I Let My Kids Determine Their Sleep Schedule and Bedtime Became Peaceful(er)
An experiment to let two boys fall asleep when they wanted turned into a lesson in giving children autonomy and letting them thrive.
“All! Night! All! Night!” they chanted, oblivious to or simply uninterested in the expressions of concern at the far side of the table.
When I’d floated the idea for the bedtime experiment earlier in the day, my wife made it abundantly clear that she believed the result would be an unmitigated disaster. She stressed there would be sleepless nights, exhausted children, an increase in meltdowns, and general chaos. A five-year-old and a seven-year-old could not be trusted with sleep decisions.
“So, you’re doing bedtimes all week, right?” she said, not really asking.
“Yes,” I declared, knowing in my bones that I would do whatever it took to ensure that this trial policy didn’t blow up in my face.
Because I’ve spent a lot of time talking to children’s sleep experts, I typically enforce a pretty inflexible bedtime regime: We begin turning down lights and turning off screens around 7 p.m., change into pajamas at 7:30 p.m., do some reading, brush teeth, and get tucked in at 8. Obviously, when I say “we,” I am referring to my children and not my wife. Our routine is less of a routine and more of an unsustainable lifestyle.
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All that said, it’s not like the house is predictably quiet after 8 p.m. The boys often shout at each other, wrestle, call out, get out of bed, claim thirst or fear or restlessness. Being present and attentive parents, we respond with yelling, threats, and various demonstrations of our frustration. Doors get slammed. Netflix gets paused. Silence tends to fall around 9 p.m.
The sleep experiment was about my desperation to find a better way and, more specifically, about giving my boys more agency in order to make the whole thing less contentious. That said, there’s such a thing as too much agency when it comes to young boys (an understatement, I know). So we made it clear to them from the start of the experiment that they would be required to be in their bedroom at the normal time. The story, the pajamas and the tooth brushing would remain on the standard schedule. However, once in their room, the boys could do as they pleased — so long as they would please not fight or leave.
“I don’t care how many books you read, or how many toys you play with or if you get out of bed,” I told them. “As long as you stay in this room, you can decide to go to sleep whenever you want.”
“What if we really need to tell you something?” asked the five-year-old.
“Tell me in the morning,” I said.
“What if it’s, like, really important?” the seven-year-old rebutted.
“Nothing is important enough to interrupt our Netflix time,” I told him. A look came over his face like he got it. His Netflix time was important to him too. Sacred, even.
“If we come back in here, we will only do so to turn off the nightlight and shut the door,” I explained. Rules is rules. A variation on rules is still rules.
“Can you come back to tuck us in, when we go to sleep?” asked the seven-year-old.
“Nope,” I told him. “If you want a tuck-in, you need to get it before I walk out the door.”
They both wanted a tuck-in. So I folded the blankets over each, gave them the books and toys they requested, reminded them they could fall asleep whenever the wished, and walked out of their room with my fingers crossed.
I joined my wife in our bedroom and she gave me a skeptical look. From down the hall, we could hear the boys chittering and laughing with each other. The older boy could be heard reading to the younger. There were sounds of shuffling. But neither called for us.
“They’re never going to sleep,” my wife warned.
By 9 p.m. there was silence. I crept down the hall and peeked into the boys’ room. They were conked out and snoozing softly, each with a book under their little arms. I made a silent celebratory arm gesture like I’d sunk a putt. But, I remembered, the boys had had swim practice earlier in the day. They were probably just exhausted. Surely it wouldn’t happen again.
Tuesday, it happened again. And again on Wednesday. Thursday night saw a brief test and I found I did need to threaten the light and door, but it was a gentle struggle compared to every other night of our life up until that point.
Clearly, I’d given them just enough freedom. I’d made them the captains of their own destiny. I’d given them the agency to make a very grown-up decision and they’d taken to it easily. Granted, I am not suffering the illusion that they said to themselves, “Well, it’s 9 p.m. This is a completely reasonable time to get some shut-eye!” That would be ridiculous. It was more likely that they simply stayed awake until sleep took them, just like any other night. The difference was that I’d removed a pointlessly draconian imperative: They no longer had to go to sleep. They had nothing to struggle against so they ceased struggling.
In retrospect, this makes complete sense. Telling them to engage in a biological process they were ill-equipped to control was never a bright idea. Walking them down a path towards sleep and leaving them on its doorstep made considerably more sense. I had not actually had that insight, but I’m more than happy to pretend otherwise.
“Have you written your article about this experiment yet?” my wife asked four nights in.
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Well, you can say I was wrong if you want to,” she replied with a sigh.
Oh, I do. I definitely do. And she was. She most certainly was.