Getting an Eight Year Old to Sleep

Those of you who’ve been here since the 60s may recall the seminal post Getting a Two Year Old to Sleep, most remarkable for the heart-wrenching string of comments that followed it from parents stuck in a similar situation.

I’m happy to report that the years from age 3 to age 8 went pretty well, sleep-wise, for our Oliver.  There were occasional battles over the degree of light dimming, some sleep-walking, and a nightmare here and there, but generally bedtime was a gentle happy time.

Then, in the middle of this summer on a very, very hot night, everything went to hell: Oliver got the idea in his head that he couldn’t get to sleep.  Likely because he actually couldn’t get to sleep, what with the 32 degree temperature and the 98% humidity.  But such ideas have a way of amplifying themselves, and even though the heat melted away a few days later, the “I can’t get to sleep” idea was stuck on Oliver’s head, and was joined by a gang of “I’m afraid of monsters,” and other revelations that were likely always there, but sufficiently latent as to not be a practical issue.

Suffice to say that the last few months have been, well, not a gentle happy time.  And I think we all got a little crazy about it, and it became a stand-in for things that had nothing to do with sleep at all.

I remember when Oliver was three years old our paediatrician asked us what our “parenting philosophy” was.  We didn’t have a real answer, so I think we made something up on the spot.  I don’t think it occurred to either of us that we’d actually need a formal philosophy of parenting.  Or at least not to me.  If anything I’m a member of the “everything should just work itself out in the end” school of parenting.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

Sleep-wise, it all came to a head on Tuesday night.  Catherine was away for the night, and both Oliver and I were in a grumpy mood, not well-disposed to sober contemplation.  After his bedtime story and tuck-in, I went downstairs and Oliver jumped up and turned on his room light.  I went upstairs and turned it off.  Rinse, repeat. A half a dozen times.

Finally, in a misguided move, I went up and removed the lightbulbs from his light, a move I now see as tantamount to cutting off Oliver’s oxygen.  He did not react well, and tantrums resulted on both sides.  There was some thrashing about on Oliver’s side, and some “lifting up and carrying back to bedroom” action on my side.  I raised my voice for the first time that I can remember (something that came as a shock to both of us).

Fortunately Catherine came home shortly thereafter and brought some sober second thought into the mix: the change of approach worked, helped by the late hour, and Oliver was asleep a while later.

Not my proudest parenting episode, and perhaps evidence that improvisational dictatorship doesn’t always work out.

You know what my greatest weakness as a parent is?  It’s that I want Oliver to do things for the intrinsic rightness of doing them.  I want him to go to bed because it’s the right thing to do.  And when he doesn’t see the same value in it that I do, I get frustrated.

Yes, I realize this is a naive and somewhat crazy approach, but it’s where I’m starting from.

In the post-game analysis that came yesterday, I was guided by three useful pieces of advice.

First, in reading about kids and sleep and their challenges, time and again I ran into the suggestion that children really are afraid of the dark, and that to force them to sleep with their light off is cruel and unusual punishment.  Oops.

Second, my brother Johnny talked to me about his own reading that suggested that kids rarely act out of nefarious hidden agendas: in other words, if they’re distressed and worked up, it’s likely because they’re distressed and worked up, not because they’re trying to ruin your life.

Finally, my old friend Tim, a veteran parent (or at least a parent with 3 years of parenting on me) suggested that maybe Oliver didn’t actually need to go to sleep. At least not when and how I dictated.

Combining all this sage advice into a new approach, I launched a new plan last night.

First, Oliver and I had a talk about the night before and how things had gone.  I asked him for guidance on what really bothered him about getting to sleep, and he said he really wanted to have his light on.  I suggested that maybe we needed to look at getting him a new light, for the table beside his bed, something bright enough to hold off the monsters, but not too bright to prevent him from sleeping.

He thought this was a good idea, so we popped over to Home Hardware, spent $11 on a reading lamp, brought it home and set it up, had the usual bedtime story and tuck-in, and then I left Oliver to his own devices.

Thirty minutes later I went to check up on him and he was still awake, reading The Old Farmer’s Almanac for Kids (he knows what side his bread is buttered on), and very excited to have learned about the invention of television.

Sixty minutes later I went to check up on him and he was fast asleep.

End analysis: bedtime was much more like a gentle happy time than it had been for a long time, nobody was distressed or anxiety ridden, monsters were kept safely at bay, and Oliver, despite his late-nite research into the cosmos, was actually asleep an hour earlier than he’d been during the days of pitched sleep battles.

Now one night’s success isn’t enough to build a new parenting philosophy on.  But it was certainly enough to snap me out of my patterns to listen more carefully to the situation and react with more sense than bravado.

Parenting, it seems, is hard sometimes, and doesn’t always just work itself out.


Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 11, 2009 - 13:59 Permalink

It sounds like you climbed a mountain there. I imagine it took some courage to blog about it. Anyway, you give me courage. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations.

Sam's picture
Sam on September 12, 2009 - 01:02 Permalink

I’m still (and newly) at the 2-yr-old stage (times two), but I will try to keep your lessons in mind, especially the tip from your brother. In fact, I may need to print it out and post it in a prominent location for daily consideration…

Mita's picture
Mita on September 13, 2009 - 01:38 Permalink

Most stories about parenting philosophies stick pretty close to either the “very strict” or “very lax” sides of the spectrum. What I really like about the episode that you’ve told is that it captures a middle-way of parenting that I don’t have a name for but its one that I recognize and aspire to.

It reminds me of when our almost-four year old was two and when we had a couple or so weeks of nightly battles trying to get our son to stay in his bed when it was time for him to sleep. It was ugly and unpleasant for all involved and every night was a battle of wills. But it came to an end in a completely unexpected way. One night, Greg suggested that my son try sleeping on the floor in a “cowboy bed.” My son readily agreed and after a little bit of lolling about he was shortly asleep. After that night, sleep time wasn’t as much of a battle but more like a choice.

I try to keep this story in mind when I find myself having a “Yes!” “No!” argument with my little ones. And now I’ll keep yours in mind too.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on September 13, 2009 - 03:43 Permalink

Nice story Pete. I’m long through it but I always found that telling a child I made a mistake, and doing it in a voice similar to how you would help them with their homework, would disable a host of fears and anxieties in the child; did the same for me. I think it had special power because the child understood they aren’t always responsible for things that don’t go well — even if perhaps they sometimes are. Many kids never get that message and it’s hard on them (us).

(On the invention of television: according to his various anecdotes, the late Ray Male, who lived out his elderly years on PEI, was the first person to appear on TV for a purpose other than testing. As a young boy’s choir member, and with no notice, he was rushed into a building next to his school and asked to sing into a camera while the new invention was demonstrated.)