When Your Kids Are Night Owls, It's Not All Bad

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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When I was a kid, I knew two girls whose bedtime was at 7:30 p.m. — and they were something like 7 and 5. If my 7- and 5-year-olds have eaten their after-dinner snack by 7:30 p.m., I might collapse from shock. It depends on the day, but I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve finished bedtime by 8:30 p.m.

That doesn’t mean one kid or another hasn’t passed out at 7 p.m. after waking up at 5 a.m. But it means that, by and large, my kids are night owls. They don’t start asking to go to bed (i.e., get actually sleepy) until around 9:30 p.m. So rather than toss and turn and hold them down for an hour, we put them in pajamas at 9:30 p.m. and finish bedtime by 10 o’clock sharp. Or maybe sometimes I don’t feel like doing bedtime, and they’re happily playing Legos (and not fighting), and they stay up until 11 o’clock.

My kids stay up late. And I don’t care.

We aren’t alone. For every mom who has her kids in bed at the stroke of 8 o’clock, there are those of us who, for whatever reason, the universe gifted with tiny little night owls. We just don’t speak up — we’re shamed from it. Society says kids are supposed to have a bedtime. Society says that bedtime is supposed to be somewhere between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Anything after that is an unacceptable deviancy that smacks of an unwholesome family life.

After all, what the hell are your kids supposed to do that late? Well, mine do the same things they do all day. They play. They build Legos and destroy their rooms, for which there will be hell to pay later, post-pajamas. They watch TV. Right now — and it’s 7:15, after of full day of playing — they’re half-running around in circles with the airplanes they just built out of kits, half-watching Animaniacs. It’s just a logical extension of the day for us parents of night owls. They eat dinner. They keep playing.

Then someone will start caterwauling about adult alone time. When do we get time to ourselves? Well, um, parents of night owls are often night owls ourselves or have to be to keep up with our offspring. We hang out while they play. Then we hang out after they go to sleep. Exactly like normal people. We do chores while they run around or watch TV. We don’t wait for them to go to sleep before we throw in a load of laundry or finish the dishes. We can’t. If we saved the chores until the kids went down, we’d never get anything done — or we’d never get any alone time.

People assume we should try to get them on a “better” schedule. And every single parent of a night owl has tried.

We’ve put them in bed. And they’ve done one of two things, depending on the family sleeping arrangements. They’ve gotten up and played, or lay there and yelled, and decided they needed to use the bathroom every five minutes and called for drinks of water in between. Alternately, we parents have had to lay next to them while they kicked and cried and kicked and yelled and kicked and rolled and kicked some more. For hours. While we either sat in a dark room and sulked on our phones or sat in a light room and sulked on our phones.

Have you ever tried to get a child to sleep when they didn’t want to sleep? It’s absolutely, positively misery-inducing for all parties involved.

So we gave up. We basically said screw it, and either let our kids get up or released them from our death grip and watched them sprint away. And we didn’t try to get them down again until they were good and freaking tired. Like, really tired, actually tired. For my kids, that’s usually around 9:30 or 10 o’clock.

My 7-year-old hits the pillow, and he’s snoring gently. My 3-year-old lies in my arms and rolls back into sleepful bliss. The 5-year-old takes a bit longer, but even he’s still out in 15, as long as he got to run around that day. Night owls are sleepy when they go to bed, so they tend to fall asleep quickly. We don’t have long-ass bedtime rituals. It’s wham, bam, thank you — snooze.

Do I sometimes wish they went to bed earlier? Yeah, especially on days when they have to wake up early in the morning. We homeschool, so that’s generally not an issue. But if I have an early doctor’s appointment, I have to have them up for the sitter. Every night owl family has things like this happen, times when we wistfully think, “Dammit, why can’t you go down early like the rest of the kids, because you’re going to be an asshole to wake up in the morning?” But we deal with it. We shake them awake. We croon. I turn on my kid’s favorite Hamilton songs and sing along really loudly. They still burrow and complain and grumble. We parents all know that it usually takes breakfast to bestir them, and that breakfast will be eaten in sullen, hair-trigger silence. Oh, it sucks.

But it’s worth it on those summer nights. We go on toad hunts and search for slugs (ugh). We drive them out to look at the stars, to catch lightning bugs. We have time to make them clean their rooms before bed, and we don’t have to start their bedtime routine at 6 p.m.

Our kids, like your kids, are happy. They just happen to be wired differently. Their circadian rhythms are different than other kids’. And that’s not weird or strange or awful. We don’t harass adults for going to bed before 8, or staying up past 10. Kids are the same way. We just need to learn to live with it. And for us night owl parents, we already have.

And save us the lecture. Our kids are happy, healthy, and thriving — just like yours.

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