“Wendy will go to sleep peacefully only if one of us lies down with her,” her parents said. “That’s not always convenient, though, and besides, when one of us stays in there with her, she chatters until 10 or 11 p.m. If we try to leave, she starts to scream. Her pediatrician told us to close her door and let her scream all she liked. So we did, and she screamed for two hours before we couldn’t take anymore and went in with her. That night, she talked until 2 a.m. It was our punishment.”
One look at this pair was enough to convince me they were not exaggerating. They both wore a lean and bleary look. I nodded at Wendy, the picture of 5-year-old innocence in her white dress and pigtails.
“Is this true?” I asked. “Do you make your parents lie down with you and keep them awake and scream if they try to leave?”
She looked at her parents, then back at me.
“Yes,” she said, in a tiny voice all edged with taffeta. Wendy was living proof that, indeed, looks are deceiving and you can’t judge a book by its cover and still waters run deep, and persistence, thy name is Child.
Immediately, her parents and I set about the task of finding their lost sleep. First, we decided that instead of asking Wendy if she was ready for bed, her parents would set for her a definite bedtime of 8:30 p.m.
“That’s well and good,” her parents said, “But how do we get her to go?”
“Simple,” I said. “You tell her that she must be in bed on time, without any help from you.”
“You’re not supposed to be crazy,” they said, laughing. “We are!”
“Is she old enough to put herself to bed?” I asked.
“We suppose so,” they said, “But she never has.”
“Then it’s high time she started!”
The plan: Since Wendy could not yet read, her parents made a “picture-list” of the things she was expected to do in preparation for bed. There were pictures of a bathtub, a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush, and a bed with a clock face above it reading 8:30 p.m. This was posted on the back of Wendy’s bedroom door.
At 7:45 p.m., her parents directed her to begin getting ready for bed. Since the emphasis was on independence, they taught her how to draw her own bath and take it without help. Wendy thought that was fun. Along about the same time, her parents set the timer on the stove to go off at exactly 8:30 p.m. After Wendy finished her bath, put on her pajamas and brushed her teeth, her parents read to her. Since she loved for them to read for her, she was usually ready by 8 p.m. At 8:25, they reminded her that 8:30 was but five minutes away.
At this point, Wendy had to put herself to bed. Once there, she was to call her parents to come perform the tucking-in ceremony.
“So we tuck her in and then she starts to scream for us to come lie down with her. What then?” asked her father.
“Simple, you tell her she can call you back to her room one time after you tuck her in bed. On that one occasion, she can keep you no longer than three minutes. If she won’t let you leave, or lets you leave but calls again, she forfeits her regular bedtime the next night.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” they laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding! What difference could it possibly make to her what time she goes to bed as long as we’re in there with her?”
“Believe me,” I said, “Wendy would rather be in the den with you until 8:30 p.m. than in her bedroom, with or without you, at 7:30.”
Wendy proved me correct. In fact, she never once lost her bedtime. Mind you, it wasn’t the threat of punishment that turned the trick. Rather, it was the promise of independence. I’ve yet to encounter a child who could refuse an opportunity to grow up.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Rosemond The Charlotte Observer
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.