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September 28, 2020
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News + Views

When Do Your Kids Go To Bed?

By Renee Dale

Short People Got No Reason To Still Be Up

The time at which people choose to put their kids to bed can tell you a lot about them. Exactly what it tells, besides a lot, is unclear. There are all kinds of reasons people keep their kids up super late or put them to bed early. It could be habit. It could be that one parent gets home late and wants to see the kids—I’m sympathetic to this, though I don’t believe it’s a sustainable daily plan, or that it’s about the kids as much as the adult.

Columnist Renee Dale

Columnist Renee Dale

It could be a deep-seated philosophy, or a groovy, mellow approach to life, or an authoritarian streak, or, you know, they could just be people who make weird choices. Some people are annoying, as you well know. It’s not one size fits all.

What is clear is that even among parents who are raising their kids similarly, with the same guiding principles and rules, there are radically different choices made in the Bedtime Galaxy.

Sometimes my kids are tucked in early because I’d like to begin drinking wine early on a given night. Sometimes I want to catch the end of Hardball and hear what Megamouth Matthews has to tell me. Sometimes I don’t want to provide any more healthy snacks for the day. No, you cannot have two more cheese sticks and a bowl of dry Puffins. If our refrigerator door doesn’t collapse from exhaustion and fall off its hinges, it should be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute.

Sometimes I put them to bed on the early side because my nine-year-old son gets into the shower with his socks on. Yes he does. He tosses these balls of suds onto the bathroom tile with two wet, woolly slaps. This creates a small, exciting flood—Whoa, he says—that he will step over as he leaves the bathroom, and I feel suddenly weary and need him to be in another room for ten hours.

Sometimes they’re allowed stay up late because they’re watching a good movie, or we’re hanging out with family friends. Maybe there’s a big NBA game on, which we all happen to love, and we let them see a quarter or two. Or let’s say they’re being particularly sweet and docile and it’s a pleasure having them up and about the cabin a little longer. Now that kind of added value I really enjoy from time to time.

But for the most part, our kids understand that lights-out rolls up around the same time each day: 7:30ish. They’re allowed to read in their beds for a while and rarely protest. It’s as if they understand that much beyond that time, we’re all no good for each other. We’ve been a loving, companionable family for the past 12 hours and now it’s time to part ways for a spell. Let’s go ahead and make these hearts grow fonder, shall we?

Baby Birds Renee Dale

Early birds scream for their worms

Our kids are only in elementary school, but I’m told by the world that as they grow, there will be so much homework, so many extra-curricular odysseys in the evenings, that the family will become a constantly moving, unrelenting, tentacled organism living in full service to the non-stop appointments/achievements of the kids. Homework struggles at night, after long workdays, after dinner, sounds like a tragedy. The point is, it seems impossible that I will be able to put them to bed at 7:30 for much longer, not when they have science-y things and baffling TERC math to do, not when they have basketball, ballet, chess, squash, and harps to play. We’re going to need some kind of garret to send them to so they can go up there and accomplish all of these enriching and stressful endeavors well into the night, because otherwise, what happens? The whole family all goes to bed at the same time? Like pioneers? Do we all share a bed and blow out an oil-soaked lantern together? When do the adults have enough privacy to create the humans we’re letting stay up until 10 p.m.?

As for parents who routinely enable late bedtimes and evening loosey-gooseyness, I don’t always understand what the reasons could be. I used to be surprised when friends that I otherwise shared child-rearing commonality with would subject themselves to the company of their own toddlers after 8 p.m. I’d become distracted with thoughts like, Why is that kid still awake, walking around, needing things at 8:30? I mean, he’s cute but what’s the deal here? Can’t you see that the “burst of energy” your toddler is displaying is in fact a form of exhaustion and over-stimulation which you’re inflicting directly on him and indirectly on us? What did we do to deserve this? Are we still friends? The child isn’t crying because he’s “not tired” and “just not ready” for bed, he’s crying because you let him careen around in a fugue and “entertain himself” right into a state of pre-psychosis. Where are you going—wait, you have to go lie with him in his bed until he falls asleep? And then you fall asleep too? Oh. I see. Ok, cool. We’ll let ourselves out…

As a rule, I like rules. But I often let my kids stay up too late when the social situation suits or requires it. When they were babies, I was aware that I was imposing a kind of physiological torture on their developing rhythms, and a delayed penalty upon myself, as their cumulative crankiness would come to clobber me. So bedtime, within a half-hour margin or so, barring extenuating circumstances, remains one of my steadfast rules. My reasons for this are obvious to me, though not always to my kids on the occasions they ask to stay up late. That part doesn’t matter because, well, they’re kids. A primary motivation is the fact that my children never sleep any later in the morning regardless of what time they go to bed. (Also, neither do your kids. Not unless they’re teenagers, in which case, you’ll need cattle prods and smelling salts to rouse them.)

For example, we might spend an evening out at a Celebrate Brooklyn concert, picnicking, talking, cured-meat-and-cheese-eating with friends, unable to actually make out any of the music, while a gang of our kids runs wild for hours, eats multiple treats, gets virtually breaded in Prospect Park’s smoky dirt-dust, and then get tossed unconscious into their bunks at 10:30 p.m. At 6:59 a.m. the next morning, they will be standing over our bed in the dark. Sure thing, why not get this day STARTED!

Summer is traditionally a period marked by lax bedtimes, even for a stickler like me. Often we’re on the beach all day, early morning until evening, doing what are generally acknowledged as plum-tuckering-out kinds of things: bruising sessions of body-surfing, swimming, biking, scootering, sun-baking, kadima-ing, knee-skinning, tv-tagging. Then, a late dinner, caterwauls for ice cream, some show watching, and holy crap look it’s 9:15 and the four of them have been up so long they’re asking for a second dinner because the first was three hours ago. They’re each handed a pile of peeled carrot bullets with Newman’s Ranch and sent to brush their teeth. Off to bed then, a bit of reading with headlamps, then salty, sunny, ocean-slammed sleep. Don’t get the wrong idea here: There will be no acknowledgement of such an extended day. They will rise and start over again in pre-dawn, wired to wake with the birds. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is why children are petite, vulnerable and adorable. If an adult stood over me and asked for lightly-toasted-toast-with-no-crust-on-the-toast and a cup of milk before sunrise, I would eliminate that person from my life.

Sandman Photo Renee DaleEvery night, right after we put the kids to bed, I miss them for a while. I miss my physical access to kissing them and hugging them and smelling their sweet little heads, which I do so persistently that they spend a lot of each day wrestling me off them. I miss talking to them and hearing them talk to each other, and I routinely use that first period of freedom all day long from work and kids to feel guilty about something I may have done or said to them, some small thing I regretted doing before tucking them in. As a result, I go stand by their door and eavesdrop on the conversations they have in the dark, right before sleep. Sometimes they’re brief, groggy back-and-forths, but sometimes I get to hear things so sweet that it makes me feel like my heart has burst outward, three feet in front of my body. Often, later, I’ll sneak into their rooms and look at them, which usually helps assuage any regrets from the day. There they are, fine and cozy, relatively undamaged to the naked eye by my inadequacies. What a glimpse of pure paradise—watching your children sleep. See? I just like to get that blessed experience underway as early as possible.

All of which is to say, there’s no real accounting for why parents do these things differently. I don’t know why everyone speaks so loudly to their children in public these days either—for all nearby parties to admire. Tell Mommy what you think about that, Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota, that’s right, yes. Oh baby Bushwick is so smart, isn’t she? Yes you are, baby Bushwick.

The running of a family and a household hangs very much on these kinds of choices, and it comes down to what kind of scene you want to set. Nobody is going to come along to identify which way is right and which is wrong. I mean, of course one way is right, but we all know that we’re all right already so it gets hard to figure. Personally, I feel that not having someone around at 10 o’clock who could ask me to peel him an apple or wipe his butt because I “do a better job” than he does is ideal. But you might be fine with this kind of task into the P.M. double digits. I’m far less equipped to be a kindly and open mother when my child embarks on an art project at 8 p.m. With pom poms and Mod Podge glue.

It’s possible some parents are lonely. It’s possible they’re bored when the kids are not underfoot, needing them. Maybe they like doing kiddie origami at night—when I’m eating a Hanco’s sandwich and watching Parenthood instead of doing more parenthood.

Perhaps they think other folks find their kids as charming and essential to the scene as they do. Here, a gift: my terrified four-year-old at the 8 o’clock movie. No sitters available! Look, some parents are able to remain patient longer and later into the day than others. And undeniably, certain kids are just flat-out easier than others. These kinds of characters might be awesome to hang out with at 9:15 on a Tuesday night.

I don’t know. I’m not a pediatrician or a childcare expert of any kind! But if you’re a parent struggling with choices like these, I direct you to a helpful text that details the latest philosophy and scholarship regarding sleep theory for children. It’s called “Go the F*ck to Sleep,” and you can find it wherever books are sold. You’ll have time to read it tonight, as soon as you put your kids to bed.

Renee Dale is a writer living in (where else?) Brooklyn. She and her fiancé and their four kids live in a narrow, tilting “house” in Cobble Hill. Or is it Carroll Gardens? When Renee isn’t writing, she’s engaged in various museum and natural history pursuits and can often be found lurking the Hall of African Mammals. In this column, she will bring her anthropological talents to bear, covering everything from parenting to local news to whatever else bursts forth in our Brooklyn life and times. 

Read Renee’s other columns:

Brady Bunch Brooklyn: Renee’s Very Modern Family

The Awkward Stew: You and Your Sitter at 1 a.m.

This Problem is Not Sexy: Too Early Sexualization of Girls

Rated P for Permanent: Dale advocates for adding some R-rated classics to your child’s repertoire

A Little S&M With Your Crispy Kale: Dining in Brooklyn

Home, Sick: Face It. Nothing Is Getting Done Today

Aerobeds: The Reason for the Season

All Good Things: The Best Things to Do Right Here, Right Now

I Love Her: Film Review & Essay

Nets! Nets! Nets! Brooklyn, It Seems, Is Currently In the House

She tweets @ReneeMDale

Visit Renee’s website:








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Readers' Comments

February 2, 2014
12:06 PM

Great that this author is minding everyone’s business on how they raise their kids. As stated in one comment there is no universal standard. Where children sleep or for how long their sleep is no one else’s business. When my kids were little they usually stayed up until around 11 at night. They were not whining or annoying. They were and remain some of the smartest, nicest, most creative and interesting people I know-same as when they were little. They got in many more hours to be around smart parents who would either be involved with them or leave them to their own interests. Just like adults, all children do not need the same amount of sleep any more than they need the same amount of food or activity levels. Each one is unique and it is up to the parent to honor the child’s needs and individuality and respect their ability to learn how to self regulate their body. It is their body, after all.
My intolerance is for the whiney parent who continues to say-me, me, me, me, first, like this writer.

January 31, 2014
10:54 AM

My 6 yr old goes to bed around 9-930 on weekdays as well and wakes up with no problems at 7am. Wknds she goes to bed at 11 or later and wakes up around 8-9 sometimes even 10am. We commute to get her to school and with work schedules, some nights we dont get home til 730-8 so to put her to bed right away doesnt work. bedtime is a very individual choice for each family and no one should be dictating what bedtimes should be as every kid is different. my child is well rested and energetic during the wk. if she wasnt then i would make the necessary adjustments. and it sounds like the author really only puts her children to bed early for self-serving reasons…ie she wants to watch tv or have adult only time. the time before bed is when after a long day of work for us and school/afterschool activities for my daughter, then a long commute, we have time to eat dinner together, shower, pick out clothes and do the bed time routine.

January 31, 2014
12:04 AM

My 5 year old daughter goes to bed at approx 9-9:30 on weekdays and as late as 11pm on weekends. Her body will tell her when she’s tired. I see no reason to force her to go to sleep before she’s ready. Strict adherence to a early bedtime schedule is an American philosophy. In Europe & Asia kids go to bed much later. To each their own. As long as my daughter seems well rested with good quality sleep, late times are fine with me.

January 29, 2014
5:22 PM

I have a middle schooler and one in elementary school. They go to bed at 9pm and 8pm, respectively. In years past, my now 6th grader once went to bed at 7pm, and 8pm and now an hour later at 9. The larger goal is the consistent bedtime that’s right for your kid with occasional exceptions, of course. As they get older, yes, there is more homework and possibly other evening activities, but they can handle staying up a bit later as well. Which doesn’t mean they want to hang out with you during your “me time” necessarily. My kid wants to catch up on her email, try on an outfit for the next day, read, or take a minute stare off into space. She rarely has much free time during the middle of the week, so if that means pushing her bedtime back a little bit, so be it. She’s still well rested the day. For most of us, city living may mean being in each other’s space at the end of the day, but just as we adults want our time, so will your kids.

Valerie G.
January 29, 2014
4:11 PM

Renee, I am so in agreement with you!!! Not too many people may be, but I am! My kids are a bit older so their bed time is 8:30 and 9:30, but that still seems too late! They need their 10 hrs. of sleep and I need to get stuff done in the evening without being bugged every 5 minutes. Kids who get a good night’s sleep are better students (proof is in the pudding with my boys). And the book you mention is hilarious! Kudos on speaking out about this “issue”, as it is very controversial, it seems.