Simplifying the Bedtime Experience

Q:Over this last Pesach, we had the good fortune of being able to spend Yom Tov with relatives. I could not help observing how another young couple went about dealing with their young children and found it difficult to hold myself back from making any comments.

Basically, they go through a nightly two- hour routine, getting their four-year-old daughter to sleep… My wife cautioned me strongly against making any comments to them about their parenting methods. But in my opinion what they were doing was totally unnecessary and simply a waste of time. I felt that if their daughter had not fallen asleep in, say, fifteen minutes, then she clearly was not quite ready to nod off yet. I would have let her come back
downstairs again, to where we were all sitting, and have her read a book or play a little longer for, say, half an hour and then try again. I do not see what they can possibly hope to achieve by having both parents spend so much time each evening in attempting to settle their child, when if they would simply be more flexible about it, it would all happen so much quicker and easier for all concerned.

I welcome your comments on the matter.

A:I wholeheartedly agree with your wife. And I partially agree with you. Let me explain.

Your wife is correct that it is unwise to offer unsolicited advice. Although your motivation may be positive, you will do more harm than good. At best, your comments will be perceived as critical. You will be viewed as judgmental. And your advice will not be heeded. In the worst case scenario, however, the other parents will become defensive, resentful and, perhaps, even hostile. As Chazal have taught, therefore, “Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be listened to, similarly is it a mitzvah for a person not to say something that will not be heeded.” (Yevamos 65b)

What you said that I agree with is that spending two hours every night to get a four-year-old to sleep is “unnecessary and a waste of time.” In fact, I would go further in saying that it can be harmful. Here’s why.

By spending two hours every night with their daughter trying to get her to sleep, this couple is actually preventing her from falling asleep. Children, especially four-year-olds, love spending private time with either parent. Having both parents’ attention is even more special. By spending this time with their daughter every night, they are rewarding her for not falling asleep. It would be as if they told her they will give her a shopping bag full of nosh if she remains awake for two hours after they put her to bed. Which four-year-old would not comply?

In addition to depriving their daughter of much-needed sleep every night, these parents are also holding her back from accomplishing the necessary developmental task of learning to fall asleep without undo assistance. And by delaying this step, the parents are automatically interfering with all subsequent steps in her maturational development.

Where we part company, however, is regarding the alternative approach you would have used. You believe that four-year-olds who succeed in keeping themselves awake for 15 minutes after being put to bed should be rewarded by receiving a reprieve of their “sentence.” Then they should be allowed to come down and play for another half hour.

Using such a strategy certainly does make everything “so much quicker and easier” for the parents on the night it is employed. It does, however, plant seeds of serious unintended consequences for the future. Once a child learns — and make no mistake about it, four-year-olds catch on very quickly — that he can “earn” more play time by keeping himself up for at least 15 minutes, he will do anything and everything to make that happen. The result is that he will be keeping himself up way past his bedtime every night, depriving himself of much-needed sleep, in order to win the prize of that extra half-hour of play time. This creates a situation that Chazal referred to as a “choteh niskar,” (Avodah Zara 2b, Yevamos 92b) where the one who transgresses benefits as a result of his misdeed.

Finally, I also disagree that the solution for that couple is for them to become “more flexible about” bedtime. Putting their daughter to bed and staying with her for two hours is being too flexible and sends a terribly mixed message. It is like saying, “You must go to sleep right now; but, you can stay up if you want.”  These parents would do themselves and their daughter a favor, therefore, if they became more firm and resolute about bedtime.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.