I take a deep breath in as I close the door behind me.
Quietly, slowly, I release the door knob and feel it catch. I exhale as I tip-toe down the dark hallway. I can feel the tension in my muscles start to relax. With a growing confidence, I bound down the stairs, into the tranquility of the family room. I pause for a moment, taking in the sweet sounds of . . . nothing. I smile to myself. Finally, some much needed peace and qu-
I must not have heard the door open, or the pitter-patter of little feet coming down the stairs. I did not, and could not, however, miss the shrill sound of my youngest daughter, as her frantic call pierced the evening air.
For a moment, I try to ignore it, hoping maybe it will go away . . . but it never does. Not last night. Not the night before that. Certainly, not the two other times this scene had already played out this very evening.
I feel the tension slowly crawling up my back and into my neck. I turn slowly, and smile an exasperated smile. “Yes, dear, ” I mumble through clenched teeth.
“I DON”T HAVE MY SNUGGIE!!!” Her eyes swell with tears. To a three-year-old, this is a real tradgedy.
With that, I scan the room frantically, until my eyes lock on the pink, fuzzy, frilly, shimmery, rose-adorned pile of fabric massed unassumingly in the corner. In one fell swoop, I leap across the room, seize the blankie, scoop up the teary-eyed toddler and carry the dramatic duo back into the bedroom.
With snuggie tightly in her grasp, she curls up and finds a comfy position on the mattress while I tuck the blanket firmly around her. I kiss her on the forehead, as the whimpers fade. I head for the exit.
I take a deep breath in as I close the door behind me. It’s like déjà vu . . . all over again.
What’s the problem?
To someone like myself who values efficiency, craves order, and suffers gloriously from a mild – okay, perhaps moderate – case of obsessive compulsive disorder, putting my two daughters – ages 3 and 4 – to bed is just about the most frustrating experience in existence. And I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual form their perspective!
It’s not exactly fun for my daughters either. The girls equate bedtime with we-get-yelled-at-a-lot-time. With so much to remember as part of the nightly “routine”, inevitably something is forgotten. Blankies are left in the toy room. We forget to brush teeth. Dolls are left hiding in blanket forts. Potty time is replaced by party time, which is especially unfortunate.
Being the good girls that they are, neither of my daughters hesitate to remind me when I forget something . . . 15 minutes after I’ve left their room, when I’m just about ready to relax for the night. This does not make Daddy happy. 20 minutes after that, they remember the next item on their imaginary list that was not checked off. By this time, Daddy is hypertensive. Another 10 minutes later and now a pattern of behavior has been established, and unfortunately for all of us, I see it as my duty to break it. Daddy has a coronary.
I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say none of go to bed in a state of relaxation. And although not every night elevates quite to this level, the bedlam that is the bedtime routine (or lack thereof) is routinely a major problem in our household. Or as I am often reminded by my loving wife, it is a HUGE opportunity for improvement.
What’s the goal?
The goal is simple. Each and every night, get my daughters to bed 1.) in less than a half-hour (on-time), 2.) do it right the first time (zero defects), and 3.) with minimal property damage and/or hair loss (under budget). Piece of cake, right?
Why was it happening?
Figuring out what exactly was happening, or better yet why it was happening, was a little more involved of a chore. Without having much of a regular routine to begin with, let along the fact that said “routine” featured two very young and equally unpredictable children, a deep understanding of the current condition would be difficult to construct. Therefore, I chose to start by directly observing the nighttime ritual and attempting to build a visual that would help to diagnose the situation.
The figure below represents the various tasks that comprised our bedtime routine. Activities and their approximate time to complete are listed top-to-bottom in the relative order that they were performed. The right-hand side of the visual depicts how myself (the blue bars) and each of my girls (the pink bars) interacted during the nearly 45 minutes of activity.
The analysis revealed many of the underlying issues that were creating the problems – I mean, opportunities – within the nightly routine, with the chief among them indicated by the four red, numbered star bursts:
- The routine was built around me, and not around the kids. This was the primary “ah-ha!” moment gleaned from performing the exercise. Activities were performed in task order, and in a way that kept me busy constantly, rather than in a way that worked best for the three of us combined. Take bath time for example. I washed and rinsed one entire child while one sat idly by. Then, I moved on to the next while the other sat waiting. It’s a rule of parenting that I was clearly violating: never let a three-year-old to her own devises for more than 10 seconds at a time. In the absence of entertainment, children will create their own means to occupy themselves, which generally aren’t pleasing to parents. In the bathtub, it means splashing, spitting, and continually pulling shampoo bottles off of the shelf. Many of our frustrations were being caused because my daughters were taking backseat to myself, and were not directly engaged in the process.
- Cues were missing to perform routine activities. As I have referenced many times before, a habit consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Because the bedtime routine was performed differently every night, there were never any consistent cues established to trigger many of the routine tasks. Therefore, important pieces of the routine like brushing teeth, collecting blankies and using the potty were often missed. The result? The girls would wake up well after they were put to sleep with the realization that something was missing.
- Systems were not in place to simplify difficult tasks. Reading a children’s story is not something that I typically find challenging (Dr. Seuss not withstanding). However, asking two young girls to agree on a single story to read from an entire teacher’s library of children’s books is downright impossible. In this and several other situations, unneeded complexity resulted in arguments, frustration, and a lot of wasted time. However, with a lot of understanding and a little creativity, the impossible can be made much less so through the creation of systems designed to simplify.
- The check was in the room. In the case of the bedtime routine, the “check” to make sure that all went according to plan was whether or not the kids ventured back out of bed to locate a missing stuffed animal or to go potty. This was not an effective way to catch mistakes for two reasons. First, the responsibility for getting everything done before bed should rest with me and not with my daughters; allowing them to find defects essentially transfers my responsibility my children. And in a classical example of poor management, when they repeatedly inform me of the mistakes that were made, they are the ones who were punished for it. Shame on me. Second, the check comes too late in the routine; finding the problem earlier allows us to adjust as needed along the way, before the kids ever hop into bed.
Zooming out and seeing the bigger picture, the visual aid made one thing perfectly clear: the problems – opportunities! – in our bedtime routine were many. Improving the process meant that my daughters and I needed to work together as a team to rethink how we thought about getting ready for bed.
What Can We Do About It?
The improvement phase was divided into two separate sets of activities. First, I turned to the use of a second visual aid to draft the future state version of our bedtime routine. Second, my daughters and I worked together over the course of two weeks to solve the problems that got in the way of making the new process a reality. The image below presents the fruits of all of our efforts.
Taking the focus off my myself and placing it on my daughters was the biggest change between the initial bedtime routine and the redesigned process. As you can see in the image above, instead of focusing on the tasks that I needed to complete, I focused on how the three of us could all work together to knock off the pre-bedtime activities.
Improvements to the flow of the work fell into four different categories:
- Better use of downtime. Rather than waiting the 3 minutes for the bathtub to fill, each of us made better use of our time by completing other activities: my daughters by getting undressed and placing their clothes in the hamper, and myself by preparing the toothbrushes for later (which now became a visual cue to better remember to brush our teeth) and by picking out the girls’ pajamas. Similarly, I was now able to use the lullaby time that occurred immediately after reading our story to tuck them into bed and to give them one last hug and kiss before day’s end. Total savings: about 4 minutes.
- Improved teamwork. With one bathroom and two girls, there was an inevitable bottleneck created at the potty. However, we were able to avoid fighting over who got to go first by giving responsibility to my oldest daughter for putting away the toothbrushes and the toothpaste. While she cleaned up after brushing teeth and while I hang-up the wet towels, my youngest daughter can potty hassle-free. And by the time clean-up is finished, the potty is available for my oldest daughter. The same principle was applied after story time, with one daughter putting the story away and the other starting the lullaby. Total savings: 2 minutes.
- Reassigning activities. The biggest change in the process occurred in the bathtub. With a little practice and patience, my daughters were able to start washing themselves. In doing so, they got a sense of pride out of their newly formed abilities, while trimming several minutes off of tub time in the process. And with a few simple solutions, they were able to start doing other “big girl” activities as well: a new bin helped my oldest daughter to know where to put away the toothbrushes and toothpaste; a stool helped my youngest daughter to reach the CD player to start the lullaby; and a new cup helped both girls to rinse out their own mouths after brushing. Total savings: about 6 minutes.
- Simplifying complex tasks. The complexity of selecting a nightly story to read was replaced by a simple first-in-first-out system. Just select the book on the far left of the shelf and put it back afterwards on the right of the shelf. No more fighting over which story to read! We also improved the “systems” for checking on the process. While the girls dry off and get dressed after their bath, I perform a quick check of their room to make sure their dolls and blankets – Snuggie and Silky as we affectionately call them – are safe and sound in their beds. Additionally, thanks to my very enchanting wife‘s graphic design skills, we have a visual checklist posted on the outside of the girls’ door to help ensure that all major activities have been completed. Total savings: 3 minutes.
Sure, the new and improved bedtime routine looked great on paper, but did it work? Yes . . . just not immediately. Like anything worthwhile in life, improvement in this case took many, many cycles of learning to iron out the details.
One of the more pleasant surprises, however, was the realization that I now had several minutes of time to spare while the girls were brushing their teeth. This became the time I could now use to lay out my clothing for the next day, which allowed me to shave quite a few minutes off of my own nightly chores.
Verify and Make Permanent
After two weeks, the positive impacts of our new bedtime routine were undeniable. Completing all activities from bath time to bedtime now averaged just under a half hour, which returned about 15 minutes every day of quality time to spend with my family. That’s nearly two additional hours a week!
Thanks to the standardized routine, the blankie and doll check, and the bedroom door checklist, missing nightly tasks became a rare occurrence. That means less incidents with the girls getting out of their beds at night, less yelling on my part, and better, more restful sleep for all of us.
By far the biggest impact, however, was the change to the general tone and mood of the household before bed. As the bedtime routine became more relaxed, so too did my daughters and I. No longer was it a time period to dread. Rather than stressing about some of the more tedious tasks, we genuinely began to look forward to those activities that we truly valued.
By taking the waste out of life, we now have more quality time to enjoy together than we ever did before. That means more time reading stories, more time saying prayers, more hugs and kisses, and more I love you’s. And that’s a routine that will never get old.