When your kids were little, you had their bedtime routine down cold. A bath, once through Goodnight Moon, some cuddles, and maybe a lullaby, and you knew you'd done the right thing. Perhaps your child didn't always drift off without a peep, but you had the drill down. A funny thing happens, though, once your kids creep into the school years. They begin begging for one more half hour of Cartoon Network, insisting they're starving after their teeth have been brushed, asking why they can't read in bed as late as they'd like...and otherwise indulging in stall tactics that plenty of parents find hard to sidestep.
The fact is, at this age, a consistent bedtime routine (and hour) is at least as important as it was when your offspring spent their REM time in a crib. "Big kids also thrive on meaningful rituals that mark the end of the day," says sleep specialist Kathy Burklow, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. While it may be tempting to give your school-age child more responsibility in getting himself to sleep, he still very much needs your guidance to guarantee he gets the rest he needs. "The world is too tempting, and five- or even ten-year-olds simply don't have the maturity to say no to one more phone call to a friend or one more level on a video game," says Burklow.
Beyond getting your child off to bed on time, nightly rituals can carve out some quiet moments to connect, build family intimacy, and get everyone to relax. Try these 12 ideas -- some can be done every night, others as one-shot distractions when your child balks at bedtime. We bet at least one or two will become your family's new favorite way to end the day.
1. Study the stars
Gaze at the sky together for a few minutes before bed. Weather permitting, head outside and talk to your child about the incredibly deep shades of blue overhead -- you'll both feel an almost mystical connection to nature. Bring along a guidebook to constellations, a pair of binoculars, or a telescope to explore in more depth. Too cold to venture outdoors? Try this trick from Meryle Lowenthal of Westfield, New Jersey: "My seven-year-old son, Jacob, and I like to pull aside the shade on the window over his bed so we can look out and have our special end-of-the-day, what-phase-is-the-moon moment." Challenge yourself and your child to come up with new ways to describe the shapes you see -- a crescent can be a fingernail moon, full can be a soap bubble moon, and so on.
2. Read me a story
Turn the tables by having your child read to you once he's old enough to do so with ease, says Ellen Booth Church, an educational consultant and author of The Great Big Book of Classroom Songs, Rhymes, and Cheers (Scholastic). Take turns: He reads one paragraph, you the next, and so on. Not only is it a nice way to build reading skills, but sharing a book encourages snuggling, so you'll have some up-close-and-personal contact.
3. Match wits
Challenge your child to a round of chess, checkers, or another pursuit that involves concentration -- especially if she's the kind who needs help settling down after dark. "My seven-year-old, Sadie, would get all riled up dancing to the Backstreet Boys before bed, so I started a nightly routine of fifteen minutes of chess with her," says Ellen Thomas, a mom of two in Bridgehampton, New York. "At first, she complained about having to sit still, but now she (and I!) really look forward to picking up where we left off the night before and losing ourselves in the strategy session. And it gets my daughter into this totally calm, focused zone that makes it easy to segue to sleep time."
4. Play "Read my fingertips"
Create a cozy ritual by tracing messages on your child's back before bed, says Ellen van Wees, author of 51 Best Ways to Amuse Kids (Perigee). Write, letter by letter, with your fingertip, and encourage him to guess what you're saying. With older kids, you can spell out words or sentences ("Sweet dreams"; "Time for you to shut your eyes"; "You make me proud"; and so on) or draw pictures. All this touching has the same relaxing effect as a back massage.
5. Start a saga
To build bedtime anticipation, invent an epic tale and invite one child or the whole family to join in. Begin with an intriguing opening line (anything from "It was a dark and stormy night..." to "Once upon a time, there was a teeny-tiny mouse who strayed too far from home...") and take turns adding a sentence to the tale, continuing on for the next few nights. For extra fun, tape-record the results and play them back the night after the story is completed. Hint: Many kids love doing this in a somewhat autobiographical style. Start with: "Once upon a time, a little baby named (your child's name here) was born..."
6. Encourage sweet dreams
If your child tends to have troubling dreams and therefore tries to stall at bedtime, borrow a tradition from Native Americans, who often wove dream catchers -- decorated webs of thread that they'd hang above their beds -- to trap any incoming nightmares. You can buy one from a craft store or make your own with a bit of netting and some decorations on a cardboard frame, says Barbara Biziou, author of The Joy of Family Rituals: Recipes for Everyday Living (St. Martin's Press). Hang it where your child can see it when she's in bed. As she settles under the covers, brush your hand across the catcher, saying, "Let's sweep all bad dreams into it; only good ones tonight." You can also try exchanging stories that begin: "The wonderful dream I'm going to dream tonight is..."
7. Keep a journal jointly
Want to find out more details about your kid's daily life? Try this tactic from Natalie Chet of Indianapolis and her 9-year-old daughter, Laura: Buy a journal, and curl up together every night to record the day's events and thoughts or just to doodle a bit. The parent takes the left-hand page, the child gets the right-hand one, and they then share the results. "It's a fun way to sit together, plus it gives us a special time of day to peek into each other's lives in a bit more depth," says Chet.
8. E-mail out-of-towners
If you have a computer at home, you probably know how difficult it can be to get a child to log off at night. Offer this quick compromise: Create a buddy list of grandparents or other relatives and, before shutting down the PC, have your kid send them a quick "I love you" note or a funny good-night wish ("Hope you dream of doughnuts and dachshunds" is how one 8-year-old does it).
9. Piece it together
Find a spot where you can set up a puzzle table, and break out a major-league jigsaw -- 500 to 1,000 pieces will work well. The idea is that there's no way you can complete this puzzle in one night. Work on it with your kids for 20 minutes or so every evening until it's done. Says Michelle Ganon, a mom in San Diego who also likes to tackle mega-K'Nex and Lego projects with her three kids: "It's a nice exercise in patience, teamwork, and dedication to finally finish this big project. Plus, it gives us a calm activity before bed -- we can chat as we work."
10. Toast the twilight
Initiate an old-fashioned warm-milk ritual before bed. You'll feel as if you're nurturing your not-so- little one, and he'll be delighted with the treat and extra attention. Plus, milk contains tryptophan, which promotes sleep. To make a gourmet, Starbucks-like drink, whip warm milk with one of those foaming gadgets from a housewares store, and sprinkle a bit of cocoa powder on top. Or opt for a mug of Ovaltine, a good cocoa stand-in. It's caffeine free -- a crucial point at this time of day. Church also suggests making cinnamon toast, a comfort food many parents remember from their own childhoods.
11. Speak to their senses
You know it firsthand: Indulging your senses -- whether that means taking a warm bath or curling up in front of a fireplace -- is a great way to unwind before bed. Try the same concept with your kid. Brush her hair, give her a foot rub, or cuddle up under your favorite old blanket together and listen to some jazz, folk, or classical music.
12. Wish on a penny
Coax a moment of shared reflection: Right before bed, give your child a penny and ask him to make a wish -- for someone else (a friend, a favorite teacher). Then you do the same. "When the jar is filled with the wishes and pennies, donate the money to a charity your child chooses," suggests Church.
Linda Flayer is a New York City-based writer who specializes in parenting topics.