny? I suppose so, though not so much, as it goes on and on (I heard the Samuel L. Jackson reading after my sister posted it on Facebook.)

    But does it contribute to culture, or detract from it? Is the world a better place or a worse place in light of this? Unless one is interested in a profane and disrespectful world, I don’t see this bettering us.

    Whenever I come across people who feel the need to pepper their language with profanity and who defend it with “oh, it’s just words, stop being such a prude,” I ask them if they use such language in conversations with their mother or grandmother. After the inevitable “no”, I ask why, followed by “Oh, because you love and respect them… how about treating others in the same fashion?”

    Love your neighbour as yourself, and maybe try talking to your neighbour as you would your mother.

  • James Williams

    This thing, especially Karen’s response, is getting to be quiet the discussion topic on several Christian websites/blogs/web magazines. It’s the new “Love Wins”.

    • James Williams

      quite, not quiet

  • Tim Schultz

    Tim, those last two paragraphs are beautiful, especially for this father who is suppressing expletives with my recalcitrant-at-bedtime one-year-old.

    Happy Birthday!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, my fellow Tim!

  • Maureen Nagle

    Glory be to God that people are speaking out. The demeaning of children should have been undone before it began and yet it continues in such subtle ways as to arouse a chuckle and seduce us into laughing at our own crudeness and then softening the realization of the insanity by finding refuge in the camaraderie of lowered standards.

  • K.H.

    My husband and I listened to the Samuel L. Jackson reading of this book. He found it hilarious. I thought it was funny but somehow also disturbing (kind of like “Pulp Fiction”). I think you make a good point that our reactions depend upon our experiences w/ profanity. For my husband and me, profanity is usually associated w/ entertainment. Our parents never swore at us, and we would never swear at our child. So for us, the humor is found in the juxtaposition between the sweetness of the bedtime story ritual and the parents’ underlying desire for some peace and quiet after a long day. This picks up on the experience that we parents often have of feeling both overwhelming love and extreme frustration toward our children almost simultaneously. So that is where the source of the humor lies for me. But I see your point that too many parents actually talk like this to their children, and that is not so funny. Also, who is really going to buy this book? You’d have to hide it from the kids once they learn to read.

  • karenzach

    Christians sites should have been the first in line to challenge this for the very reasons outlined here and by Metexas. But I’m stunned by the # of Christians who’ve put me on notice that they love the book.

  • Kevin S.

    Whether or not you oppose cussing is pretty much a personal thing. Zacharias compared children to oppressed minorities, which is flatly absurd. That’s where the criticism is coming from.

    As for the book itself, as a soon-to-be dad, I do wonder why parents accommodate the manipulations of children at bedtime. The impulse to stay awake, in my experience, has little to do with love of parents, and is entirely unhealthy.

    I remember my sister fighting her toddlers well into the wee hours. What misery. I also know parents whose toddlers won’t even bother putting up a fight, because the best case scenario is to be told to go back to sleep (the worse being, of course, a spanking).

    In a sense, then, the whole premise of the book is based on bad parenting. The book takes caving to childish demands as a given, and then proceeds to blame children for the consequences of adult acquiescence.

    That hardly seems fair, but as someone who has witnessed 3am tantrums from two-year-olds, it’s still pretty funny.

    • Mattk

      Soon to be dad…for your sake I hope for ‘healthy’ children then.
      I live in a small house with two small children in a loud neighborhood. My kids happen to be incredibly light sleepers at times. Perhaps your circumstances / environment is ideal and you wont have any issues with your child’s sleep. The world needs more good parents.

      • Kevin S.

        It’s not about achieving some legalistic perfection with regard to sleeping habits. The book is specifically about the phenomenon that occurs when children rebelliously refuse to go to sleep.

        If your children are legitimately frightened by noise, nightmares etc., of course a gracious parent will attend to them at any hour.

        But allowing children to filibuster the process of going to bed by requesting snacks, drinks, going to the bathroom, washing hands, another story etc. is wrong. parents are encouraging their manipulations, and rewarding fundamental dishonesty. In the meantime, they are depriving themselves of essential downtime or time with their spouse.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          I was encouraging more of a different perspective, Kevin. I wasn’t suggesting that parents should do whatever their children ask. So I agree with you here.

    • Morgan

      “I do wonder why parents accommodate the manipulations of children at bedtime.”

      “[T]he … premise of the book is based on bad parenting.”

      It seems your assumption here is that if you parent “correctly” then your little angels will just fall asleep and you can head downstairs to the missus at 8pm. Or, after simply being told to go back to sleep, with maybe a spanking, you’ll get your way at 8:15pm.

      And all of us that have insomniac kiddos (mine’s apparently fueled by nuclear power, as best we can tell) are essentially doing it wrong. Sounds pretty logical in theory. But I’d submit that you might be in for a very, very rude awakening.

      There’s not a simple formula to get a kid to sleep. There are a million factors that weigh pro and con. It’s more like negotiating. With North Korea.

      If you cut off talks, there’s a massive (nuclear) tantrum, which defeats the whole sleep/peace thing, anyway. But continuing might have a chance of them capitulating… or not.

      Still, I hope you get the sprog that your formula works on.

      • Kevin S.

        You are presenting a caricature of my position. As an uncle seven times over, I harbor no delusions about the perfection of children, toddlers in particular.

        But I have had the opportunity to observe what generally works (consistent bedtimes and routines, expectation of obedience) and what certainly doesn’t (capitulation to demands).

        It is certainly possible that medical conditions will arise that will make bedtime especially difficult. But this book isn’t about that.

  • TCM

    I think as much as this writer makes some sound points, the book is just a bit of catharsis for parents who have been there. Sometimes a thing really can be over thought.

  • Randy G.

    First time I’ve felt compelled to chime in. I admire folks like Tim who can consistently come up with thought-provoking and worthwhile comments. I tried blogging and found within a week or two that I didn’t have as much to say that was worth hearing as I had thought.

    I came to faith in Christ at age 15, and before then would have run neck & neck with Tim in the foul language department. Apparently, I thought the F- word a viable alternative for every conceivable part of speech. It took about a month of continual confession per 1 John 1:9 to cleanse this away, but I was convinced it was wrong and needed to go.

    Later in my Christian life (I have been a believer 40 years now), I went through a phase where I decided it was okay to “let myself go.” I can’t say I ever felt peace about it, but had no compelling reason to stop…until I found Ephesians 4:25 through about 5:21. 5:4 especially convicted me: coarse and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable (Holman). I, too, tend to laugh at that stuff. But if I believe the Bible is God’s Word, then it’s not a subjective decision…it’s a question of obedience. God bless you all.

  • Erik G

    Jesus equated angry words with murder (Matt. 5). So why not just loosen up a little and laugh at parents who choose to dispose of their inconvenient children? And it is a choice. We can choose what we allow in our lives. Visualize what the f word means. Shall we hang pictures throughout our homes depicting this act in its many forms for all to appreciate? Or when my dog makes s### in the yard should I haul it inside and treat it as valuable? But isn’t this what we are implying when we choose to use this, pardon my French, crappy language? Grow up! Adults CAN choose and control what they say to their children and when they fail they should be deeply ashamed and seek forgiveness.

  • Lee G

    Are you F***** stupid…This is called satire.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Sigh. Reading comprehension is not what it once was.

    • John Haselton

      Dear Lee,
      Please see the definition of satire from the Merriam Webster dictionary Definition of SATIRE
      1: a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
      If this work were actually satire it would be I think it would have a different ending.

      As for the swearing, my Dad taught me that swearing was the sign of a small mind. I suppose that a book with the title “Go to Sleep” wouldn’t sell very well in today’s culture?

  • Nathan

    Well done. I find your points valid and well thought out, and while I too, just want to laugh it off as harmless satire, struggle to do so. I’m surprised as some who lament the way in which we’ve chipped away at a culture of life which so often devalues children, beginning in the womb, and then laugh this book off as if it’s attitudes toward children exists in a vacuum.

  • http://? Gayle Clark

    As a mother of 3 babies(birth children), 3 older adopted kids and scores of foster children, I have experienced 2 things: Establishing an understanding that, as a parent, you mean what you say (period) cuts short a thousand battles. Of course what is done to teach that differs with child and age. But it can be taught, does not eliminate appropriate negotiation (which children CAN learn), and makes bedtime (and travel, and company, and shopping,etc) so much more peaceful for both the child and parent. And secondly, the personalities of some parents make it nearly impossible for them to maintain consistent accountability for their kids and still feel good about it. They seem to not put deep love, hugs and kisses in the same ballpark with tough love. It really worked for me and my now grown kids attest to it and are trying to repeat it ion their own. Being strung out and frazzled at bedtime…oh yes! Having the bedtime fights…only once or twice and then the game was over. Blessings to all parents who do their best and still feel guilty. Our Heavenly Father did not win out with all of His kids either….

  • nathan

    well, considering the inescapable fact that Christians have pretty much lost every single battle of the so-called culture war, I guess getting high-minded about a book and/or the occasional movie is all we have left.

    While I appreciate the irenic tone here in this particular article, the general clucking about this in the blogosphere just strikes me as pretty sanctimonious. (especially when Gay Marriage in NY gets little to no response in many place OR indifference, along with the continuation of morally suspect military interventions by our country where people actually are being killed. talk about violence.)

    Just thinking out loud here, but these are some of my impressions about this recent kerfuffle/temper tantrum:

    Some of the gasping haughty tone in the blogosphere makes me wonder if we have to slow down and remember that you’re not sufficiently concerned about real child abuse just because your personal hackles are raised by this book. It’s not enough to get banged out of shape by a book. And if it is, then it seems you’re just trying to communicate the good news of your own righteousness to yourself.

    Taking offense at this book doesn’t prove the bona fides of Christian identity. broad sweeping claims about how all Christians “ought” to be just as offended as you (in a general sense of “you”) just strike me as problematic and self-defeating. You can’t shame people into sharing your personal sense of propriety. I respect your right to be offended and have your taboos. But I don’t have to respect the idea or behavior that would try to tell me or anyone else that we have to share your taboos.

    just my nickel