My living room is a straight-up ruckus. My kids are shrieking with laughter, hopping and tumbling gleefully, darting out of the reach of their dad – who looks to be having a pretty good time himself. When I dreamed of having a family of my own, this was the type of bonding I envisioned (okay, maybe not quite this loud, but whatever). I observe from the entryway, laughing along with them, my heart swelling with that overwhelming love that only a mother watching her family can know.
There’s only one problem with this scenario: it’s 8:45 on a school night, and most of them were supposed to be in bed fifteen minutes ago.
This wouldn’t be as big an issue if my kids were older, but they’re not – my youngest is just in kindergarten, and my oldest is twelve – and I’m a stickler for keeping them on a regular sleep schedule. I know how important a good night’s sleep is (and how cranky they are in the mornings if they don’t get it). But how does that importance measure up to the importance of quality time? Because it seems like bedtime is one of the best chances to squeeze some of that in: it’s like a magic window to their world, those precious few moments when they open up and the good stuff happens.
Everybody with kids knows that they’re champions at stalling sleep. When I go to tuck mine in, suddenly they’re “thirsty” or “hungry” (I call B.S. on both claims) or forgot to do something critically important that just can’t wait until morning. This used to annoy me to no end, until I realized that their desire to prolong wakefulness also makes them extra receptive to having a conversation. The same clammed-up children that answer “fine” when I ask, “How was your day?” are suddenly happy to provide an hour-by-hour recount of what went on to school.
They’ll do anything to keep from going to sleep, from silly, lighthearted chats to surprisingly profound conversations. They describe new ideas, wild and farfetched, and I marvel at the depth and scope of their imaginations. They whisper insecurities into the darkness, where it seems somehow easier to say hard things: unloading problems that are bothering them, providing opportunities to talk about deeper topics like bullying and peer pressure and self-worth.
During these times, nobody is distracted and there’s nothing competing for our attention. No one is concentrating on anything else but what’s happening, and no faces are buried in screens. I can run my fingers through their feathery hair, the way I did when they were still babies and I was the center of their universe. They can hold my hand and stroke my arm, or put their heads in my lap, and know that they have my undivided attention.
Or they can wrestle and pounce and roll around with their dad, bonding in the special way they do.
No matter what it consists of, it allows us to be together, if only for a few minutes, in a way that means so much more than hours spent side-by-side but absorbed in our own activities.
As they get older, and more involved with extracurricular activities and games and friends, I feel like we get less and less time to truly connect. Not even bedtime bonding works every single night. But when it does, I jump at the chance. They need their sleep, for sure, but I believe that fostering your closest relationships is as vital to good health as sleep is – and if that means getting a half-hour less of shut eye a couple times a week, it’s a small price to pay. So I let them stay up past their designated sleep time, because it helps far more than it hurts.
They think they’re tricking me into a later bedtime, and I let them keep thinking it. Because what they don’t know is actually doing them – and their parents – a whole lot of good.