Sometimes parents must discern whether our kids are asking us for bedtime stories because they are stalling, or because we have instilled great habits into their fledgling value systems.
Case in point: last night my two-year-old daughter and I returned well after her bedtime from our date night (1. fresh, hot doughnuts, 2. Starbucks, 3. ice cream, 4. playground). Soon after, my wife pulled into our driveway with our two other kids, worn out from a church function. Tuckered out ourselves, we announced that the day had now ended, and that no, they couldn’t do any of the hundred things that suddenly became important before bed. We herded them upstairs, in and out of the bathroom, and into their bunk beds. I killed the lights, and as I headed back downstairs to retrieve their sippy cups, my son asked, “May we please have a bedtime story?”
“Nope. No story. Too late and too tired.”
My son lay back down on his pillow. In our family of over-communicators, silence like my son’s indicates deeper than usual sadness or frustration.
Let’s not kid ourselves: at age five, the desire to stall at least partially motivates any request made at bedtime. But as I stood at the kitchen sink trading last night’s water for fresh, I had to grant his frustration some legitimacy. Partly he was confused by my readiness to abandon our established bedtime routine.
He was right to remember that three things are sacred at bedtime: story, prayer, and song.
Often the song is one I’ve made up and which would sound better if their mother were singing it, or only their little voices.
Prayer time is always interesting. My son seldom wanted to pray until his little sister started showing him up. Each point in her lengthy, semi-didactic prayers (even her requests) begins with Thank you–the same way Aloha means hello and goodbye. They cover the American pastor and Iranian prisoner Saeed Abedini; a one-year-old in Ohio with cancer; gratitude for her aunts; a plea that her brother would work well in school; and a request that her daddy would “get the money.” Her brother prays for Pastor Saeed, and that Mommy will teach well, and that Daddy will work faster so we can play.
Usually story time content is biblical. We leaned on The Jesus Storybook Bible until recently, when we started reading to our kids from the Bible itself, paraphrasing as needed. We pull from stories about Jesus, or from Jesus’ parables. Other times we draw from the books of Samuel and Kings (accounts of Saul and Jonathan, David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha), because that’s where I am personally reading most mornings. Less inspired stories top off the rotation.
These aren’t just things we do. They’re habits my wife and I have cultivated in order to satisfy, and inflame, a certain hunger in our children–a fulfilled yearning to see themselves as characters in a cosmic narrative, a divine drama evoking prayer and inspiring song.
Yes, maintaining good bedtime habits are hard when you’re so wiped you think that if you lie down to sing your daughter to sleep, you might not stand up until morning. But most disciplines worth doing tax now and reward later.
All day long we parents sow values in our children’s soil. Bedtime is when we water them. Children need the day’s last waking moments to review with their parents, take inventory, celebrate gains, mourn losses, cast hopes, and admit fears. An intentional bedtime routine isn’t water on the fire. It’s oxygen.
I grabbed a book of Greek myths on my way back upstairs, deciding that tonight I would rather be right than consistent. We read a kids’ version of Odysseus building the wooden horse that brought down Troy, and of the fair face that launched a thousand ships. We spoke of how gods are different from God, but how men are just the same. Then we changed the subject, and we sang.
Finally my daughter prayed, “Thank you me have good dreams.” Whether she was thanking or asking, God only knows. But only he needs to.
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