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Actually, Your Kids DO Need a Bedtime

Photograph by Twenty20

A friend sent me a link to a parenting piece last week with the provocative title of "8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime." The blogger, a mom of four, explained how she had done away with bedtimes for her children and that it was a wonderful thing. She even had eight—eight!—reasons why it’s a good thing to let your kids go to bed whenever they wanted.

I read each of her points and I laughed.

A lot.

Hey, if letting your children dictate when they go to bed works for you, go for it. Really! Who am I to tell someone else how to parent their children? I'll just be over here, snuggled on the couch with my husband, drinking my glass of wine and watching "Game of Thrones" because in my house, there is a bedtime—and it's early. Why? Well, let me use her points to explain:

Point 1: We all need sleep and children are capable of listening to their bodies and knowing when they need to sleep.

Best case scenario: If allowed to stay up until they were ready to go to bed, my kids would play Minecraft until they fell asleep mid-game around midnight, then wake up tired and cranky at their usual time of 6 a.m. Worst case scenario: They would lurch around the house, picking fights with each other and the dog, making weapons out of anything they could lay their hands on and alternately laughing maniacally and sobbing uncontrollably from exhaustion until they fell asleep at midnight and woke up tired and cranky.

Nope to the nope.

Point 2: Setting a bedtime is counterproductive to a child’s own natural circadian rhythm.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorses the pediatric sleep recommendations of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), which recommend 10 to 13 hours of sleep for 3- to 5-year-olds and 9 to 12 hours of sleep for 6- to 12-year-olds.

I make sure my (non-napping) 5-year-old is in bed by 7:30 p.m. because he is almost always up by 6 a.m. each morning. Enforcing a bedtime of 7:30 means he gets around 10.5 hours of sleep, which is on the low end of the recommended amount of sleep for a kid his age. My 7-year-old goes to bed at the same time but takes longer to fall asleep, so he's also on the low end of the recommended guidelines—and that’s with an enforced bedtime. Letting them stay up later doesn’t mean they sleep later—they're still up around 6 a.m., no matter what.

Point 3: Making children go to bed at a specific time creates unhelpful sleep associations and may make them dislike and resist sleep.

My children don’t like wearing seasonally appropriate clothes, but I make them wear a coat when it’s cold so they stay warm and aren’t miserable. They don’t like brushing their teeth, but I make them brush their teeth because health and hygiene are important. My kids don’t like eating vegetables and would live on sugared cereal if I let them, but I encourage them to try healthy foods. Why should sleep be any different?

They may resist it, they may tell me they’re not tired, but getting a good night’s sleep is good for their health—and it’s my responsibility as a parent to make sure they get enough rest.

Point 4: Children have the right to decide when they will sleep.

I believe in bodily autonomy. I believe if a child says they don’t want to be hugged or tickled, they should be able to say no. But giving a child a bedtime routine is not infringing on their bodily autonomy any more than making them wear a seatbelt.

Some nights, my 7-year-old takes an hour to fall asleep because he needs to decompress before he rests. So he plays quietly in his bed, daydreams and talks to his stuffed animals, and then he falls asleep because he’s tired even if he didn’t think he was when I made him go to bed. Winding down from his day is not accomplished by letting him run around the house playing until he falls on the floor in a weepy, worn-out heap, it's accomplished by following a bedtime routine.

They are not little adults and we shouldn’t treat them as if they are.

Point 5: If you enforce a bedtime, children aren’t learning good habits and will … something something … when no one is around to tell them to go to bed.

She kind of lost me on this one because it seems as if she believes that by giving children a bedtime, they'll grow up and won’t know they need to go to bed because I won’t be there to tell them. Um … yeah, I remember those years, they were called high school and college. I stayed up too late, pulled the occasional all-nighter, drank a ton of caffeine and powered through. Sound like any (most) adults you know?

Why would I inflict that horrible constantly tired feeling on my young children by letting them stay up as long as they want? Does me establishing a bedtime when they’re young mean they lost all sense of self when they’re older? Did I stay up all night in college because my parents made me go to bed at a reasonable hour when I was 5? Of course not. Children need structure and consistency, including a consistent bedtime that allows them to get the rest they need. They are not little adults and we shouldn’t treat them as if they are.

Point 6: Letting children set their own bedtime gives you more connection with them at the end of the day.

I think I laughed the hardest at this one. Yeah, because after a full day of activities, I really want to connect with my exhausted, whiny 5-year-old at nine at night while he staggers around like a drunken sailor on leave, hurling “I hate you!” at every perceived slight. Sure. Sounds like fun. Or, I could put my kids to bed and “connect” with my husband whom I have not been able to say three uninterrupted sentences to all day.

Hmm ... tough choice.

Point 7: Having a bedtime isn’t flexible.

I need to quote her entire point here: “Having a set bed time is so restrictive! What if you have visitors? What if you want to have a family movie night? What if you’re out at an event and can’t get home in time for bed? Ditching bedtime is just so much more flexible!

You know what’s super-duper flexible? Not having kids at all! But I do. If I have visitors, I would like some grown-up time with them and putting my kids to bet at their usual time allows for that. If we want to have a family movie night, we start it early or we split it into two nights, no problem.

If we want to go out to the movies, we go to matinees (they’re cheaper and less crowded anyway) and we don’t go to events that we know are going to run too far past the kids’ bedtime unless it’s a special occasion like the fourth of July or a family vacation. We make sure the kids know this is a special event—and they're that much more appreciative of the privilege of staying up an hour or two past bedtime. Ditching bedtime isn’t more flexible, it’s just lazy.

Which brings me to her last point:

Point 8: Giving up bedtime means no more power struggles.

Aha! Finally, we’ve come to the real reason setting a bedtime is so evil. It’s so hard! The kids don’t like it and, by extension, they don’t like their parents for making them go to bed. (Cue the sad music.) Yes, it can be hard, yes it can cause conflict, but the role of a parent is to guide and instill good behavior, not to give a child free rein to do whatever they want and hope they make the right choice.