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Turning bedtime mayhem into magic

Like most parents, my bedtime routine with my children typically goes something like this:

I help my children brush their teeth, taking the opportunity to squat down so I can look into their eyes while I scrub each little tooth. Then, I wipe their faces clean, rubbing them playfully with the towel as I do. They giggle and run into their beds, where I read them each a book. I offer to read one more but they say, “Oh no, mom, you said only one book tonight, remember?”

I nod in agreement and spend a few wonderful moments recapping our days. My daughters tell me how they felt about events at school and thank me for the wonderful dinner I made for them. When it’s time for lights out, they roll over quietly and I kiss them on their heads. They’ve already dozed off by the time I get to the door. My husband, of course, joins me and we stand together, watching our babes slumber.

Then, I get on my rainbow unicorn and ride around the block, sprinkling magical pixie dust everywhere.

What? That story was practically begging for a magical unicorn ending because, after all, it’s a total fairy tale.

Here’s how it really goes at our house:

After asking my children to brush their teeth 10 times, I find my youngest child sitting on her floor surrounded by every toy she has ever owned. Upon interrogation, she confesses that a shiny object led her to believe she needed to reorganize ALL the things.

When she finally brushes her teeth, I tell her there is now only time for one book. She whines about this for a moment, but eventually picks a book, which is apparently the most difficult decision she has made all day. We read together, but when I go to leave, she whines some more about this whole one-book nonsense.

We pray as a family with my youngest whimpering in the background. I kiss both girls on the head. My oldest daughter suddenly remembers a spelling test she didn’t do. I tell her it’s too late. She turns away from me in a huff. My youngest refuses to let go of my neck when I pull away, forcing me to pry her arms off me as my final act of love today.

I flip the light out as I leave and breathe out a long sigh. But it doesn’t last long:

Child: I need water.

Child: I spilled my water.

Child: I have a paper cut on my finger.

Child: My bottom itches.

Child: I drank too much water. I have to go to the bathroom.

Child: Can a paper cut kill you?

Child: Sissy is breathing too loud.

Child: I had a bad dream.

Child: I had a good dream.

Child: There’s a weird shadow on the wall.

Child: My closet is open and I think Captain Hook is in there.

Child: I’m hungry.

Me: Can’t you see I’m trying to ride a unicorn here? GO TO BED!

So, this is how we end our day. Parenting books tell you these precious 10 minutes before bed are critical to a child’s development and to your relationship with him or her. These few moments of pre-slumber togetherness can affect self-esteem, attitude and lifelong sleep habits. They are supposed to be magical — a delightful way to end your blissful day with your young ones.

Somehow I missed the boat on this one. Sure, every once in a while I will have a good bedtime chat or a whine-free evening with my children. I cherish these moments, but they are by no means regular. Most nights are filled with hurried routines and post-bedtime interruptions that leave me ending the night snapping at my kids to just GO TO BED!

I read an article a few weeks ago about bedtime routines, and I decided to try its advice. Basically, it suggested doing a small debriefing session with your kids every night. This debrief consisted of three ingredients:

  1. What was their high point today?
  2. What was their low point?
  3. Say one thing that you appreciated about your child today.

I could do this! On the first night I tried the debrief, I crawled into bed with each child. Their answers were sweet and filled with things like the extra recess at school or the boy who pushed in line. I told each daughter one specific thing I appreciated that day, and for a moment, I couldn’t help but feel like I was really getting this mothering thing down.

Then, my 8-year-old turned to me and said, “Why are you doing this?” I tried to act casual — “Oh, I just want to start taking more time to talk to you guys about your day at bedtime.”

She eyed me suspiciously and finally concluded, “You read an article, didn’t you?”

My husband lost it in the next room. “She’s got you pegged,” he said with a laugh.

Yes, she did — she got me. But I’m not ashamed of my attempt to make our bedtimes have a little more magic and a little less mayhem. If these are the most important moments of my child’s day, I’m going to give them my best effort. Well, at least my best end-of-the-day, I’m-exhausted, can-I-eat-my-chocolate-in-peace-yet effort.

In full disclosure, it’s now been a week and I have engaged the debriefing tactic exactly two times. But hey, that’s two more conversations, two more snuggles and two more bonding bedtimes than last week. That’s progress, people. And for me in this hectic stage of life, it feels nothing short of magical.

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her 8-year-old and 5-year-old daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her.