Overall goal: help children grow up into basically happy, physically and emotionally healthy human beings, who can deal well with problems.
Intermediate goal: help children get to bed in an ever-more-self-sufficient manner, without unduly straining the caregiver's relationship to them or facing bedtime meltdown on any kind of a regular basis.
Time is of the essence. Meaning:
- Figure out what time you want/need to get the kids to go to bed. Start the process at least half an hour or an hour before bedtime, depending on how trenchant/ bratty/ afraid of the dark, etc., the children involved are. DO NOT PANIC. Whoever panics, looses, and you loose if the kids loose.
- Because you have left yourself lead time, you can give the kids (almost) as much time as they want to do what they need to. Half an hour for the three-year-old to change in to pajamas by himself? Sure. Fifteen minutes to finish the Uno game? I'm not worried. Forty-five minutes to find the red rubber elephant or other essential inanimate sleeping companion? I do not freak out. We aren't panicking here.
- At the same time, set reasonable time limits. It goes something like this: At the appointed hour, I announce to all interested parties that it is just about bedtime. I ask my questions (see below) and then set a timeline for each task to be accomplished: "OK, I'm going to set the microwave for ten minutes, and when it beeps, you need to have your pajamas on and have your toothbrush in your hand, ready to brush" or whatever. Because I have (of course) left myself a cushion of time, I do not set unreasonably short times for things to be accomplished, and therefore the children do not panic. Also, because I have left a cushion, when a child wants to negotiate for more time, I am happy to do so, and we are all OK.
- Either just before or just after you announce your cruelly arbitrary bedtime (remember, all bedtimes are cruel and arbitrary), ask some basic questions: "Is anybody hungry? Who needs a drink? Do you need help getting a drink/finding your toothbrush/ zipping up your pajamas? What do you guys usually do at bedtime?" (This last one is for babysitters and aunties/relatives who are not in residence; for those with more influence over the bedtime-going situation, you might be interested to know the answer to "What would you LIKE to usually do at bedtime?") Also, the perennial favorite: "Who needs a story?" If you ask the questions before bedtime and it turns out that a kid didn't realize that he or she was hungry, thirsty, etc., then do not accuse them of lying; just get the drink, small snack, etc. Realizing that you won't get to do something for about nine hours really can make you realize that you need to do that thing right away.
- Go with the flow according to the answers to the questions. I personally don't believe in sending children to bed hungry if I can possibly help it, because (beyond nutritional reasons, which involve a slightly different situation, one in which where you do this on a regular basis) hungry children are grumpy, uncooperative, and most of all don't go to sleep or stay asleep well. At the same time, I believe that children who refuse to eat reasonably nutritious and delicious food should not be coddled. My solution is plain food: bread or toast without butter; oatmeal or other hot cereal without excessive sugar; non-sugary cold cereal; crackers and cheese or peanut butter; an apple; and so on. Have the food fight over last night's dinner in the morning. Offer the proclaimedly hungry child three options (including tonight's uneaten dinner, if it's an issue), and if the child doesn't want any of them, assume that he or she is bluffing/stalling. Of course, you have to go with your gut on this one, as with all issues of believing another human being.
- Getting a drink: the only issue with this may be bed-wetting. One of my sisters tries very hard to remember to help her bed-wetting child get lots of water before dinner time, so that he isn't thirsty between then and bedtime. She reminds him of this plan as she is implementing it, because he doesn't really like wetting his bed either.
- Help should be offered cheerfully, and with kindness. The people who most obviously need help are often the ones who are too short to turn on the water for themselves or too uncoordinated (as yet) to do their own snaps, but keep an eye out for older children who disobey not from an underlying desire to stall or defy you, but because they aren't sure where to find something or how to do something. The process goes something like this: "I see that you haven't gotten your pajamas on like I asked you to. Do you need help?" The normal response to this is, "No!" to which the proper reply is, "OK, but if it isn't done in five minutes from now, I'm going to come help. Let's look. The clock says 8:25. When the clock says 8:30, if your pajamas aren't on, then I will come help. Do you understand?" The child says yes, not because they agree (they don't have a choice), but because they understand. When 8:30 rolls around, one of two things will be true: either the kid's pajamas will be on, or they won't. If they are, hooray! If they aren't, my personal suggestion is to go in and be as absolutely helpful and kind as possible. You say, "Do you know where they are?" If they don't, you ask where they usually are or where they might be. At this point you may get a panicky, whiny, sad story about how the kid looked in the drawer and Mom didn't put them there (you may choose to graciously pass over the assumption of Mom's servanthood and save it for a pointed moral story later on) and how the child CAN'T find them. What you do is stay calm. This is a chance to work with the internal monologue the child is developing for any difficult task. That monologue has gotten into a panic/can't do it mode because it has seen a seemingly unsurmountable difficulty. What you inject at this point, when the monologue is exposed, is hope, cheerfulness, and competence. "You can't find it? Well, let's look." And you do-- both of you. The both of you part is essential, because otherwise "help" becomes a euphemism for "I do it for you". To help find pajamas, look in the places the child's brain thinks up. If they can't find them even still, give them some possible acceptable alternatives (wear a tee- shirt, sleep in your underwear). To help a younger kid put pajamas on, hold the pajamas up or else point out how the kid can hold on to furniture to hold themselves up while they get into their own clothes. To help a little person turn on the water faucet, lift them up to the faucet and let them do the turning; if the faucet is too stiff, provide extra muscle power at the outside of their hand, if that is possible without hurting the little hand. At advanced stages of self-efficacy, you can just give an enthusiastic and sincere, "You can do it!" and the kid will figure it out for themselves.
- Once the kid figures out the manner in which you offer help, you will be surprised at how often he or she will say yes, when you first ask if they need help. Of course, if you are mean or upset as you give help, they will probably keep saying "no" and start hustling when you ask if they want help. You may find this to be a more desirable result. I like my way better, because I feel that it helps children develop in a way that I want them to: they start to recognize when they are panicking because they need help or feel like they need help, and they start to recognize how they can calm down and get things done anyway.
- Say "thank you" to whoever is even slightly doing what you ask. Don't get manipulative, but these two words are an extremely, extremely powerful combination in our language, and it pays not to forget this.
- Ask the children to do "magic tricks". I learned about "magic tricks" from a book called Arthur the Anteater by Marc Brown, which I bought from the Provo Public Library's used book sale. I wish that I could tell you if he is related to the Arthur who is on PBS kids, but I have no idea. Anyway, what you do is this: you ask children (our household is currently doing this a lot with our under 8s, but I would be interested in testing an older limit) if they would like to do a magic trick. They enthusiastically say yes. You explain that you will close your eyes, and when you open them you want to see if, by magic, they have changed in to their pajamas. Or picked up the train set. Or put their dishes in the dishwasher. Or whatever. It gets tiring to have your eyes closed a lot (our little ones think up their own magic tricks all the time, and after spending more than half of one dinner close-eyed, I had to put my foot down) but it is sure worth it to get a little bit of independence going in the younger set. An alternative to closing your eyes, especially with the pajamas, is to just leave the room. The advantage to this is, of course, that you can do other stuff while you are waiting for the magic to happen.
- Don't forget about songs. THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO BE ELABORATE. Play a CD if you want to. Or, sing songs you learned as a child (as long as you are fine with them having passed on to the next generation). My dad would always play classical music records for us, and I deeply believe that this affected, for the better, my later ability to play and learn music.
- I haven't ever forgotten about stories, but don't you forget either. For variety's sake, check stories out from the library; or, twist a well-known one. My dad once told me The Three Bears where the bears had a record player; I, myself, have put a couple of fairy tales under the water (the three bears lived in a sub, and goldilocks was a random scuba diver). You can also add sound effects (knocking, popping, chewing, ding-dong for a doorbell). Also, children love to hear stories about themselves and people they know, especially about relatives when those relatives were younger. My older sister often bases made-up stories on events that have happened during the day in combination with other common fantasy-story elements ("So, Taran and Morrow were going to visit their Auntie Cornelia, when they met a troll...).
- Appropriate physical contact is very, very important for growing children. I admire my parents to no end for the fact that, when they married, they consciously chose to do two things differently than their parents had: 1) they would tell their children on a regular basis that they loved them, and 2) they would hug their children on a regular basis. This does not mean that my grandparents were horrible; to the contrary, it means that they raised children who were healthy enough to recognize even better ways to do things than the last generation had. So, of course, give your children hugs during the day to say hello, goodbye, good job, and I hope you feel better; but also consider piling everyone on to a couch, rocking chair, beanbag, bed, or whatever, to get some physical contact as you read or tell stories or do your end-of-day talk. This is very relaxing, as I can attest. Occassionally as I snuggle with my neeflings at the end of the day, I get so sleepy that I can barely finish the story. Ok, once or twice I haven't finished the story.
- I've never done this one, but I've read about it and want to try it: the end-of-day talk. How was your day? What went well? Would you change anything? It's just a chance to connect to each other in a relaxed environment.
- I've addressed hunger above.
- Exercise is something I personally need in order to sleep well. So do children. This one can't really be dealt with right at bedtime, but if you are finding that getting to sleep is a consistent problem, you might try to find some way to incorporate more exercise into the daily routine (this is assuming you have control over it). If you have two hours lead time before bedtime and recognize that this might be a problem, start running games or other possible physical activity right at the two-hour-before mark, and then start winding down about half an hour later. Experiment to see what works for your little ones (this is true of all of this, I guess).
- If they are so tired that they are running around the house like energizer bunnies (if you haven't experienced this yet, just wait...) then catch them and try to keep them at least still (though not yet calm) while you play music, tell stories, or do whatever it is that is going to best calm them, which thing varies by child.
- You know this and I know this, but I'm going to remind us: babies cry when their diapers need changing, when they have gas bubbles in their tummies, when they are hungry, when their siblings have whacked them, when they just plain want to be held, and for other completely inexplicable reasons. Check the checkable things before giving up.