Unschooling Bedtime

I’ve been trying to step more towards Radical Unschooling, which is really just taking the principles of unschooling and applying them to family and other life issues. We’re not entirely there, and I don’t know that we ever will be, but I’m experimenting with using it in various aspects of our lives. I’d like to tell you about our experiences with bedtime.

Because we coslept for so many years, bedtime wasn’t really an issue until the kids were sleeping in their own beds. For many years after that transition (which they requested), bedtime consisted of a routine where I’d read and then snuggle with them until they fell asleep. Son proved to be more independent in that respect, and it wasn’t long before I could leave him awake and he’d fall asleep on his own. Daughter was also able to do it, though it took her a bit longer, but then, due to a story too long to go into here, she became dependent on me being there again. Sometimes it took a long time, and it was usually a very frustrating experience for me.

Finally last year she and I worked together to solve the problem. We made suggestions and chose from some of them until we found what worked. The winning combo was going to sleep listening to an audio CD and cuddling the cat (it became part of his job requirement to be held hostage in her arms until she fell asleep each night). Some evenings the kids would want to watch a movie, but I noticed they’d stay awake longer that way (they share a room, by the way, and have a DVD player in there). Movie nights became special events.

Somehow, over the last few months as Husband has been away from home so frequently with work, I fell into the habit of having them watch movies every night. And Daughter, perhaps in some attempt to gain a feeling of control and/or independence, began to stay up later and later. It got to the point where she’d tell me she was up all night; judging from how late she slept in I’d guess she was sometimes awake until 3 or 4 am. It seemed to become a goal for her to stay awake all night.

Because we rarely ever have to be anywhere in the first half of the day, her nocturnal habits weren’t affecting us much. However, I wasn’t too happy for a number of reasons: it meant that she’d sleep through breakfast and then want dinner at 10 pm, if we did have to get up for something she was really crabby and prone to outbursts of anger, Son was staying up later because of the movies she’d watch at night (and the fact that she then developed some “fear of the dark” such that she wants her bedside light on, as well as a night light, and the glare from the screen made it too bright for him) and that was a problem when Husband was home for the week because Son usually sleeps with me when his Dad is away and I go to bed somewhat early, so that left Husband with a needy kid late at night. I could also see this becoming a problem when guests came to visit, or when we go camping this summer (and want tired kids asleep in their tents early so we can have grownup time around the campfire).

My first inclination was to simply ban movies at night and go back to the old ways. But I decided since we weren’t in a rush that I would experiment with bringing Daughter into the discussion as an equal participant. I had a few small chats with her at first about how the lack of sleep was affecting her body, what she was missing out on, etc. Then we had some family meetings where we talked about how her habits were affecting all of us. She admitted she didn’t really like sleeping until noon, but felt she couldn’t fall asleep any other way. We talked about different options to try. She said she would but didn’t really appear to be doing anything differently.

Last night we had another family meeting and reminded the kids that their best friends were coming to visit in 3 weeks. It seemed to be the incentive that Daughter needed to really get going. We came up with some ideas last night – me reading stories to her for example, but ultimately it wasn’t working and I was getting tired and cranky. She told me that if I would let her watch movies she would make an effort to close her eyes and “just listen” when she got “blurry-eyed”. I didn’t hold out any hopes, but was too tired to argue so I said we’d try that and if it didn’t work we’d have to come up with a new plan the next day.

I went to bed just before midnight (late for me) and both kids were awake but quietly watching. I awoke at 1:45 and went to check on them. Both were sound asleep. I know from Son’s waking times that he likely was asleep not long after I was. But for Daughter this was actually early based on the last few weeks, so it was actually a good step forwards. When I woke her up this morning I congratulated her on getting to bed earlier than previously, and she said she’d done just as she’d said she would. So we’re going to continue this way, with the added step that she’s agreed to have me wake her up a bit earlier each day to promote earlier “blurry-eyed”-ness.

I could have probably settled this much faster if I’d just laid down the law. I would have had to go through one or two nights of screaming matches, tantrums, and fighting. In the end, Daughter wouldn’t have learned much. She would have clung desperately to the idea that staying up late = freedom. Now that she has had a chance to fully embrace the idea that yes, if she so desires, she can stay up almost all night long she’s realizing that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We’ve been able to discuss how her body feels, how it affects her life and her family’s life without her getting all defensive because nobody was going to take that freedom away from her. If I had fought with her, she would not have had the chance to engage in problem-solving exercises, coming up with potential solutions and weighing them to see what would be possible, then trying them out to see what works and doesn’t work. She would not have been able to internalize the message that we trust her to make the right decisions without being forced. We would have become a force to fight against, to direct her energies against, rather than people who are on her team and there to help and advise.

I do think that were Daughter a bit younger I probably wouldn’t have done this. I just felt that she was mature enough, perhaps, to do this without parental intervention and wanted to give it a try. It has only been one night so far, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m not averse to stepping in and setting some boundaries if it turns out she simply isn’t ready to practice some self-discipline, for the sake of the family. But I’m really hoping I don’t have to, because I feel the learning opportunities here are big – it’s not about sleep so much as feeling capable, responsible, and trusted to make good decisions even when they go against the present desires. If we come through this and she does reset her clock, how proud she will be! What a sense of confidence it will give her to know she did it herself, without being forced. And it further cements our relationship as one of mentor/advisor and “less-experienced person” rather than rule-maker and rule-follower.

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Categories: family life, parenting | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Unschooling Bedtime

  1. Kristin Hasselblad

    How old is “daugther” here? We are struggling with the same thing and our dd is 4. A bit young for this I think. Thanks!

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