Oh my! My friend Lisa Russell just wrote about sleep, and her family's completely joyful lack of a bedtime. I completely admire her seemingly laid back approach to parenting, home schooling, life. She works hard, but keeps a great sense of humor, and is the kind of parent I always wanted to be. But I'm not. That kind of parent. Calm, mellow, quiet, cheerful. And I tried to respond in the comments section, but my comment was turning into an essay, so I decided to be nice and move it over here. Because really, our bedtime is foundational to the happiness and goodness of our family, and I just can't keep it to a handful of words.
When we had just one child he went to sleep whenever he wanted. Which was never. Really. Papa would get home from work when he could, we'd eat supper, read stories, hang out, have a bath, hang out, read more stories, go to bed, talk and talk and talk until eventually we all fell asleep (usually parents first!). Variations of a theme, including working on peace/political campaigns and the only child sleeping under desks, behind signs, and in his play tent in the corner of a campaign office. Somehow or another we ended up with two children (then three) and tried to keep up the same lifestyle, same crazy busy life, same erratic hours, but it just didn't work.
Neither of the boys sleep past 7am unless they're sick, no matter how late they've been up or how tired they are. When Avery was 6 or 7 I got so tired of backtalk I sent him to bed every day for a week at 8 o'clock. And the results were amazing! Suddenly my child had an appetite, his old sweet demeanor, energy to play outside and run around for hours, attention for his schoolwork.* It was really a clear and immediate change. By the end of the week I was convinced that "bedtimers" knew what they were doing, and we happily joined their ranks!
Our family works so much better with a consistent bedtime, because it lends itself to a consistent rhythm to the whole day. Papa knows the boys will be in bed at 8, so he makes a bigger effort to come home for supper by 7. We eat together most of the time, then get ready for bed and he helps them to sleep. It's early enough that he doesn't fall asleep with them too often (or if he does, he wakes up with time still to do computer work or watch a show before he really goes to bed). If he's not home I lead them through the bedtime routine, and they go to sleep on their own. Those nights, when Papa does finally get home, he has a quiet, peaceful house to come home to, to relax in, he can eat supper without being climbed over, we have a chance to talk together without interruption of little people, and we might even watch The Daily Show together! Those weeks when he's working late every day the boys' bedtime is even MORE important to me- it's my only time alone, to think and plan and organize for the next day. The boys don't wake up any earlier with an earlier bedtime, but they are well rested and cheerful in the mornings, ready to jump into the day. If it were only up to me I'd send them to bed at 7, because I think they can use even a little more sleep than what they get now, but I know the possibility of getting Papa home an hour earlier each day is NOT likely, and the children don't get much time with him as it is.
And we do make exceptions. We're not the strictest bedtimers there are. Right now is So You Think You Can Dance season, so we stay up to watch that. We might have a picnic in the park for supper and play late, or have friends over who stay past bedtime, but for the most part bedtime is 8 o'clock, and we can all count on it. I can schedule school time knowing that we'll all be up, ready, and willing to work at 8, which means we can be done with schoolwork by lunch time, we can fit in a morning walk, then play time and activities in the afternoon. I like having a plan for the day, and the kids do too. I also like having the ultimate punishment at my disposal- before we had a "bedtime" I couldn't ever send them to bed early for misbehaviour, and now I can (even if I don't very often). It's nice to have a Hail Mary pass, or Ace in the Hole, or whatever metaphor works best.
Whenever I hear parents talking about not getting enough personal time, getting sick of their kids' bad behaviour, wanting to create a better rhythm for their days, struggling to get everyone going in the mornings, having to wake their kids up, not having time with their spouses, the very first thing I think of is look at BEDTIME**. It's my best advice to struggling parents. Not a particular hour for every family, but a consistent routine and consistent bedtime for each person in each family.
*I know Lisa isn't talking about her kids being sleep deprived, she's letting them more or less choose their own hours, and they get the sleep they need, but I couldn't ever figure out how to keep them from waking early AND staying up late. And her family doesn't need to get up early, where ours does, and her family has to eat awfully late in order to eat together- they're just kind of on a later schedule than a lot of families. They're on restaurant schedule, after all.
**BTW- I am pro-family bed, attachment parenting, all that good stuff. But I have recently realized that attachment parenting doesn't have to mean "attached to Mama 24 hours a day". It can also mean attached to Papa and the big brothers. Attachment Family if you will. Avery puts Miles to bed when Papa isn't home (and they get sweet sleepy bonding time together), Papa puts both big boys to bed when he is home (and gets to share that sleepy end of the day talk and cuddling), instead of me getting everyone to sleep on my own (and then trying to sleep in the mad hot jumble of limbs and dreams and blankets) like before the Bedtime Revolution.