“Look, there’s the big dipper!” my oldest son said pointing to a constellation brightening a gathering dark over our campsite.
“You’re right!” I said, genuinely impressed. I didn’t know he could spot constellations. We don’t hang out much at night. I’m not a night owl and he’s seven years old.
Why were we outside at 10:30 p.m. on a weeknight, beside a crackling campfire, still talking long after our fellow campers had gone to bed? Because I’d made a decision and the only way to figure out whether it was going to prove disastrous was to watch. So, I watched my 7-year-old pull his knees up to his chest in a folding camp chair and stare, glassy-eyed at the flickering flames. I watched his 5-year-old brother sing softly to himself in the nearby tent. I watched fireflies and reflected on the fact that I could count on my fingers how many times I’d been outside with my boys in the dark of the night. I liked it a bit.
I got the idea to let bedtimes slide and embrace the dark from, well, Russia. Russian parents have a notoriously lax approach to bedtimes and, in very Russian style, embrace parenting in the dark. This intrigued me not only because I work when it’s light out but also because it feels weird to enforce a sort of separation between children and the night. There’s nothing, after all, wrong with the night. Perhaps, I thought, Russian parents knew something I did not.
Again, there was only one way to find out.
My family had long adhered to strict and largely immoveable bedtimes. Our bedtime routine began at 7:30 p.m. and our children were under the covers by 8:00 p.m. every night without fail. Admittedly, the inflexibility injected a certain amount of stress into our evenings. That stress would inevitably lead to my wife and I getting loud and our children dragging their feet and doing everything in their power to avoid having to lay down. It was not ideal and, yes, the Russian experiment may have been at least in part an act of avoidance.
If so, it wasn’t the first. We’d recently decided to remove some of the stress by making a rule our kids could stay up as long as they wanted, provided they were in their bed. The rule allowed my wife and I to stop yelling “go to sleep,” but it did nothing to solve the stress of getting to the bedroom in the first place. I wanted to know how things would change if we simply let our children stay up, out of bed, like a Russian kid.
We decided to start our experiment on a camping trip. It made sense, in a way. After all, it was nearly the summer solstice and neither my wife nor I were particularly interested in forcing our children into a tent to sleep while the sky was still blue. Besides, it meant we could make s’mores and tell stories, which is exactly what we did.
But at some point, the situation felt increasingly ridiculous. I did have to tell my child to go to bed at some point, right? The only other option was they would eventually pass out where they stood. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. So, as it approached 11 p.m., my wife and I guided the 7-year-old to the tent. Very soon, they were both quiet.
The next morning the 7-year-old was up with the birds. A few hours later, though, he was a whiny mess. Clearly, he’d not had enough sleep. The 5-year-old, on the other hand, slept until nearly 10 in the morning and popped up refreshed and as rambunctious as ever. It was a disastrous combination. The 5-year-old could sense weakness in his brother and did just about all he could to piss him off. Soon the 7-year-old was in tears. Hikes planned for the day were canceled. We packed up camp and headed home.
But we weren’t giving up on the experiment. That night we watched a couple family movies, staying up until 9:30 p.m. When we noticed the boys were quiet, drowsy, and suggestible, we nudged them towards toothbrushing and bed. They complied easily and went to sleep quickly.
The following night was much of the same. The boys appeared to be adjusting well to the new rhythm. And without the stress of hitting a precise mark, my wife and I were calmer. When reading the nightly bedtime stories, our voices now lacked that sharp tone of desperation and frustration, and that made Dr. Seuss sound far more friendly than he had in several months.
But by the middle of the week, it appeared our boys had habituated to the new routine. They were sleeping in more, which meant they had more energy late, which meant that as my wife and I watched TV in our room we could hear the boys down the hall giggling with each other well into the night.
Finally, one evening they continued to play after my wife and I had turned off our lights to sleep. This would not do. Worse, they were failing to sleep in past 8 a.m., which was making everyone tired and cranky. My family, craving structure as they do, blamed the problem on me. To be fair, it was entirely my fault — though my heart was in the right place.
“Can we stop being Russians, now?” my wife asked me with deep exasperation.
“Yes,” I said. And we did.
That’s not to say, however, that I willingly gave up on Russian thinking. I found a lot to like in the flexibility of the approach to bedtime and in exposing our kids to the night, which is a country unto itself. I think that in our zeal for a rigorous sleep schedule, my wife and I had forgotten how much magic the night could hold for a kid awake and ready to explore. Over the week, I’d watched my kid listen for the sounds of the night calling birds and catch fireflies in his hands. I’d watched them play flashlight games in the dark and wonder at the beauty of the stars.
Our bedtimes had also been much less stressful. There was a certain ease in knowing we weren’t racing the clock, which made the nightly routine far more pleasant for everyone. That, in itself, was revelatory.
I understand that when my boys were babies, a strict sleep routine was essential. But the experiment had shown me that everyone had grown up a lot. The ease of bedtime had become more important than the structure of it. While we won’t allow our boys to stay up until midnight anymore, I think we will keep a looser grip on the thing. It is easier, after all, to hit a bigger target.