If your New Year’s resolution is to slow down the pace of your family life, find some quiet moments and make more good memories, you may be in the market for some ideas about creating after-school and bedtime rituals.
In a back-to-school Family Forum column, we examined some ways that parents can build little rituals into the morning send-off routines, and suggested a couple of rituals to make the homecoming hours nicer as well, such as teatime and old-fashioned popcorn popping.
But in many modern families, there is precious little time for lingering over tea, or spending time at the stove. Between afternoon sports and music lessons, homework, chores, evening meetings, and other intrusions on family time, it can be challenging to find even 30 minutes to indulge in that fast-disappearing constant of traditional American life, the sit-down dinner.
The topic of family mealtimes, in fact, merits a column all its own and will be addressed separately at a future date. For now, we’ll explore some ideas for the after-school and bedtime hours in general -- that meltdown-prone time of day when hunger, fatigue, and evening responsibilities all merge into what is jokingly referred to as the “arsenic hour.”
At the end of the day, first of all, it’s good to keep in mind that if you, the grown-up, feel exhausted after a day at work or home, the children are probably even more tired after their day at school. They’re little people, after all, and they are struggling with developmental challenges all day long – not to mention the difficulty of being apart from their families.
So in some families, children might enjoy a chance to blow off steam in a ritual greeting when they first get home – whether it’s a silly series of hugs, high fives and handshakes, or some favorite music, or even a nonsense jingle that involves their names.
Author Roger Rosenblatt has written about his daughter’s habit, for instance, of making up goofy chants starring her children. “Sammer, Sammer, you’re the one,” she chanted in a sing-songy voice to son Sam. “Sammer, Sammer, you’re so fun. Sammer, Sammer you’re so sweet; you’ve got big toes and little feet!” When my daughter Leah was a toddler, I made up a similar silly rhyme to fit her name: “Leah, it’s good to see ya; it’s good to see ya, oh Leah!”
Other families have found that a quick way to decompress and reconnect at the same time is to establish the ritual of ten minutes of unstructured playtime when everyone first gets home. For some children, a brief session of roughhousing, pillow-fighting, or arm wrestling is appealing; in one family, I am told, the children play a roughhousing game with their parents in which they compete to snatch off each other’s socks.
For other children, quieter pursuits such as drawing or other artistic expression might be more appealing. There’s really only one rule: the after-school ritual should involve physical activity and not brain work – or passive vegetating, either. So it goes without saying that wind-down time does not include TV, video games, or other electronic entertainment.
Bedtime ritual benefits
As any parent who has snuggled up to an infant, rocked a baby to sleep or sung a lullaby can attest, one of the nicest times for creating rituals is bedtime. But older children don’t outgrow the need for comfort at bedtime; in fact, they may need it even more. Although it may be tempting to disengage from bedtime routines with school-aged kids and to expect them to take more responsibility for putting themselves to sleep, they still need adult guidance to create the right environment for winding down. As one professor of pediatrics points out, nightly rituals not only help children get the sleep they need, but also help to create long-lasting memories, build family intimacy and a sense of belonging, and carve out an oasis of calm in an otherwise hectic day.
Also, I would add, rituals can allow a child the chance to be in control.
Although I do not remember any bedtime rituals in my own childhood, I do cherish the memory of an occasional bedtime treat: a five-minute back rub from my mom.
What I remember loving most about the back-rubbing session is that for those few minutes I had the rare opportunity to be in charge, and to tell my mom what to do. After some rubbing, I could ask for tickling, scratching, or gentle pinching, and she would obey until time was up. I have never forgotten how satisfying that was to my seven-year-old soul: to be able to order Mom around for a few minutes, after a day spent with grown-ups (and big brothers) bossing me around.
Once my own children came along, I added head rubs and foot rubs to the back rub ritual, or (since they all had long hair) stroking my daughters’ hair. To this day, I still enjoy the chance to have their adult bodies sprawled across my lap for a session of hair stroking.
My friend Marybeth had a ritual known as “lay-down time” when her boys were growing up. She and her husband would alternate between the two boys, each lying down beside one of them for stories and talk at the end of the day. Marybeth and her boys also made singing a part of their nightly ritual. This time of year, they would sing Christmas carols; but when summertime rolled around, she would teach them all the silly camp songs from her childhood.
I have also heard of families that sing their prayers at bedtime, and of families that instill habits of gratitude in their children with a bedtime ritual of asking five favorite things their day. In another family, a mom established the ritual of star-gazing with her son before bed. When weather permitted, they would go outside together and discuss the constellations and colors of the sky; but when it was cold, they carried on the ritual by pulling aside his window shade and discussing the phases of the moon.
My daughter Leah was one of those children who became attached to a “lovey” or comfort object at bedtime -- in her case it was a baby blanket, but for some children the object is a favorite stuffed animal. I have heard that some parents will toss their child’s “blankie” in the dryer just before bed, to warm it up and make it even more comforting.
Another bedtime routine that eased the bedtime transition for Leah was called (don’t ask me why) “news of the kisses.” After Leah had said prayers and we had read a couple of stories, I would pretend to get up to leave. She knew I was faking, but this was her cue to say, “Wait, Mom! Let me give you the news!”
The “news” consisted of a litany of kisses that began with some of the old familiar standards such as Eskimo kisses (rubbing noses) and butterfly kisses (getting cheek to cheek and fluttering eyelashes). Then we moved on to more exotic varieties such as giraffe kisses (rubbing necks together) and fish kisses (comical pursing of lips while bulging the eyes – the more sound effects the better).
But the grand finale, since we lived near Philadelphia at the time, was a Phillie Phanatic kiss. Leah adored the Phanatic, who has a long green snout and a tongue that unfurls like one of those New Year’s Eve noisemakers. The ritual was never complete until we ended with a kiss in which I slurped her cheek with a wiggly tongue, rolled my eyes goofily and made loud smacking noises.
As with most family rituals, the more laughter in the bedtime routine, the better. One dad in my neighborhood tells me that he has a kissing ritual with his daughters known as the “Seven-Minute Torture Kiss.” Planting his lips in a ticklish spot behind a daughter’s ear, he kisses lightly for at most 30 seconds – or until the kiss breaks down into giggles.
“Only six and a half minutes to go!” he warns them ominously – but he never follows through.
This father also tells me that one daughter’s woobie, or security blanket, has been known to inspire hilarity at bedtime, as well as to provide his daughter that element of control that I mentioned. After baths, stories, prayers, kisses and a chat, Dad brings out the “appropriately wrapped woobie” – which he has rolled tightly and
kissed exactly 10 times -- and ceremoniously presents it to his daughter.
A bonus effect of the woobie ceremony, my neighbor tells me, is that it allows him to bring the nightly ritual to its all-important close. But the game has been known to backfire on him, he says. The “order of the woobie” has become so sacred and inflexible that the slightest variation in routine can end up in his flunking the bedtime test – to much giggling, of course.
“If it’s a sloppy woobie,” he says with a laugh, “I have to start all over again – because she gives it back!”
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