It is 10:31 p.m. and Sam is bare-chested, cross-legged, on the floor playing with Legos—no end in sight. He is constructing an “army of Lego people perched on stadium stairs.” He just put in a room service request: spinach and tomato quesadilla. I nixed the late night snack: “IHOP is closed.” (I’ve never actually eaten in an IHOP, but I crack myself up). He is smart enough to not complain—he knows he is without peer, up at this hour.
Around here, summer bedtime is anathema. I’ve never thought through why, until the quiet of tonight.
Despite abundant research suggesting routine and bedtime are key to children’s well being, my own data suggests there is wiggle room. My data, based on a random sampling of one child, includes an elaborately decorated shoebox turned treasure chest for “secret stuff,” a script for a YouTube play that I won’t let him publish, and the occasional creak of the floor above us where our son throws darts and sinks basketballs while doing flips off his bed.
While Dr. Spock imparted pretty liberal parenting advice to our parents, he was conservative on bedtime: “Between the ages of 6 and 9, the average child can usually give up an hour of his night’s sleep… to bed at 8 p.m. if he’s getting up at 7 a.m.” That’s 11 hours! Who sleeps 11 hours? Sam has never slept 11 hours. The American Academy of Pediatrics just announced in July that a 9-year-old should sleep 9 to 12 hours every day; if he’s up at 7 a.m. he need not be asleep then until 10 p.m. Sam’s for that, but during the school year, not summer!
School year bedtime is, give or take, but usually give, 9:00 p.m., always with a book. We have moved from the days of PJ Library favorites, “Bagels from Benny” (which always made me cry) or “Something from Nothing,” to Sidney Taylor’s “All of a Kind Family.” Regardless, September through June we have bedtime rituals. Come summer, the ritual is a DIY. The nights are his.
This summertime leniency allows his body to work at its own rhythm, despite the call of early morning, 58-lap swim practice. His creative juices can run amok, no matter the constraints of time (ask my 16-year-old daughter—time is an artificial human invention belied by quantum Physics and the string theory; unless you have to get to work, then time is fiction).
Our arguably reckless summer sleep patterns also allow me the pleasure and amusement of watching, noticing. Case in point: Tonight, as I write, he contorts his taut body to look underneath and inside his Lego structure—curious, with imagination, inexhaustible. His knees are rubber bands. His big eyes, brown with flecks of his father’s green, focused for hours on discerning one tiny Lego piece from another. I marvel at the time he spends constructing, reconstructing, deconstructing, and unconstructing until only he knows that the magic ingredients sing in harmony. How can a bedtime be more important than focused, serene, productive, uninterrupted work?
Everyone needs his or her own space. The New York Times recently reported on Obama’s late night rituals, so palpably familiar to so many of us. I thought of my husband’s odd, often interminable, yet remarkably productive late night/early morning work hours—much of his best work emerges in that quietude. For me, too, when I was a full-time litigator with two young daughters, I’d restart work every night at 9:30 p.m. and work until it made sense or I’d run out of good ideas, usually the latter. So why shouldn’t a 9-year-old be indulged to stew in his mind’s juices, on his own watch?
In the steady, tender pulse of the night, nary a phone trills, and no doorbells ring behind which clamor the temptation of kids’ calls for company. There are no Oriole’s games to score or to wring one’s hands over. All there is is Sam’s mind, dancing to its own private rhythm, a small gift from me to him.
Eventually, the inexorable crawl into bed. I read him a chapter of Linda Sue Park’s “Single Shard” (one of my favorite kid’s books which is sadly not resonating with him). He is asleep after a few pages, but I read aloud until the chapter’s end, hoping the glorious words will enter his unconsciousness, by invisible, oral transfusion. Now that he is asleep, it is my turn to call the shots: My late night indulgence—vocabulary by osmosis.
This routine is hardly a one size fits all, and surely it would be a train wreck for kids in camp. However, if you have a week off this summer, I’d encourage you to give it a try. Wild things, like dreaming up architectural structures and putting pen to paper describing the “why” behind your lax bedtime, can happen in the recesses of an uninterrupted and unfettered mind.