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Teaching Self-Control to Young Children - Part 2: Sleeping - Cheryl Hernández

Teaching Self-Control to Young Children – Part 2: Sleeping


Cheryl Hernández, homeschool mom of 9, gives tips on how to teach the virtue of self-control to young children. Part 2 of this series explores sleeping.

Part 1 of this series, Teaching Self-Control to Young Children, we explored Boundaries.

One of the first boundaries a child is given is the crib, and then later, the bed.

Parents should see this as a parent-directed boundary and teach the child from the beginning to respect this boundary for the child’s safety, health, and well-being.

1. The Importance of Sleep

Let’s begin by emphasizing the importance of sleep in a child’s life. Arguably, more than any other area of child training (or lack of training), sleep patterns established early have lifelong consequences.

I am not an expert on sleep, nor a child psychologist or pediatrician, just a mom with nine kids, each with an entirely different temperament, including one child with special needs. All were taught from birth and throughout childhood very good sleep behavior through regular naps, bedtimes, and rising times. All were taught the self-control to stay in their beds. It takes patience and perseverance to teach this, but the time invested soon pays off, and the importance of good sleep behavior cannot be minimized.

There is much to the saying: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Children absolutely need sleep to be healthy, active, and ready to learn. They will not naturally, however, choose good sleep behavior by themselves.

They may for a time (especially babies) be naturally “good sleepers”, but when they reach an age (sometimes as early as two), they will often decide they no longer need naps. Or they aren’t tired at 8:00 pm. Or they are too tired in the morning and need more sleep.

2. Time for Bed!

In our home, I set not only the time for bed, but the time to rise in the morning. In addition, nap time was not an option, but a necessary part of the day. I worked our schedules, as much as possible, around nap times, so they would get the sleep their bodies and minds needed to thrive.

We kept a spare playpen in the back of the car, so they could nap while at a friend’s house, or our homeschool group, or even at an outdoor barbecue. Consequently, nap time was simply not a struggle with any of my children.

Everyone knew exactly what time their bedtime was (and it was staggered according to age) and what time they were to rise. There were many times I would see my toddler or preschooler climbing into bed by themselves, before I tucked them in! In our home, children took naps until around the age of five. At five (or throughout kindergarten), they could read books in bed.

For them, that was a “big kid” privilege. They continued this pattern of reading quietly by themselves in the afternoon as they got older (even as teenagers, I often see them curling up in a chair with a good book in the afternoon).

3. Wait for Mommy

From early, teach young children to wait for you to tell them when nap time is over, or if it is time to get up in the morning. Obviously, when they are older, they will set their own alarm in the morning. If you allow your child to dictate when nap time is over, he may not be getting the sleep he needs, and you are also missing an opportunity to teach him the self-control to wait patiently.

Because nap times and rising times are consistent each day, his internal alarm will know when it is nearing time, and he will have the confidence and trust (because of your consistency) that Mom will come get him. This eliminates the need for calling out, crying, or frustration on the child’s part. With practice and perseverance, you can walk into your child’s room when nap time is over and find him lying on his bed, well-rested, happily chatting with his teddy bear.

Teaching your child to wait in bed in the morning until you get him (again, keep rising time consistent!) is as important as him staying in bed at night. At first, you may think it’s cute your three-year old child comes out early in the morning and wants to have coffee with you.

But what happens when the time she wakes up gets earlier – even before you are ready to get up? Do you want your very young child up before you are? Is that safe or prudent? Even if you are awake, busy moms often get up an hour before the kids rise to shower, dress, pray, and have a cup of coffee.

This can also be a wonderful time to be alone with your husband to talk and pray together. Moms who do this can then meet their sleepy kids with a smile and help them to begin their day on a good note.

4. Sleep Tight!

Keep bedtime rituals consistent. At the same time each night, get the child ready for bed, say family prayers, read a bedtime story, and tuck her in (or whatever you do in your family to make bedtime special and pleasing to the child).

You are establishing a bond of trust and comfort with your child that will help her to feel secure and at peace so sleep comes. Again, by establishing parent-directed sleep times, she will be secure in her trust of you and not fight against it.

5. Once in Bed, Stay in Bed

It sounds simplistic, but kids climb out of their crib (and later, their bed) because it works. The parent meets them, often with a mild rebuke, but then gives the child what he wants or allows him to stay up (because “he’s not tired” or it’s not worth the trouble). Either there are no consequences or consequences are infrequent enough for the child to risk the chance of getting his way.

If he is never allowed, from day one, to climb out of the crib, and consequences are administered every time, he simply won’t do it. Consistency works. With any child training, this takes perseverance on the parent’s part. When he has the ability to climb – watch for it.

As soon as he puts his leg up to make the move, quietly go in, lay him down, gently but firmly instructing him to sleep. Then leave – do not sing him to sleep or prolong the instruction. When he transitions to a bed, expect him, at first, to test the boundaries; be waiting and when he swings his legs to get off the bed, your voice (even from another room) will instruct him firmly “NO, stay on the bed.” Remember, this is new to him. He is trying to understand this new boundary you have given him and decide if it is a real boundary or if there is room for flexibility.

Your response will determine this for him, and then he will be free to relax and get to the business of pleasant sleep! On the other hand, your “flexibility” or lack of consistent consequences for disobedience will cause him to want to continue pushing the limits, infringing on his ability to get a peaceful night’s sleep, and question your authority (Does her “no” mean “no”?).

Once you have put him to bed (having taken care of his needs), do not let him get off, get a drink, give you one last kiss, or get his toy in the other room.

Your consistency, especially initially, is crucial to teaching him the self-control to stay on his bed. Obviously, there will be exceptions – but remember that (especially at first) the more you allow these “exceptions”, the longer it will take to teach, and your child knows exactly what it takes for you to give in!

Teaching self-control to very young children can and should be done with sleeping. Parent-directed nap times, bed times, and rising times are essential for our children – for their health, mind, and sense of security and trust in their parents. Consistency by the parent is critical; conversely, inconsistency with routine and consequences is unfair to the child, preventing him from gaining the self-control needed for sleep and causing him insecurities and restlessness.

Children need and want well-established boundaries, and they need parents to enforce them with love. The establishment of these boundaries with sleep behavior will carry throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Sweet dreams!

In Part 3 of this series, we will explore ways of teaching self-control to young children through Speech.

About Cheryl Hernández

Cheryl Hernández
Cheryl Hernandez and her husband live in Kentucky, and have homeschooled their nine children for 28 years using the Seton curriculum. Born in California and raised in Europe, Cheryl has a BFA in Graphic Design and is a convert to our wonderful Catholic Faith.

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