If you're anything like me, the best part of the day is the 60 minutes between when the kids go down for bed and you have to get to sleep yourself.
I love that little window — that rare golden hour when the day's work is done and you can taste a little freedom before tomorrow starts it all over again. Sometimes it's the only thing that gets me through the day and reminds me why we work so hard to to build a family together.
When I'm not doing well and I feel that personal time slipping away, as it does more often than I would like, I can quickly feel irritated and resentful and completely miss the moment in front of me. I find myself making choices that lead me further into choices that take me away from where I want to go. Those are the nights all my efforts to keep my kids in bed are met with resistance and and no one gets what they want or need.
Thankfully, it's possible to avoid this frustration by keeping alive a simple nighttime routine. Having a repeatable routine for your evening can reduce decision fatigue and reframe the day's difficulties along with the space needed to learn from them and process them emotionally. Here are three magical ingredients that can make any night infinitely better.
Slow it all Down
The first step for a better routine is to root out all forms of hurry from the process. Start it early enough you won't be tempted to rush through any part of it. Recovering from a busy day requires time for the body and mind to wind down.
You can't rush through slowing down. Despite my best efforts to try, it always results in communicating all the wrong things to my kids. Rushing says you are not performing or meeting my expectations. I don't want to spend another moment with you doing this task. Or you are an obstacle in my way. No matter how subtle, this posture towards those we love is relationally damaging and naturally builds up resistance.
When we allow our kids the time they need to complete basic tasks (like brushing teeth and putting on pajamas) without the added anxiety of needing to hurry, it helps them relax, feel valued and trusted. It says I have confidence in your abilities and the decisions you make, even when everyone's tired. It also lets us observe areas the kids might need more coaching or where we might need the routine to be adjusted.
Focused One on One Attention
For many kids, they are the most open and receptive to meaningful connections right before bed. For a set amount of time, find a way to give your child one-on-one attention. This undivided attention from you is a precious gift, especially if you have multiple children. It gives you room to explore your relationship, to open up to each other and process their inner worlds or experiences of the day together.
We usually start out with a silly question. What would you rather be — an elephant or bumble bee? If you were a breakfast food, what kind would you be? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
The goal is to create a safe place to talk about anything or ask anything. The best way to cultivate this space is to be honest and vulnerable with your own life. What was important to you when you were a child? How did you learn major life lessons? My kids love hearing stories from my childhood, memories from when they were younger, or just talk about whatever is on their mind. Did you have a frustrating moment today? Have you ever laughed so hard you cried or milk came out your nose? Tell me about when you felt _________ today.
Sometimes there are opportunities to go deeper and process difficult experiences or emotions from the day or week. Today seemed really hard for you. Did you feel __________ when __________ happened? Is there anything you wanted to tell me that you weren't able to yet? Is there anything I did to hurt you today and still need to make right with you?
Once in a while, a magical connection will unfold between you and your child. Sometimes words won't be able to contain the feelings that arise and you just hold each other while your child lets out soft, cathartic tears. Such tears say, "Thank you. You see me. I know I'm safe here and I feel deeply loved." These are the moments that are only possible when we slow down and offer our undivided attention. To keep this pathway of connection open as a regular possibility, simple rituals can help.
Simple and Consistent Rituals
Rituals create containers for connection. When they have a clear beginning and ending, they create a sacred space inbetween where we can freely explore. Creating a set order of events or general rhythm will help establish boundaries and expectations. Without this clarity, the not-knowing can produce a low-level anxiety that runs in the background. Anxiety can build up in our children and trigger resistance or fights with siblings.
Have cues for when it's time to be done. For example, when the conversation needs to wrap up, I sometimes say "yellow light." No one wants these special conversations to end (myself included most nights), so a simple signal everything is coming to an end helps with the transition. Other cues might be blowing kisses at the door (and putting them in your pocket for later). Or maybe you have a secret bedtime handshake.
It's also a great time for a repeated family mantra, creed or prayer. This can be something to remind you and your kids of your family values or what it means for them to belong. When my kids were young I would sometimes say, "You are safe. You are loved. And you are capable of making wise decisions. Goodnight." Or maybe you family values similar to "Be kind. Be wise. Be brave and be joyful," and you say them all together to close out the night. There are thousands of rich possibilities to inspire more simple but profound meaning in our families.
When you put it all together, it might look something like this…
An hour before bedtime, everyone starts to get on pajamas, brush teeth and get a drink of water. You help your youngest brush his teeth and remind everyone to slow down by doing some of it in super slow motion. The kids giggle and play along by walking slowly into their rooms.
You set the timer for 15 minutes for a conversation with one child while the others are quietly reading books in bed. Tonight you have time with your 2 kids for 15 minutes each. You start by asking, "When were you happy today?" You take a few minutes to be grateful for all the little things that made you both laugh. You tell a story about when you were little and wrap up the conversation by asking your child if they have any questions on their mind. Tonight, they just want to hear more about your childhood story. Afterwards you walk into your second child's room and repeat the process.
It's now just about bedtime. You turn the lights out, tuck each of your kids in individually and whisper your family mantra or say a prayer with them. You stop for a moment at the door to blow kisses to them, feel grateful for this moment, and softly say goodnight.
Your body is exhausted and ready for bed. Tonight, you missed your window of freetime again. But it doesn't matter as much tonight because your heart is full and ready for whatever tomorrow has in store for you. You have successfully -- almost magically -- turned the last 10% of your family's together into the golden hour you needed.