Children’s Bedtime Stories

Reading children’s bedtime stores to my kids is one of my favorite activities as a dad.  There are days when this love is tested, but in general I find story time to be some of the best spent minutes of my life.  There with my small children, giving them my total love and attention.  Last night, however I discovered something even better that involved really paying attention to them, not to just the book in my hands. 

Rather than read one of our several reoccurring bedtime stories, last night I decided instead to be a three year old.  Lying beside my little boy, I closed my eyes, and tried to completely relapse back into the long lost consciousness of my 3 year old self.  This distance is beyond my memory so I instead imagined what my boy was thinking and feeling at that moment.  I let the pressures of adulthood seep from my mind and body and opened my eyes to a darkened room lit only by a small nightlight, my little brother asleep in his crib on the opposite wall and my great big dad lying warmly beside me. 

What was this little boy thinking, feeling, sensing?  Through those beautiful, fresh new eyes and that uncluttered mind, what amazing wonder must exist?  For example, the excitement of language and these seemingly endless words that he is just beginning to use to connect and share his thoughts and desires with others;  the deep, inopportune fatigue that every night demands he let go his curiosity and leave this awe inspiring world while he sleeps, the reality of truly living in the moment.

So, I did my best to adopt this state of mind completely and then I listened and spoke to my son for the first time from my best interpretation of his point of view.  The point of this exercise was to act almost as his own inner voice.  Listening, clarifying and encouraging but of course ready to return to daddy at a moment’s notice if necessary.  Still, I hoped and was fortunate enough to avoid having to make any judgments; instead I simply acted as his 3 year old friend/guide.   Here is the outline but I’ll tell you the longer version of our daddy/son experience below if you are interested but first the key points so you can do this yourself.

  1. If you can, take a moment to really allow yourself enter into their world.  Let go of your stresses as an adult and assume their thoughts, feelings and desires.  Ask yourself what that must be like and then try to feel it yourself.
  2. Listen.  Patiently allow them to speak then respond to what they say.  You may have to initiate the conversation but once they take it, follow as much as possible.  Guide when necessary but the point of this (at least for me) was to relinquish my control.
  3. Match their level of excitement and curiosity, empathize with sadness or regret and temper their fears.
  4. While you don’t have to speak to them in “baby talk” make sure your language is accessible.
  5. Sincerely and truly empathize with them.  While their thoughts and feelings are surely immature and perhaps even misguided or inappropriate, try to understand what and why they are feeling the way they are.
  6. If they aren’t feeling chatty or outgoing try again another time.  Maybe your child is more reserved, in which case, be prepared to act when they do open up about something.  It can be any time, just let go and become their peer.
  7. If however, they are enthusiastic about the conversation, soak it up.  This is one of the good moments and one that you should remember.
  8. Listen to what they are saying.  What are secrets did they reveal, what interests, and what fears?  Afterward consider what you might do to expand on these topics.
  9. Recognize teachable moments and deftly use them.  The key in this situation is to make sure that your child never discovers you’ve reverted to your parental form, your language, style and presentation should remain in their age prospective.
  10. Finally, once you’ve done it, you’re going to want to duplicate it over and over again.

So here is the long version of what happened between me and my baby boy (3 years) last night.  Although it increased his pre bed time routine by about 30 minutes it was a completely new and unique even for us.   Before tucking in my two small boys and reading them their typical bed time story or singing one of the 4 songs I know, I decide to shake up our normal routine.  I will admit that sometimes I find myself rushing through the bedtime process a little faster than I should,  kind of a “here is your song and story now go to sleep” attitude.  My wife and I mix it up, taking turns or sometimes putting our young boys to bed together.  I’ve started slipping a little with work and my many extracurricular activities taking a greater priority than typical so I’ve been a slightly more “burned out” than normal.  Last night I decided that it was my turn to relieve my wife, and that I was going to change it up.  I was a little disturbed by the fact that recently both my wife and I had begun to think of putting our boys to bed as a chore.  I don’t want to overstate the case but honestly the thought that came to my mind was “what would Randy Pausch do for one more bedtime with his kids?”  Not hard to image, is it?  But, that’s another subject.

The revelation that I had last night was simple, elegant and amazing.  My boys were in their room with the lights on and getting ready for mommy or daddy to come and put them to bed.  As you know from above, I spontaneously decided before I walked into their room that I was going to talk with my boys as if I was their same age, matching their enthusiasm and following their lead.

My 18 month old was out in two minutes so I put him in his crib, turned out the lights, and laid down next to my 3 year old.  At first he protested that I wasn’t reading his story but I quickly got him talking.  We recently combined their rooms and so I decided to ask him about that to begin. 

“Do you like sharing a room with your brother?”

“Yeah, is he sleeping?”

“Yep, look you can see everything in your room from here.  Brother, all your toys, your helicopter, the nightlight . . .”

I’m not sure if I got lucky that he was so chatty last night or if he will continue to open up in the future.  In any case last night couldn’t have gone any better and I very much hope to duplicate it.  After a moment of relative silence, my son asked me “why I cut my finger?”  I had no idea what he was talking about so I just continued to probe in very accessible language until I slowly began to understand what he was trying to tell me.  I imagined myself experiencing his excitement and reliving the memory that obviously had made an impression.  I matched his excitement and we lay there staring at the nightlight faintly illuminated ceiling, chatting as buddies.  Together we talked about a fishing trip we had taken a few months before and the “big bugs with big claws,” aka crawfish, the swimming dogs and the fact that I had my cut finger with a knife.  From there the topics wandered in a seemingly unrelated series of events, from the difference between real guns and toy guns to Gru’s Indians aka minions.  Not sure if he was saying Indians but that is sure how it sounded and it was some time before I figured that one out.  The gun discussion started and stopped several times and provided a couple of great teachable moments; first, the distinction between real and pretend and second the dangers of real guns.  I do have firearm’s (safely locked in a safe) and he loves to play with his toy versions, so helping him communicate what made a gun real or pretend was great fun.  We did this by talking about the differences between a real truck and a pretend truck.  He informed me that a real truck can drive places and toy trucks go in the toy box.  I then asked him about his little electric 4×4 driving toy.  “Is that real or pretend?” “Well, it’s kind of a toy and kind of real.”  For me, more important than impressing upon him the dangers of real guns and that he must never touch one (I have years to beat this into his head J) was the conversation itself.  He told me that he wanted to get a toy gun like mine.  I thought about this, still really trying to think and feel from his 3 year old point of view.  Although this is a digression, I will say that I do believe in the 2nd amendment and I want my children to enjoy that right if they so choose.  At the same time my kids will not be shooting “real gun” for years, even with me by their side.   The respect I show real guns, when my kids are present, is exaggerated even beyond my typical safety.  Although I am anxious to enjoy shooting with them, I believe very deeply that must first have a powerful appreciation of what guns can do and that maturity is still years off.

Still, I thought my boy’s suggestion that he got a toy gun like my real one was an excellent idea.  While he has many play guns that look like anything from cork guns to laser guns, a toy gun that looked like one of my real guns could be reserved for more formal education.  Instead of shooting his brother and vice versa, (yes I do allow cops and robbers type play), this replica could be used to represent the real gun and I could begin to teach him of muzzle awareness and so forth.  So, I think that is something I will try and find in the near future.  I will probably even keep it in the gun safe beside its real counterpart.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to stray so far of topic except to show where my baby boy took the conversation and how I followed.  I don’t know how good an example this is, I am not a professional, but it sure felt good.  I simply tried to relate to him on his level, to completely understand him, and as key subjects arose, to recognize and use them as teachable moments.  More importantly than all of this though was the very profound connection I shared with one of the greatest loves of my life last night, staring at a darkened ceiling and babbling about what a couple of three year olds might, if they could carry a conversation.  I didn’t interrupt, I didn’t direct the conversation and I didn’t cut him short.  I let him talk until he was done, then I tucked him in, kissed his beautiful little forehead and told him goodnight.  He was gone before I left the room.

I doubt I’m going to ruin his bedtime three nights a week but I will definitely add this great tool to my parenting bag of tricks and yes there will be more late nights in the future.   Even during the day though, now that I’ve practiced this, I think the opportunities will be rampant and I just have to continue looking for them.  This simple conversation brought me closer to my three year old than anything else I’ve done in recent memory, for a moment I saw the world through his eyes. 

Now, I understand that he doesn’t realize what happened but over time it is my hope that he will come to more strongly feel the comfort of knowing that his dad loves him, that I care about what he thinks, that I am interested in what he has to say and that I really listen.

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