The release this fall of the film version of the beloved children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day, brought back wonderful bedtime memories from when our kids were little.
The best part of bedtime, of course is not the battle over brushing teeth or the call-backs after the lights are turned off. The best part of bedtime is the story! Like most parents, we loved the cuddling time with the kids in pajamas, bathed and brushed, and settling into a long-awaited calm.
But there were also nights when we caught ourselves daydreaming during the umpteenth reading of the kids' favorite books, and Alexander was among their very favorites. We realized we were daydreaming because the kids had to remind us to turn the pages (we knew Alexander's story so well that we were robotically repeating it without even bothering to keep up with the actual pages!). Typically we were reviewing the events of the day in our mind, or worrying about our obligations for tomorrow. But we were wasting these magical minutes with our kids by mentally wandering away mid-paragraph—leaving them stranded with unturned pages and uninspiring storytelling. Although the kids seemed satisfied even when we were zoning out, bedtime can be about so much more than just making kids sleepy. These should be special moments for parents, too, and we were often missing them even though we were there.
So, we fixed the Alexander problem by creating Nick and Nack, two microscopically tiny space travelers from the planet Orb. Nick was the adventurous one, always begging to be the next astronaut assigned a trip to Earth. His best friend, Nack, was a reluctant explorer, looking for any excuse to avoid Earth travel, and afraid of even his own tiny shadow. But Nack had another weakness that Nick could reliably exploit to coax his friend on yet another voyage: Nack was a chocoholic, and chocolate could only be found on Earth. No matter how hard Orb scientists tried to reproduce the rich and gooey brown delicacy using samples that Nick and Nack brought back from Earth, the recipe eluded them. So after his chocolate-stuffed pockets from the previous trip were empty, Nack had to confront his fears and venture back to Earth. Nick, on the other hand, could live without chocolate, but he couldn't live without the thrill of the next Earth adventure. There was one more obstacle in Nick's way besides convincing Nack to join him. Nick had to devise ever-more clever reasons to justify his trips to the Commander of Orb Space Exploration. Although the declared mission was rarely accomplished, Nick and Nack always came back to Orb with so much unexpected new wisdom that the Commander would let himself be talked into one trip after another.
Nick and Nack had grand adventures, especially because their spaceship guidance systems were not perfect, and they could never really predict where on Earth they might land. And because they were so very tiny, it was hard to know where they were even after they arrived! Nevertheless, with a whir, a chirp, and a rattle (sound effects hilariously, if inharmoniously, provided by parents and kids together), the Orb spaceship repeatedly took off for parts unknown on the planet Earth. When Nick and Nack landed, they had four jobs to attend to: 1) trying to find out where they were; 2) finding enough chocolate to keep Nack committed and relieve his unrelenting fear of the unknown; 3) avoiding the inevitable scary events that happen when you are microscopically tiny on a giant foreign planet; and, finally, 4) somehow managing to rev up their finicky and noisy spaceship and find their way back to Orb. Miraculously, there was always a happy, chocolatey ending.
And that's how we saved our nights from the infinite loop of Alexander's horrible days. If your bedtimes need a re-launch, put the usual storybooks down and improvise. Socks on your hands become an instant puppet show. Your wedding album, high school yearbook, old family photos, or the world atlas make great alternatives for bedtime stories, and won't allow your mind to wander to the dishes in the sink. Or make up your own superheroes, magic lanterns, and space travelers.
Nick and Nack forever changed bedtime, letting our kids' imaginations—and ours—soar with a whir, a chirp, and a rattle.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
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