Bed Time l November/December 2015

Once upon a time … children’s regular bedtime was sacrosanct for many families. Those were the years before we began overscheduling our kids with lessons, athletics, tutors, and increasing amounts of homework, and before the siren call of electronic screens transformed everyone’s life. With so much to do, to see, and to enjoy, something’s gotta give. Typically, it’s the regularity of bedtime. On many days, eight morphs into nine, ten into midnight — despite the research telling us that a regular bedtime plays an important role in our kids’ healthy social and emotional development.

An irregular bedtime — inconsistency from one night to the next — has been found to lead to behavioral difficulties in young children.i Researchers analyzed data from over 10,000 youngsters, collected when the kids were 3, 5 and 7 years old. On measures of hyperactivity, problems with peers, behavioral problems, and emotional difficulties, children without regular school-night bedtimes scored increasingly worse as they got older (based on parent and teacher reports).ii But there’s good news: the negative effects of an irregular bedtime appear to be reversible. When parents made the switch and imposed regular bedtimes on kids who previously had none, youngsters showed definite improvement in behavior. Not surprisingly, the opposite was also found: well-adjusted children with regular bedtimes showed a behavioral decline once irregular bedtimes took over.

Why might consistent bedtime be important? Irregular bedtimes may be harmful by disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which are known to be slow in adapting to schedule changes, at any age. And when irregular bedtime leads to sleep deprivation, children’s physical development, including brain maturation, might suffer. Adequate sleep is believed to be important in the maturation of regions of the brain involved in the regulation of behavior (see Enough Sleep | September/October 2014).

Many parents believe that regular bedtime isn’t important until the little ones start school. After all, does it matter if toddlers and preschoolers sleep later in the morning as a result of getting to bed later than usual the night before? It does seem to matter. Research suggests that the negative effects of irregular bedtime start early and may be cumulative. Because healthy adjustment in middle childhood depends on healthy adjustment in early childhood, regular bedtime is important right from the very start.

Kelly, Yvonne et al., “Changes in bedtime schedules and behavioral difficulties in 7-year-old children.” Pediatrics. November, (132,5) 2013.
ii The only bedtimes studied were those falling on nights before a school day; weekend bedtimes were not investigated.

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Too Many Helpings l September/October 2015

You’re probably accustomed to helping your kids whenever you can — giving advice, solving problems, coming to their aid. In fact, we live in an era of the over-helping parent, whether our kids’ challenges are big or small. Perhaps it’s because we just want them to be happy, and when they come to us looking glum or tearful, complaining about something gone wrong, we do whatever it takes to restore a smile and help them feel that all is well again.

Or perhaps we ourselves simply refuse to tolerate discomfort — our own as well as our children’s — and so we move quickly to resolve their distress (because theirs easily triggers ours).

There’s a serious downside when we step in too soon to help our kids. When we do something for them that they might be able to do themselves, we rob from them an opportunity to feel the satisfaction and pride that comes from their own sense of accomplishment. Facing up to their daily challenges is one way they build their confidence and come to feel good about themselves — what’s sometimes referred to as self-esteem. Of course we don’t always know what they’re capable of, but often we move too quickly and offer our help before we've given them a chance to work things out on their own (or with only minimal involvement from us). Better for us to slow down, step back, and give them time and space to maneuver — to reflect on their situation, to put some thought into determining their options, and to give their solutions a try.

“I don’t have anyone to play with,” complains a youngster on a Sunday afternoon. Better than helping, ask, “What do you want to do about that?” Allow them time to reflect; don’t get hooked by the easy lament of “I don’t know.” Same for when you hear: “I lost my homework sheet,” “My brother is teasing me,” “I don’t like my math teacher,” “I can’t find my soccer shoes.” Such moments offer priceless opportunities for our children to practice problem-solving. It’s the training ground for self-reliance.

In place of helping, offer patience — move slowly and give them time to figure things out — and encouragement: “I have confidence that you’ll come up with ideas of your own.”

What, Be Still? l July 2015

Imagine sitting quietly in a room for ten minutes, doing nothing but being still. Could you — or your kids — handle it? Or would you, if given the option, self-administer electric shocks as a preferred alternative? That’s what more than half of the subjects chose to do in one research study — they gave themselves electric shocks rather than sit quietly with their thoughts and feelings.i

Being still isn’t easy. And it’s grown even harder since we’ve become accustomed to filling every microsecond with some form of distraction. Non-stop input — texts and apps and phone calls and websites and television and music — stretches the brain beyond optimal functioning, impairing focus, learning, retention, and more. There’s a problem here, and it’s called “cognitive overload”: more input than the brain can effectively handle. Studies have found youth particularly susceptible to overload, as their immature brains have developed fewer mechanisms to tackle so much. “Overload” can lead to ill effects on health, relationships, and academic success.ii

Once upon a time, our brains enjoyed moments of relative stillness. Waiting in line and simply thinking. Riding in the car and simply looking. Walking down the street and simply observing. Our children’s developing brains especially need a break from the overload. Moments of stillness allow the brain to organize and process what it’s been exposed to in the classroom, on the sports field, in conversations with friends and family. A quiet mind allows the day’s learning to become consolidated in the brain’s “hard drive,” where it’s more accessible for recall.

We human beings need stillness in order to recharge our batteries … to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily … and control our emotions … everything we need to do in a given day.iii

Here are some ways parents can impose stillness:

  • In longer car rides, enforce at least 15 minutes without screens, conversation, or radio.
  • At meals, allow nothing that uses batteries or electricity.
  • Thirty minutes before bedtime, put technology to rest. Keep phones and laptops in the kitchen until morning.
  • Turn off the television when it’s just providing background noise. Use the mute button to silence the commercials.

Remember that our children’s eyes are often on us. If we don’t set an example of regular stillness, we shouldn’t expect them to be still either.


iWilson, Timothy D. et al. “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science, 345. Issue 6192.
iiFrein, S., Jones, S., and Gerow, J.E. 2013. "When It Comes to Facebook There May be More to Bad Memory than Just Multitasking." Computers in Human Behavior (29:4), pp. 2179-2182. Also: Calderwood, C.; Ackerman, P. L.; Conklin, E. M. (2014). "What else do college students "do" while studying? An investigation of multitasking." Computers and Education 75: 19–29.