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We Didn't Put Our Kids on a Schedule and This Is What Happened

Photograph by Twenty20

Before my husband and I started a family, friends who had kids would warn us that our lives would change drastically once we were parents.

“You just wait,” they’d threaten, as if they were wielding our future babies as weapons they’d use to inflict pain on our carefree lives. We’d simply laugh and wave goodbye as we left for a club just as they were slipping into their pajamas.

One of the things they always brought up were our crazy schedules. My husband and I were both art directors, used to late dinners and all-nighters at the office. We’d often dine and hang out with friends until midnight, and then say goodbye as we headed back to our prospective offices for 3 a.m. press-checks or early morning deadlines. That was youth—being able to still design an ad campaign after no sleep and a pitcher of margaritas.

After we had kids, things did change—for a while. We read all of the parenting books and heeded the advice of our friends who said kids needed a schedule, one that involved regular naps and early bedtimes. We ate dinners at normal times and slept when the rest of the world slept. We felt accomplished and weird at the same time. "This is what adults do," we thought.

We adjusted as well as we could. We both admired and were puzzled by the zeal with which parents organized their kids’ lives into orderly pockets of time. When our youngest turned 4, we had a birthday party at the park and the mom of one her classmates showed up alone. She said her son was having his nap in the car in the parking lot and her husband was watching over him. Waking him up was out of the question, so the mom hung out with all of us and participated in the festivities as if he was there. I asked her if her son would be upset that he missed the party and she said he’d be more upset if he missed his nap.

The kids were happier when we’d get to spend time as a family, whether or not they’d had the number of naps required by the baby manual.

Could this be true? Would he wake up and upon realizing he’d slept through the birthday party say, “Eh, so I missed out on plates of cake, a bouncy house and a puppet show? Oh well—at least I got some quality shut-eye.”

This new life didn’t work for us for long. I was now working at home, but my husband still had his ad agency job and would get home at 8 or 9 o’clock. We’d go days without having dinner as a family. The only time he’d see the kids would be in the morning before he went to work. We noticed that the kids were happier when we’d get to spend time as a family, whether or not they’d had the number of naps required by the baby manual.

So, we adjusted our schedule to fit our lives, not anyone else’s. I kept the kids up later and we went back to eating dinner at our usual time—often 8 or 9 o’clock. Sometimes we’d even go out to a restaurant, buckling our two kids into their car seats at the same time our neighbors were turning off their lights for the night. Our two wide-eyed daughters didn’t seem to mind at all—and, in fact, embraced it as a new adventure.

It made for some great memories. We had cookouts on school nights until 10 p.m. The girls' friends would say they felt like they were on vacation. Our girls missed naps entirely in favor of a trip to a museum, a concert or a visit with friends. We stayed up late to watch fireworks and on New Year's Eve, we celebrated at midnight, instead of at 9 o’clock, when most of our friends with kids were counting down because it was the New Year on the East Coast.

My girls are 20 and 22 now. They seemed to have turned out fine, in spite of our callous disregard for the timetable of the rest of the world. They’re both in creative fields, which necessitates an unconventional schedule, and now we like to pat ourselves on the back by looking at their early training in poor time management as preparation for the realities of their world.

I’m not saying this will work for everyone. To those that manage to keep their kids happy and healthy on a schedule, I salute you wholeheartedly. But if you’re stressing about getting your kids to bed at 7 p.m. sharp or getting tired of building your lives around the mid-afternoon nap, I’m just saying there are other options and your kids won’t spontaneously combust if you don’t get their chicken nuggets on the table by 5 p.m. Maybe you’ll even make some really good memories—you just wait.

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