For Boy#1, I ran the bedtime ritual.
“Bedtime” began at dinner. We’d eat, where the challenge was to keep a reasonable amount of food on the table. Then we’d have a bath, where the challenge was to keep more water in the tub than on the bathroom floor. Then we’d change into pajamas which was surprisingly free of challenges.
The real challenge happened at book-reading time.
I loved book reading time. I mean I really loved it. I loved how we sat together on the floor. I loved inventing voices to read the various characters. I loved how he sometimes crawled away to play with a toy but was clearly listening carefully (when he got older he would correct me if I made a mistake). But there was only one problem with book reading:
He wanted me to read every book on his shelf.
This was a problem. I was usually exhausted as well by bedtime and I especially ran out of energy at book-reading. After the third book I would sometimes nod off in mid-sentence. Also his bedtime was 7PM: extended book-reading time sometimes pushed us closer to 7:30.
I began to realize that perhaps Boy#1 was doing this on purpose! He wanted me to read more books so as to delay going to sleep. He must of known that I loved reading to him. I was a pushover when he would ask for another. But things were getting out of hand. We were risking messing up a good thing: a consistent, regular schedule.
Something had to be done.
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The Importance of the Bedtime Ritual
As I never get tired of saying, consistency is everything. Children thrive on consistency. I also never get tired of stressing the importance of healthy sleep, diet and exercise. But even when I say this, what also I mean is consistent sleep, diet and exercise. I find that when a child’s day is regular and predictable, they sleep better than when the schedule is erratic or unpredictable.
Perhaps I am projecting here: I’m a creature of habit. I ate the same sandwich for lunch for eight years. Fortunately, other experts agree with me. And the principle certainly has held up in practice. I find that clients who find the way to introduce more consistency, regularity, and predictability into a child’s day are rewarded for their efforts with better sleep.
Pick Your Battles, But Set Limits
Another important principle of parenting is limits setting. I believe firmly that children do better in life with limits that are clearly defined, and just as importantly, enforced. But, as any parent knows, you can set limits on practically everything. For example, in my own bedtime ritual, there was the challenge of dinner time. I could have tried to set a limit on how much food ended up on the floor, but this would have been a practical impossibility for my toddler. I could have tried to set a limit on the splashing in the tub (and as he grew in size and splashiness, I did). Instead, what I did was pick my battles. You have to pick battles or you risk disciplining your child during every waking hour.
There are some obvious places where limits setting is essential. These are things that have to do with safety. You obviously need to set limits on running toward the street, or bolting away from you in a crowded place. After this point you need to prioritize your values: what matters most to you? Those are the things that you should consider setting limits on. But do yourself and your child a favor: pick your battles. You’ll give your kid a break and it will be less stressful for you as well.
How I Set Limits on the Bedtime Ritual
So rather than end up face down snoring in the pages of “Barnyard Dance!” every night, I decided to take action.
I began book-reading with a declaration: “Three books!” I would announce. Then I’d let Boy#1 pick which books we’d read. I’d do the best job I could on those three books, making sure did the most dramatic readings, and of course, the character voices.
I confess to surprise at how well this worked. Boy#1 knew what to expect. There would be three books only. It was predictable. He got to pick the books, so he had some “ownership” in the process. And when it was done he’d get into bed without a fuss.