My oldest son asks a lot of questions. He’s four; that’s his job.
Normally, this isn’t an issue. I enjoy his inquisitive nature and encourage his curiosity. He is learning, and he’s excited about the world. He takes nothing for granted, which is a good thing. It can also be wildly entertaining, especially while reading bedtime stories. Who else would ask me if caterpillars have shoulders, or if the Tin Man will ask the Wizard for bones as well as a brain? Yes, it can sometimes be exhausting to be constantly engaged, but I have two very useful tools in my corner:
- “I’m not sure. What do you think?”
All. The. Questions.
But at a certain point, I noticed that I was feeling very impatient and frustrated during bedtime stories. Because of All. The. Questions. “Why was their mother out of the house for the day?” “Why did the bear eat the sandwich?” “What is a knave?” “Why is there a red balloon?” “Why does he want to move to Australia?”
Then I heard myself saying (often preceded by a heavy sigh) things like, “I don’t know, Cameron, it just is,” and “It’s very difficult for me to read when you keep interrupting me.” My frustration was actually twofold; I was annoyed because I was being interrupted and because all of the questions were taking up time. Also, I was no longer caffeinated. But I was further annoyed at myself because I wanted our bedtime stories to be enjoyable, full of sweet snuggles and connection. Instead, I felt myself wanting to just get through it, and it wasn’t a good feeling. So I had to take a step back and ask myself: What is my agenda here?
Consider your values
What I realized is that my behavior was out of alignment with my values. What I truly wanted was to connect with my son, to share an experience together that would allow both of us to wind down and to rest through the night with full, happy hearts. I was also aware of the importance of reading with children in an interactive way, rather than simply reciting to them. But I was acting like the most important thing was to get to the end of the book. I was effectively sending the message that finishing the story was more important than being present, hearing my son’s ideas, and responding to his questions. Cameron didn’t share my projected agenda – to be fair, it didn’t make much sense to begin with – and was frustrated with my behavior and attitude in turn.
Practical tools for bedtime stories
Now, I completely understand that bedtime routines cannot go on forever. We need to sleep, work, connect with our partner, wash dishes, or just zone out for a while after our kiddos are tucked in. But there are some practical tools we can make use of if bedtime is dragging out for too long:
Have a collection of short books on hand, or let your child choose which pages they would like to read. Books like Good Night, Gorilla are wonderful because they have very few words, but the detailed illustrations encourage storytelling and observations.
Picking specific pages can work, too. We have an extensive collection of Magic School Bus books, which can take quite a while to get through. If my son chooses one of those for bedtime, I usually ask him to pick three double-page spreads to read. Sometimes they’re in order, sometimes not.
Sometimes adults aren’t the only ones who have an innate need to finish what they start. A bookmark can give reassurance that the story will continue at a later point, and make it easier to stop reading partway through.
For some kids a timer, especially a visual one, can work better than a certain number of books or pages. During the allotted amount of time, you might get through one page or ten; it doesn’t matter. If you struggle with “just one more” on a regular basis, a timer and a previously agreed upon number of minutes can help hold the limit.
Focus on the connection
These are just suggestions. If what your child really needs to feel safe and connected at the end of the day is simply to share their feelings or talk about their day, feel free to ditch the books entirely and just listen.
By focusing on what was truly important to me and giving up an unnecessary agenda, I was able to recover my joy for reading with my children at bedtime. This experience has led me to reconsider possible agendas in other moments, too. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to shift my behavior into greater alignment with my core values. It feels good, and I think my son appreciates it too.