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Lucky Dad No. 16: Bedtime Rituals

Humans have become the dominant species on the planet because we are supremely adaptable, but the chaos of the modern world can be hard to navigate, even for high-functioning adults. For children, who are inexperienced and powerless, it can be overwhelming. I am sure this is why our daughters loved the comfort and predictability of rituals and routines. We loved them, too. There is something ineffably sweet about having your little girl contentedly sit in the same chair, wearing the same costume, eating the same snack, at the same time, day after day after day.

The sweetest rituals of all were at bedtime. The parenting guides emphasize the value and importance of a consistent bedtime routine, and they are right, for sure. Our routine often started with a bath, continued with putting on pajamas, and usually included a bit of grooming (combing hair, clipping toenails, changing a band-aid, etc.). Then we’d bundle them into bed, read them a story or two, sing a couple of songs, say prayers, and turn out the lights. There were two over-arching themes to this routine. The first was the gradual transition from activity to quiet; a gradual calming of the mind and body. The second was the steady application of physical contact; it was literally hands-on parenting.

Just listing the steps of the routine, though, doesn’t do it justice. Each stage had its own rituals. Bath time was play time. The kids would swim around and slosh water, surrounded by multiple baskets of bath toys. Our girls were dolphins, they were fish, they were friends to the myriad plastic octopuses and starfish and mermaids that floated and decayed in the tub little by little over time. As a parent, your back may ache from leaning over to massage shampoo into their little heads, and fishing the soggy bath toys out of the soapy water at the end of the bath may be mildly disgusting, but the experience of watching a child enjoy a bath is pure delight.

Then out of the bath they come. You wrap them up in a towel, and dry off their heads and hair. Is anything more cuddlesome than a clean child wrapped up in a bath towel? Pick them up, carry them into the bedroom, plop them on the bed, and help them into their pajamas. They fetch their favorite plush animal or blanket. You help them into bed. The sweetest fifteen minutes of the day is now at hand; reading, songs, and prayers.

We had a regular rotation of bedtime books. Dr. Seuss was always in the line up, especially Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Green Eggs and Ham, and I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. We wore out several copies of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Other favorites came and went. Some were classics, some were brilliant, some were banal. Francine or I (sometimes both of us) would do the reading, sitting on the side of the bed or lying on top next to the child. When the girls were a bit older, we read them chapter books. You are missing something great, indeed it is probably parental malpractice, if you don’t read Charlotte’s Web and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud to your kids. Over the course of one memorable summer, we read The Hobbit, and our seven-year old cried her eyes out when Thorin died.

After reading came a song or two. In my extended family, singing is just something everyone does, as and when they please, unselfconsciously. It saddens me to hear someone say they can’t sing, or don’t know how, or aren’t any good at it. Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, said: “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” My corollary is: “If you have a voice, you’re a singer.” And if ever you are going to have a receptive, uncritical audience, it will be your child at bedtime. Our family classics included “You Are My Sunshine,” “Edelweiss,” and “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”

And finally, there were the prayers. We are not a particularly religious family, but we always finished with the same calm and reassuring words of our standard bedtime prayers. First came the Jesuit’s Guardian Angel Prayer:

Angel of God, my guardian dear

To whom God’s love commits me here

Ever this night, stay by my side

To light, to guard, to rule, to guide

Then came a long line of “God blesses”, starting with Mom and Dad and the grandparents, and often including a few aunts, uncles and cousins. (We couldn’t name all of them every night, there were just too many, so we rotated.) There was always room for one or two special mentions, of friends or relatives who were on our minds. And at the very end, came:

But most of all, God bless Katie, Maura, and Claire

Our three wonderful girls

And help them to grow up to be big and strong, and healthy and happy,

And smart and brave, and straight and true.

Saint Michael, I’m on your side.


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