When I was growing up, my dad read me a bedtime story every night. We worked our way through picture books when I was little, moving on to young adult fiction (a.k.a. “chapter books”) as I got older.
At his most ambitious, he spent months and months and months plowing through The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Obviously, the bedtime story tradition was a big deal to me. It was a huge, positive part of my growing up. So you would think that with all my good memories, I would like nothing more than to read to my own kids. And I do.
I do. I do. I mean, really, I do.
Now I do.
It’s just that. I didn’t. For a long time.
Like until a week ago.
In my defense, my son wouldn’t sit for a story until well after his fourth birthday. I remember trying to cuddle up to him with a book, and, in a matter of minutes the pages would be ripped and he would be running around the apartment. My daughter was different. She was one of those kids who would “read” to herself long before she was even in pre-school.But my response to this disparity was to ignore the child who enjoyed books, leaving her to conduct her own “story time” before a semi-circle of stuffed toys, while I chased her older brother down with a book as he ignored me, pushing his trucks around the living room.
Sometime around my son’s fourth birthday, I managed to institute a storytelling ritual at bedtime for both of them. My aim was more practical than educational, in that I wanted to establish a routine that conveyed “go to bed!” as quickly and effectively as possible.Rather than expending the time and effort it would take to choose and read an actual book, I plopped them in bed, turned out the lights and told them one of the only stories I could tell from memory: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” I told them this story every night for several years. In the beginning, the telling would take up to fifteen minutes as I would be interrupted constantly with questions like “What did the porridge look like?” “How could one be hot and the other cold?” “Did Baby Bear get a new chair after his broke?” and my personal favorite, “How could the bears possibly know that someone had been sitting their chairs?”
As a former prosecutor, I was proud to have a child who was so consumed by the question, “Ok, I hear you say that. But what is your evidence?” But at 8 o’clock at night? After I had just spent a day chasing after the world’s bounciest children? With the promise of an evening of quiet downtime dangling just minutes away from me, it took every ounce of willpower to keep myself from shouting,
“Just be quiet! Let me finish this story so I can finally be done with it and done with you for the night. Right now, I just want to go watch some reality T.V.”
Yikes. Writing that makes me cringe now. It was because I had turned the bedtime story into the last chore on my parenting “to do” list. And the chore mentality had persisted until very recently. Even as I started to add real books to the routine and even as both of my kids started to enjoy reading and listening to stories, in the back of my head was this feeling of “Oh my god, when can we be done with this already?!”
Then something changed. Over Memorial Day weekend this year, we made our annual trip to Storyland, an amusement park in Glen, NH. At the line for the rollercoaster, my son looked at me with the biggest smile on his face and said, “I want to go by myself.”
It was my first taste of that shift in balance, when kids stop needing their parents and the parents start needing the kids. I felt like I was one roller coaster ride away from that time in the not too distant future when he won’t be returning my phone calls.I was rattled, standing there on the roller coaster platform. So the night we got home, when it came time to tuck the kids in bed, I lingered a little longer than usual, even though the hour was way past bedtime. I did the same thing the next night. And the next. I was enjoying story time in a way I hadn’t enjoyed it since I was a kid myself.