Who says bedtime has to be a struggle? With these eight ideas, you can disguise your get-them-to-sleep agenda in a cloak of fun, squeeze in precious family time (even during the week!), and lead everyone from a relaxing evening to sweet dreams. Just turn the page, and let the hoopla begin!
1 The Pajama Walk
Fresh air can be invigorating for you at the same time that it's exhausting for your child; in other words, a perfect before-bedtime combo. Susan Reichert of Euclid, OH, has been walking with her son in the evenings since babyhood, in all but the most frigid conditions. Over the years, Connor has progressed from cooing in his stroller to riding his bike while Mom and Dad walk briskly alongside him. "It's a great way for my husband and me to talk, and for Connor to get some exercise," she says. My own family's nightly strolls were so much a part of our evening that if the hour was late and the walk looked threatened, my youngest would consent to getting completely ready for bed, then being pulled in a blanket-cushioned wagon in her pj's while we all talked about our day.
Bedtime rituals can create lasting memories for kids, either because they're repeated nightly or because they're a dramatic departure from the norm. A friend of mine still remembers his parents' occasionally springing this sneaky ploy on his family: To set a quiet mood, they simply turned out all the lights early, starting the evening with a candlelit supper followed by a low-light bath. Then all family members were supplied with flashlights for stories by battery power, as well as treated to a show of hand shadows before bed. We sometimes turn the lights down low during bathtime; the combination of warm water and dim light is so relaxing that my ordinarily sleep-resistant daughter has been known to beg for bed afterward. Encourage older kids to shower with the lights dimmed before bed, which has the added benefit of saving time in the morning.
3 A Special Snack
A bedtime snack is often essential for small kids, so why not turn it into a special incentive? A friend invented an indoor marshmallow roast one rainy summer evening. She darkened the room and lit a candle. Then, under her close supervision, her daughter, Anna, held marshmallows skewered on a cooking fork over the flame to brown and plopped them on graham crackers. This has been a great pre-bed activity: The snack is quiet and ritualistic to prepare, and even too-cool tweens are not immune to the powers of burned sugar.
4 Here's Looking at You!
Looking through family photo albums is relaxing, but it may not hold a sleepy child's interest. Turn it into a game of I Spy, and you'll have a captivated audience. Toddlers will be able to point to people and objects as you look at each page. Pre-schoolers will enjoy turning the pages to follow a request like "Find Daddy in a lion costume" or "Find Mommy holding a puppy." Middle-schoolers will enjoy searching for "the only photo in existence of Aunt Ida smiling" or "the worst hairstyle Mom's ever had."
5 Hide and Sleep
This one is appreciated by those as young as 2: Hide all your child's getting-ready-for-bed props throughout the house, but in the general direction of his bedroom. Hang pajamas on the coatrack (when he finds them, he has to put them on right there); hide his toothbrush and paste in the refrigerator (he then goes to the bathroom and uses them); place a favorite doll or stuffed animal under a table, and his book on the stairs. Once your child has made it to the last item, he'll have gotten ready for bed almost without knowing it.
6 Lookout Point
Your kids may appreciate a change of bedtime scene, and there's a good chance you will, too. Get your little guys bathed and dressed in their pajamas, with teeth brushed, and load them into the car with a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, coat (depending on the season), and slippers. Then drive to the widest, highest point within reasonable distance of your home and indulge in a little family parking. Watch the sun go down or the lights of the city come on, look for constellations, snuggle, and wish the rest of the world good night. You may even want to bring along a few good books to read (and a flashlight if it's already dark).
7 Toy Scavenger Hunt
At the end of the day, nagging about left-out toys is as tiring as it is ineffective. Instead, do a quick survey of what needs picking up. Then announce a scavenger hunt and arm your kids with baskets or bags. Tell the players -- who need only be old enough to walk -- which items to search for, calling them out one by one. At the end of the scavenger hunt, players have to put the items away in the correct places (young kids will, of course, need some help). If everyone cooperates, you might provide a little prize, such as an extra story.
8 Sharing Time
Institute some family sharing time as part of your evening routine. You can try it either at the dinner table or just before bed. Janece Clark's family, which includes 4-year-old daughter Josilyn and 7-year-old son Curtis, always makes a point of sharing the ups and downs of their day right before they have storytime. "My husband and I cuddle and talk with them about whatever was fun or whatever bothered them during the day," says Clark, who lives in Petoskey, MI. "Sometimes you know what they're going to say, but other times they'll surprise you with something like 'Did you see the deer in the woods today? They were so beautiful!'"