The Bedtime Routine: More Than a Means to an End

Bedtime was rough last night.  While I will spare you all of the grisly details, let’s just say my four-year-old daughter set a new record for length and intensity of her already impressive tantrum throwing abilities.  As parents, sometimes it takes a child screaming at us combined with a feeling of complete helplessness to inspire us to reevaluate the direction in which our parenting skills are going.  Are we continuing to focus on loving our children and meeting their needs through self-sacrifice and growth in virtue, or are we gradually slipping back into selfishness and vice?

57612470I turned back to a trusty resource today, The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers by Elizabeth Pantley, and after reflecting on just a few paragraphs, I felt the scales fall from my eyes.  Her emphasis of gentle strategies to help our children ease into a peaceful sleep made me realize I’ve been doing just the opposite.  I’ve been thinking of bedtime as the glorious moment when I get to turn my children off for the day so I can focus on myself and the tasks I want to finish before collapsing into bed myself.  I’ve been dutifully performing the bedtime routine with one goal in mind:  to get to the “me time” that I deserve after a long day of parenting!

I now understand that my children strongly sense this selfish attitude.  At the time of day that they most need to feel the security of my love, my focus is already shifting to other activities.  And at the end of the day when I’m wishing I had spent just a little more time connecting with my children, I realize I missed out on the golden opportunity that is the bedtime routine.

Sleep is a popular topic of conversation among parents.  We are all continually trying to figure out how to “get” our young children to sleep.  And while a break from parenting responsibilities is healthy for both our marriages and our personal sanity, it is important that we don’t sacrifice our children’s sense of security in the process.  Are we taking our time in every step of the bedtime routine to speak to our children in a loving tone of voice, listen to a story about something that happened at school that day, and be silly with them?  Sometimes my children reveal some of their most important thoughts and concerns to me while in the midst of getting ready for bed.

An excerpt from the “Night Prayer” found in the Magnificat comes to mind:

Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace, alleluia. 

How comforting these words are, that in a world that seems to be filled with too much immorality, tragedy, and terror, there is a Father in heaven who loves us deeply and holds a place for us in eternal bliss so long as we choose to do His will.  Don’t our children deserve to sense the same protection and love from their earthly father and mother?  Even if their day consisted of skinned knees, disappointments, or a “big kid” moment that stretched the limits of their independence, they can always trust that Mom and Dad will be there to hold their hand through the more challenging moments of growing up.

As a Natural Family Planning and Theology of the Body teacher, an important lesson my husband and I have learned is that the end does not justify the means.  While we are often referring to this truth in the context of marriage and birth control, the same could be said for so many of our parenting challenges.  Yes, we want our children to get the sleep they need to function well as people in this world, but how are we achieving this?  Are we using gentle methods that take each child’s personality and individual needs into account, or are we trying to force the issue by playing upon their fears as we attempt to conform their dispositions into a cookie cutter bedtime mold?

In spite of her periodic tantrums, my daughter can be quite rational and reasonable when her emotions are under control.  So we sat down together and came up with a plan for bedtime.  She was happy to help me remember all of the steps of getting ready for bed, and was thrilled with the prospect of now incorporating a bedtime blessing and surprise bedtime book bag into the routine.  She understands there will be reasonable consequences if she does not follow the routine that she helped create, and she seems very pleased to know exactly what to expect at bedtime tonight.  I believe the security of this routine is especially helpful to her as our household continues to adjust to the blessing of a new baby.

My husband and I are looking forward to what will hopefully be a time of peaceful, relaxed bonding with our children, followed by some time to focus on each other as a married couple.  And if things don’t go as planned?  We’ll keep tweaking the routine until we get it right, as I am sure we will continue to do from time to time as our children grow and change.

Once again, I find myself thanking God for providing me with the means to grow closer to Him by loving my children better.  Now where did that unopened bottle of champagne go?  I think I see an at-home date night in my future!

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