The scene is familiar: A parent says, “OK, kids…” and before they can follow up with, “…time to get ready for bed,” boom: As reliably as death and taxes, the stall tactics kick into high gear.
There are no lengths to which young children will not go to put off going to bed. They will invent any and all manner of needs, itches, unquenchable thirsts, mysteriously sore feet, and other faux-maladies to gain the ultimate victory: control over your one precious hour of Ted Lasso bingeing time before you fall comatose into your own bed.
They are masters, and will reveal skills and techniques you didn’t know they had in them to achieve victory. But there are a ways to intercept the stall—or at least make it work for you. (This list is not exhaustive—how could it be?—but it’s a start.)
Start earlier (and incorporate stalling into the routine)
Child development experts rarely agree on anything, but support for the idea that a child needs routine seems unanimous. If you find the stall techniques are dragging out bedtime by an extra 30 or 45 minutes, start earlier and build the tactics into the routine. If they always whine for an extra sip of water, put a cup or water bottle (to avoid spills) by their bed. Budget time for the seemingly never-ending game of “Say X when I kiss this cheek, and say Y when I kiss the other cheek” (including time to be corrected, because you will do it wrong).
Expect and accept there will be last-minute breakdowns about not being able to find [insert random, previously ignored, suddenly essential toy]. And may we suggest softly chanting This will take longer than I think and that’s ok silently to yourself before it begins, to calm and ready your mind ahead for the arduous task ahead.
(Of course, there’s always the danger the tactics will sense their impending demise and mutate into new strains. But hopefully not.) For more tips on age-by-age sample routines, see here.
Cover all the non-negotiables first
There are many parenting experts who think giving kids rewards undermines intrinsic motivation. But in our house, the only way anyone ever put on a Pull-up or submitted to the evil of teeth-brushing is if we dangled over them the thing they cherished most in life as a reward: the pre-bedtime show.
Use whatever your kid’s prize the most before bedtime—book reading, being able to choose more than one book, tickles—and let them know there won’t be time to do it unless they are ready by X. The tough part is enforcing this (and dealing with the fallout). If you often threaten to take it away but never do, they’ll know you’re bluffing and carry on with the shenanigans.
Stay calm and try not to rush them
This advice is pretty standard—and oh so hard to follow. No one likes to be rushed, much less suddenly. Be sure to give your kids fair warning of what’s coming. It helps to give them a countdown—30 minutes, 15 minutes, 5 minutes—to make the upcoming transition known, and easier for them to accept and process.
To this end, give them a short, reasonable amount of time to finish whatever activity they’re engaged in. Don’t just roll up and bark, “Bedtime! Let’s go. Put all this away.” From an adult perspective, how would we feel if we were on the cusp of finishing a task and someone dictated we stop immediately, before we reached a natural end point? Probably angry, powerless, controlled, and ready to rumble. We need to avoid doing the same to our kids, unless we want an epic bedtime battle to ensue.
Try a checklist (or sticker chart)
Not sure about you, but the things I always get done first are the ones I can see. No post-it reminder on my desk? Well then, it’s not happening today. The same applies to kids. Using tools that help children visualize their tasks—and progress—can be an excellent motivator. Try writing all the bedtime to-do’s on a checklist (pictures of the activities are great, but not a “must” if they can read). You can certainly DIY, or check out Amazon’s many options.
The parenting advice world is divided on whether (and for what behaviors) reward charts should be used, but when it comes to getting stubborn and/or multiple children into bed in a timely manner, sometimes, attention must be paid to the power of the almighty sticker. You can either give a sticker for each pre-bedtime task individually, or give one once all their pre-bedtime tasks are completed. When they reach a certain number of stickers, they can choose from a handful of pre-bought Dollar Store items. Note: Some parents need the stickers less for the pre-bedtime tasks than as a token for staying in bed after lights out. Wherever your kid needs the most help, sticker away. (Also, consider using a “bedtime pass” to give kids a better sense of control.)
Use a timer
Until they’re 6 or 7, most kids have no idea how time works. Hell, my first grader thinks he goes to school for “60 hundred seven hours” every day. While they know five minutes is short in a nebulous way, its duration is more clear when they can see or hear it. A timer can be used in multiple ways: Either set, 10 minutes for PJs and brushing teeth, 15 minutes for books, 5-10 minutes for hugs and random chat, or set a visual timer for one chunk time to get it all done. The quicker they get ready, the more time they’ll have for books and snuggles.
In the Offspring parenting group on Facebook, one commenter suggested making their kids’ bedtime earlier—or extending it—by how much time they stall (or don’t). If they get ready by 8, they can stay up an “extra” 15 minutes. If they fritter away 15 minutes walking around with underwear on their heads to entertain their siblings, bedtime the next night will be at 7:45.
When all else fails, walk away
This may not be a psychologist-approved approach, but if you have a next level, future-captain-of-the-debate-team staller who holds you hostage in their room with a litany of scripts you must follow verbatim, nonsensical questions (“Mommy, do your feet open?”), and their next-day breakfast order, sometimes the only path left is to walk away. Not in an angry or punishing way, just in a flat “I’m going to bed now, bye” kind of way. Blow kisses and skedaddle. They may cry, they may wail. And the next night, chances are, they’ll let you leave with half the fight.