By Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, www.AuthenticParent.com
Editor’s Note: The author invites us to consider a different perspective on children’s behavior. You may wish to read this in conjunction with API’s Balance Principle and many other articles on children and sleep available at API’s website and TheAttachedFamily.com. As always, we encourage you to trust your own wisdom and find what works best for you and your family.
Q: Why can’t my children go to bed and go to sleep? It takes us a couple of hours to put them in bed. They run away from putting pajamas on, and again they escape when we try to brush their teeth. It is such a struggle every night; they just don’t cooperate. Is there a better way?
A: Most parents go through the same exhausting and frustrating process you describe so well in your question. This can be both difficult and painfully disconnecting. You wish to tuck your children in bed with love and a calm heart, and instead you end up feeling frustrated and exhausted.
It is human and natural to want to stop the running child and get her to bed, but it actually thwarts her efforts to get ready for a good night’s sleep. Some parents tame their children to obey them, creating disconnection and not attending to the child’s emotional needs. From your question, it is obvious that you don’t want to dominate but to have your children go to sleep of their own free will and in response to your aware and loving leadership.
Any time we fight against the need or nature of a child, even with the best of intentions, we cause hardship and disconnection, especially if the children obey against their own inner voice. Instead of struggling to stop or control the child, we want to find ways to understand the child’s valid need and, when possible and safe, respond to it. The goal is not to control but to flow with the child’s real needs. Such care creates cooperation without coercion or domination.
The Wisdom of Power Games
Before being able to sleep, children may need to unleash the stress and energy of the day. If we consistently suppress that need, the child can develop emotional and behavioral difficulties. A child is eager to be independent, yet she often experiences feeling helpless–told what to do, unable to drive, buckled up in a car, unable to reach places or do things for herself, and overall excruciatingly dependent. At the end of the day, giving her yet another experience of someone else being in charge of her body may result in emotional harm and the kind of struggle you describe in your question. The child wants to unleash this stress before she can relax into dreamland. Though routine and structure are important for some children, they can be adjusted with sensitivity to meet a child’s needs for freedom and choice. Including power games can be part of the routine–a healing and joyful part.
Children running at bedtime are doing exactly that: unleashing energy and stress. I have coined this type of healing play “power games” because it is a way for the child to regain a sense of power and autonomy and undo some of the experience of being small and helpless. This responsive play has nothing to do with winning or having power over anyone. Instead, the parent plays the role of a loving play-therapist, meeting a need and creating a routine of healing games that prepare the child for sleep.
A child’s drive to run away at bedtime is healthy and deserving of care. I suggest you include it in the bedtime routine. Children initiate power games with their parents all the time, and parents tend to thwart most of them (by saying “stop”), not realizing the value of the game. In your example, your children start a power game by running away from the pajamas. I describe other types of power games in my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.
It is wonderful that they love playing with you; it shows their wisdom and their trust of you. When you demand a smooth ride, on your terms, from the bathroom to bed, you disconnect yourself from reality and lose sight of what is actually needed. Indeed, when you don’t recognize the child’s need, you actually lose the ability to be the parent, the leader. Your choice is between a time of struggle or a time of playful and nurturing connection. Being a leader means knowing how to steer the ship in the direction of the stream.
I can hear some parents say, “But I don’t want to. I want a quiet bedtime and a quick one.” What I suggest will give you a more peaceful, respectful and enjoyable bedtime in which you will not feel helpless because you will be in charge as a wise healer. If your child needs to unleash energy or stress through play, your desire for a quick bedtime causes you stress because it opposes the child’s real need that has to be met. Some children go to sleep with a story and a hug, while some children need an energetic game before going to bed. In addition, a child who needs power games one night may not need them the next night. The goal is not consistency in what we do but consistency in being loving, aware and responsive.
There are things you can do to increase the chance for a quicker or calmer bedtime:
1. You can respond playfully to power games earlier in the day. You can find more about how to play a variety of power games in my book.
2. You can minimize screen time and sitting and allow plenty of outdoor rigorous activity in daylight.
3. For health benefits and for better sleep, feed your children healthful and nourishing foods. A wholesome diet helps children sleep better, go to bed calmer, learn better and be more focused and peaceful. In my practice, I have found that eating carbohydrate, including fruit, in the evening may interfere with a child’s ability to fall asleep. You may wish to try offering protein-rich foods instead.
Power games during the day may lessen their need at bedtime, but they do not guarantee an adult-like bedtime scenario. If a child played power games in the afternoon and later experiences helplessness or sitting, he may need more release through power games and running before he is ready to sleep. It is a real need that should not be denied or suppressed. In addition, your anxious desire to put your children to bed ignites their desire to oppose you as a therapy game. Learning to enjoy the children is much easier and more beneficial than taming them to go against their healthy and needed direction. In fact, suppressing their needs often causes bedtime to take longer and leaves the children stressed and with unresolved emotional needs.
How to Play Bedtime Power Games
You may enjoy your bedtime with the children more if you flow with their invitation for play. Learn what your children need by observing them. If you are not a physical person, it may give you the exercise you need, or you can ask your spouse to chase them. Falling in love with reality can bring peace to bedtime with your children.
In a power game, your goal is not to change what the children do but to empower the game by offering pretend dramatic opposition, such as, “Oh no, they ran away again,” while you chase them over and over again. When you catch a child, bring her back to the bedroom while you huff and puff in “exhaustion” and declare, “I am going to hold you better this time. Oh, I hope … (in exasperation), I hope she doesn’t slip away again … ” Then pretend a desperate attempt to hold on as you put the pajamas on while allowing the next escape with a dramatic, “Oh no!” and a chase.
A true leader is a transparent one. Steer without controlling by making sure to let the children decide when to end the game, or else the healing is cancelled by your being in the position of power.
When we recognize the rightness of what the child is doing, we can provide for it without resistance, and the child then goes to sleep with ease. In contrast, when we resist, we become impatient and frustrated, and we tend to try to control instead of steer with wisdom. The child is not the cause of our frustration; our opposing thoughts and wants are. You may find peace and freedom in working on yourself to learn to enjoy the bedtime play rather than trying to change your children’s wise and healthy preparation for sleep. You may miss this time in their childhood all too soon.
Power Games at Our House
In our home the words “Lets go to bed” often came from the children. They recognized their own tiredness because we never went against their inner voice, and they loved bedtime because it was so much fun. Needless to say, they fell asleep easily and were always sound sleepers. Sharing our family’s bedtime routine is not as an answer for an “only” way but a window into one peaceful possibility that demonstrates the spirit of what I am suggesting.
The invitation to go to bed, regardless whom it came from, became the beginning of a joyful routine.The children often ran to the music corner and started playing the piano, drumming and dancing. Oh, how we loved that part of our routine. My husband and I would sit around to watch and marvel their creativity. When they thought it was a good idea to go to bed, they went to the kitchen for a snack. Food, laughter, clean up … we were all in the kitchen cherishing our daily tradition.
Next came the pajamas and teeth brushing, and yes, you guessed it, just like your children ours ran away, inviting a chase. We accepted the invitation, or I should say, my husband did. He would chase them to the end of the house, pretend to barely manage to catch them, and then bring them back to the bathroom, out of breath and saying repeatedly, “Oh, I hope they don’t run away again.” And of course, soon enough I would hear the playful dramatic declaration, “Oh no! They ran away again.” As the little ones passed by me with their father in tow, I could only wish that this joy would never end. I often joined at this point, wanting my part in the game. We never initiated the end of the game because that would have destroyed the sense of power the children were experiencing. It would have caused struggle and cancelled the healing.
Once the children had enough, they would get ready for bed eagerly and quickly. Of course once in bed, there were 20 minutes or so of heavenly joy: climbing on Daddy, snuggling, singing, laughing, rolling … These were some of the best hours of my life. In fact, if I could replay the best moments, bedtime with the children would be my very first choice.