Bedtime, books and big feelings
Twilight…a complex time for children. It’s a strange interlude between wake and sleep, doing and being, knowing and not. There are lots of reasons (besides exhaustion) that have many-a-mom dubbing the anticipation of bedtime, “suicide hour’”. Now as a fully-grown human, this is sometimes baffling. I often fantasize about someone creating a restful sanctuary for me, telling me calming tales and begging me to go to bed. I love sleeping! But that is not necessarily so for little ones. This is because if your mind is young enough, sleep can actually be quite scary. In most Western cultures, children sleep in separate rooms to their parents. And while this is a norm…I wonder (with all the bedtime protest) how ‘normal’ does it actually feel for them? And while this is how things are done, it can’t hurt to think about what it all means.
Often ‘end of life’ books include a scene with sleep because in many ways, sleep is a parting of ways. It’s a small, but significant ending: Which has a flavour of longing and missing what’s most important. You. Think about Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The young boy acts out in anticipation of the day’s ending but when the shenanigans are all over, he just wants to be back where “someone loves him best of all.” Bedtime is also a time of being left out: Imagine what fun grown-ups get up to after bedtime! Further to this, nighttime is also when the mind is free to dream and this comes with some trepidation: What happens if monsters sneak under my bed when you leave? It’s the reason a book like Good Night Moon by Margarat Wise Brown is such a staple. The story carefully bids farewell to all the objects in the bunny’s iconic bedroom. The rhythm and repetition of each page cleverly reminds the child that the world is predictable. That tomorrow the world will be right there waiting. So the bedtime ritual is an important lesson in easing tough transitions. And one of the ways to do this is to read.
An old time classic that comes to mind is We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury). It’s all about a set of four siblings who bravely embark on a bear hunt. As they journey through the landscape they encounter long grass, a rushing river and squelchy mud. As the story says, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh no! We must go through it.” And so they do. Until they reach a dark cave and valiantly enter. But there they meet an enormous bear and panicked, run away, back through the harsh elements as the bear follows them home. Once there they shut up the door and jump under the covers with relief they sigh, “We’re not going on a bear hunt again!”
So what is it about this delicate story that lulls kids to sleep, bear and all? Firstly it is about four children; the older ones guide the littler ones as their take on the terrain. This speaks to all the stuff little minds have to navigate all day. And while an adult may be around, in their minds there is a lot of alone time. Figuring things out might well feel like squelchy mud or a rushing river. What is key is that it has to be done. And the “we have to go through it” as adults know all too well, is pretty damn difficult.
But what of the bear – surely this is a scary thing to introduce at bedtime? Yet it doesn’t’ unnerve kids, it calms them. But why? Well what if it was ok to think about scary things with our kids, because the thoughts are there anyway. This story enables a dialogue that can acknowledge these thoughts without feeding them. Psychotherapists have suggested that the bear in the story represents trauma and healing. Like the family that flees from the cave, when bad things happen and it all feels too much, our mind needs to run away too. This type of resistance is actually very necessary. Psychoanalytically speaking, our defenses are a crucial psychological strategy that protects our minds and helps cope with what can’t be thought about. In this very beautiful way, the narrative gives the child permission to rest and un-think the day. Add a warm cuddle to the mix and it makes for a pretty containing experience for both parent and child. This is because at the end of the day, as people (not just children) the day is hard. And there are certain things, which we simply can’t BEAR.
- Sendak, M 1963, Where the wild things are, Harper & Row, USA
- Brown, M W 1947, Good Night Moon, Harper Collins, USA
- Rosen, M 1989, We’re going on a bear hunt, Walker, UK
- Raphael-Leff, J, 2003, Parent-Infant Psychodynamics, “Into the night: Children’s dream books”, Handler-Smith, pp. 142.
- Williams, 2017 , We’re going on a bear hunt: A Metaphor for trauma and healing, The Counsellor’s Café, viewed 13 December 2018, <https://www.thecounsellorscafe.co.uk/single-post/2017/12/01/Were-Going-on-a-Bear-HuntA-Metaphor-for-Trauma-and-Healing>