Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

I Let My 6 & 7 Year Old Pick Their Bedtimes For A Week & Here's What Happened

I do not do well with schedules. It's not that I don't thrive with them, because I do, but I just can't seem to be consistent. My daughter thrives on a schedule. For the last seven years of her life, she's always had the same exact bedtime. (Although in the summer we let her go to sleep later.) Before we had her on a schedule, we used to struggle to get her to bed if we missed her 7:30 bedtime for whatever reason. My partner and I would beg her to go to sleep, and she would, but not without very large sobs and screams. From an early age, any change to her schedule would cause chaos. My son, on the other hand, could care less about following a routine and structure for bedtime. He seems to do fine no matter the situation. Over the years, as Riley has complained and cried from being overtired, Beck will usually just go and find himself quiet place to sleep. Because of their different needs, I've tried to be consistent with their sleep schedules, but with them getting older, I've been wondering about letting my kids choose their own bedtimes.

My daughter has been working hard on paying attention to her body, and listening to the cues its sending her. We've worked hard on learning what tired feels like, so that now she can voice it to us. She's aware that without a good amount of sleep, she won't enjoy school the next day. My son's bedtime is the same as his sister's, but a lot of nights he's not ready to sleep, so he'll read in the hallway until he feels like its time to go to bed. It's a fine system. Because they're getting older now, I'm realizing that they want to take on more responsibility. So I wondered what they'd do with the option of choosing their own bedtimes for a week. Would all hell break loose, or would listening to their bodies actually help us all?

The Experiment

Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

Even before I told my kids that for seven days they'd be allowed to choose their bedtimes, I knew instantly how each of them would respond. So when I told them of our new sleep experiment, my daughter, the eldest of the two, said, "I'll choose to go to bed at 8:30, because I want to wake up happy in the morning." Beck, on the other hand, shouted, "IM GOING TO STAY UP UNTIL 12!" Instantly regretting that I didn't create rules from the get-go, I told him that wasn't acceptable. He immediately tried to negotiate with me, pointing out that I said they could "choose any bedtime," and unfortunately, he was right. But after some coaxing, we settled on 10 p.m.

Night #1

Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

The kids were pretty excited to get started. We went out to eat and ended up getting home around 8:45 p.m., and Riley was immediately concerned that she was going to bed too late, which was actually so amazing for me to see as a parent. When she was a baby, she had to be in bed right on time, and as a toddler it was so hard for her to articulate when she was tired and worn out. Now, she is capable of removing herself and going to sleep when she needs to.

Beck kept saying, "I'm going to go to bed at 10! I'm going to stay up and read!" which he did for about five minutes, before falling asleep next to me almost instantly. When they woke up the next morning, I asked them to share their thoughts on the night before. Beck said, "I'll try harder to stay awake until 10! I was too tired last night." My daughter, however, shared a more in-depth look at her bedtime and how it affected her. "I might need to go to bed earlier than 8:30," she told me, "because I'm still really tired, and I don't like going to school like this. Can I try going to bed earlier, mom?" I was like, "YES! GO TO BED AS EARLY AS YOU WANT! But no pressure."

Night #2

Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

On night two of our experiment I attempted to make sure dinner was ready and done by 6:30 p.m., which seems like it should be an easy task, but never seems to be. It helped that it was warm outside, so the children were distracted playing with the neighbors for hours, which gave me space to work and make dinner. Riley kept coming in to the house to check and see how much time she had left before bedtime, and I kept stopping to reassure her that she had a little while to go. She also kept checking to see if I had finished dinner, because she was concerned she'd miss family time in order to go to bed on time. Luckily we had dinner on time, and Riley was on top of getting herself ready for bed, while her younger brother ran around shouting, "I DONT HAVE TO GO TO BED UNTIL 10!" I think it bothered Riley a little bit because she loves going to bed at the same time as her brother, but she didn't complain. I let Beck know that I was going into my room for the rest of the night to finish work, and he would have to entertain himself. The point of this experiment, I realized, was that if I was going to give my children the time they needed in order to listen to their bodies, I needed to physically give them the space they needed to do that. When Beck realized that my plan wasn't to stay up and hang out with him, I think he was surprised at first, but then settled down with a stack of books.

Even though my kids thought picking their own bedtimes was great, what mattered to them way more than anything was that I let them have a say.

The next morning when we checked in with each other, Riley was in a much better mood, and said that she felt an earlier bedtime was better for her, but that she did want to try going to bed at 10 p.m. with Beck one night. I said that we'd see. Riley seems so deeply affected when she doesn't get the sleep she needs, so the thought of her staying up to match Beck's bedtime had me a little worried. Beck, however, definitely loved this idea, and said that going to bed at 10 p.m. is "so fun." Since I shared custody of my children with their dad, we had to wait a few nights to pick up where we left off.

Night #3

Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

Apparently Beck tried to get away with a 10-p.m. bedtime at his dad's, and I heard all about it when they were dropped off at the house. My ex asked me if I thought this experiment was a "good idea," and I told him honestly that I wasn't sure. The point of an experiment is to experiment, and I loved giving my children autonomy over something so small (in the grand scheme of things). I don't think the kids' dad was excited that I was experimenting with their bedtimes, but we powered forward with the experiment anyway.

Since it Friday night, I told Riley she could try going to bed around 10 p.m. with Beck if she wanted. She thought it over, and decided she'd give it a try. We watched a movie on my bed, and they both fell asleep around 8:30 p.m. While moving them to their bed, Riley woke up and said, "I'm sorry I couldn't stay awake until 10, mom." Over brunch the next day the kids asked me if I was going to let them choose their bedtimes every night, and I told them the truth: Of course not. There were massive sighs all around, which made absolutely no sense, because they've basically still been going to bed at the same time every night. But then again, they are 7 and 6. Time is still not real to them. However, this did clue me into how important and special my kids think it is to have a choice over something in their lives. To me, bedtime is an incredibly small piece of the puzzle, but to them, having a say in the matter is everything. I was beginning to realize that even though my kids thought picking their own bedtimes was great, what mattered to them way more than anything was that I let them have a say.

Night #4

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By the time Saturday night rolled around, we'd taken a long walk around the neighborhood. We didn't talk about bedtime for once, which was a really nice break for me. The kids kept watching the clock on their own, and around 9:30, they went to the bathroom to wash their faces and brush their teeth. It was amazing to see them climb into bed without whining for water or asking for help finding their pajamas. I noticed that they had placed their own cups of water on the desk, and when they'd already laid out their pajamas on the bench. I was honestly surprised by how grown-up the kids were behaving.

My daughter is responsible in a lot of ways, but not usually with her clothes or remembering where things belong. I took a mental note to share this fact with my ex-husband the next time he asked about the experiment, and I was proud that the kids had taken care of all the bedtime business on their own. I loved that it gave me a minute to decompress, too. Usually bedtime is when we rush to get everyone settled, and now, because the kids were picking times they felt worked best for them, the night unraveled much easier.

Night #5

Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

Like I mentioned above, I'm terrible at keeping on schedule. I put everything in my calendar on my phone, yet I still end up late, or missing things constantly. I happened to catch that I had a meeting this night, and while running out the door shouted to my partner that he was in charge of bedtime for the night. He was, unsurprisingly, totally confused, and I had to quickly explain that tonight he was in charge of telling the kids when their bedtimes were. Though technically it deviated from the original plan, the kids didn't complain over having to go to bed at whatever hour Noah picked. It was proving to me more and more that giving them a little responsibility was having a serious ripple effect at every turn.

Night #6

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On the second to last night of the experiment, the kids were bickering way too much for my comfort, and I was so bummed that I couldn't just tell them to go to bed immediately, like I otherwise would have. I realized that bedtime means a break for me, too, and having them stay up so late doesn't really help give me that break from them. So I settled on a glass of wine — OK, two glasses — in order to make it until Beck's bedtime. Riley ended up going to bed around 8 p.m., but kept calling to Beck to "come say hi to her." I was beginning to get frustrated, because this isn't how bedtime works, but eventually Beck just climbed into bed with his books. I want from being totally frustrated to being totally teary-eyed over how cute they were with one another.

Night #7

Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen

On night seven, the only thing I could think of was, Finally! We made it! Riley requested to stay up until 10 with her brother, since it was the last night that we were doing the experiment, and I told her that was totally fine. We ate a later dinner, sat around playing cards, and that's when Riley got a little grumpy and snippety, so I suggested that she could go to bed, but she insisted on staying up if Beck was doing it. By 9:45, they'd both brushed their teeth, put their pajamas on, placed cups of water on their desk, and climbed into bed. To cap off the night, Beck read to Riley, then Riley read to Beck, and they were instantly out. I thought it was a perfect end to this crazy week of trying out new responsibilities.

Will My Kids Get To Pick Their Own Bedtimes Going Forward?

When we checked in about how they felt about the experience after school the next day, they both said it was a lot of fun. Riley pointed out that it was a bit annoying having to keep an eye on the clock on her own, without me telling her what to do and when to do it, and Beck said he realized he's "never tired early in the night." They both agreed that it's nice when I help them get ready for bed, and they love our time together while doing so. They also added that they weren't ready to be on their own just yet and that they still needed me. Hearing that made me happy, despite the fact that I felt free when they were handling bedtime on their own. It's nice to know that your growing children are growing, but that doesn't mean they're not still in need of you. I know that soon enough, I'll feel a little useless when it comes time to put them to bed, because they'll be so good at doing it themselves. So until then, I'm sticking with 7:30 bedtimes.