In the final verse of his poem, “My Bed is a Boat,” Robert Louis Stevenson writes, “All night across the dark we steer; But when the day returns at last, Safe in my room, beside the pier, I find my vessel fast.”
Bedtime rituals are incredibly powerful, providing the comfort and security that children need to travel across the dark and into the world of imagination and dreams.
From the start, young children see the world as a magical place where their actions and thoughts can bring about events. It takes a great deal of experience to begin to correct these distortions, however comforting or frightening, and begin to see the world as sound and reliable. At bedtime, we’re available for this clarity. We can answer questions, clear misconceptions, repair hurt feelings and ease the transition from day to night.
When we choose bedtime as a time to consciously connect with our children, we know they’re at their most vulnerable. We can create a shelter where imaginations can roam, but stay within the parameters of our ability to calm and soothe. When children are sleepy, minor traumas from the day can loom large, monsters can slither under beds and a light rainfall can conjure up giants and dragons.
But when we’re there to put the final touches on a routine that follows the same procedures each and every night, we can guide children through the hazards of their own assumptions and help them find the balance between imagination and reality.
With infants, it’s natural to begin by singing lullabies at bedtime. As children grow older, the lullabies are usually replaced by the sound of a parent’s voice reading a story. When moving to stories however, keep the lullabies in mind. Let your tone of voice and your choice of stories mirror your child’s days as an infant.
Choose stories that are soothing and calming. Choose ones that will nourish the imagination and teach important moral lessons. When children ask for the same story night after night, it may be because they’re comforted by the message and know it will help with a smooth transition to sleep and dreams. It may also be because they’re still learning the particular lessons and want to internalize them as they move into the world of the unconscious.
Stories that create a tone of peace and serenity and stories that celebrate intimacy and affection can be carefully and consciously incorporated into your bedtime rituals. So, when your child’s “bed is a boat,” there will be tranquil waters, restful breezes and a sturdy pier for a morning homecoming.