Ending Bedtime Hijinx: Putting Our Three Year Old on a Timer, With an Incentive Structure

Tuesday May 31, 2016

A few weeks ago, we had to throw in the progressive parenting towel. We’d reminded, we’d suggested, we’d given the child space, we’d given the child logical consequences, we’d ignored, we’d practiced the patience of parents who are better than we are. And we were still dealing with a kid that took 20 minutes to just brush her teeth. Another 20 minutes just to put pajamas on.

And then! And then it stretched into the morning routine. 20 minutes to pick out an outfit. 20 minutes to put shoes on. Dave, who gets Bean ready in the morning, had to start leaving her mid-morning routine or else he’d be late to work. We started getting to preschool late. We basically started getting to everything late, because there is really no way to force a 3 year old to brush her teeth.

You know what this is? Annoying as all hell. These battles gave way to incredibly frustrated parents and a preschooler hopped up on her own successful game. We had turned into Wile E Coyote, outmaneuvered at every turn, realizing the whole while that this was over something as inane as putting pajamas on. As we got later and later into our morning or evening routine, she’d become increasingly manic — twirling, laughing, hopping, jumping. Not at all the calm, slow easing into bedtime you want.

In Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy, Louise Bates Ames mentions several times that daily routines become the stage for a three year old to assert herself. “It sometimes seems to his mother that his main concern is to strengthen his will, and he strengthens this will by going against whatever is demanded of him by that still most important person in his life.” The kid knows that daily routines always have to get done, which is how they know they have the upper hand. And, frequently, once the battle is over and the routine is performed, the three year old swiftly returns back to the delightful funny child they are, expecting to happily play games with a parent who is in dumb shock at the past half hour of their lives.

So, basically, layers of problems. Layers of annoying.

So, I bought a kitchen timer.

You know what works really really well? A kitchen timer.

We first used it at night, to nearly stupefying success. I didn’t think a silly kitchen timer would cut through the illogical stubborness of a 3 year old. But, it totally TOTALLY did.

Before bedtime, we use the timer with an incentive structure. If she beats the clock, she gets an extra book at bedtime. If she doesn’t beat the clock, we read one fewer book.

Now, a few things. We’re not ogres — we set the timer for much longer than she actually needs. So, 10 minutes to wash her face and brush her teeth, and another 10 minutes to put pajamas on. The only way the buzzer goes off before she’s finished, is if she’s spent the time doing pirouettes. The point isn’t to rush her, the point is to actually get her to get through the bedtime routine in a reasonable amount of time.

Also, the incentive structure is meant to reward good behavior, rather than punish poor behavior. If she doesn’t beat the clock, she gets one book, which was the norm before we started all this. If she does beat the clock, she gets to read upwards of 4 books before bedtime, a total boon.

This has also worked bizarrely well in the morning too. Nowadays, I’ll note that she seems to be having trouble focusing on getting dressed/brushing teeth/putting her shoes on, and I’m going to put the timer on to help her focus. I usually don’t even have to wrap this in incentives or disincentives. As soon as she sees the timer go on, she gets right to the task at hand.

My fear was that using a timer would increase anxiety. I mean, she doesn’t really understand time — she’s 3 after all — so it felt unfair and arbitrary. But, I have to say the opposite has happened. She seems calmer, almost relieved that there’s no need to battle anymore. She sees the timer go on and gets right to work, no whining. In many ways, the “games” three year olds play are a way to experiment with boundaries and intra-family power.  I think that by setting up the timer, I’ve given her more structure and security.

I prefer the timer over discipline (which…how do you discipline someone who’s taking forever to put her shoes on because she’s laughing and giving you kisses?), threats (she’d laugh, literally, in the face of threat — fine, I didn’t want to go to the library today anyway), reverse psychology (at some point, we’d have to deal with the fact that she just needed to put shoes on period, without the mind games), or treating her like a baby (yeah, it’d be faster if I brushed her teeth/put her shoes on/got her dressed…but she can do it herself and the end goal is a child who actually does all of this herself.)

Our mornings and evenings have become calm again. We get to preschool early. We meet friends on time. I’m not chewing my lips and sending annoyed text to Dave, trying to figure out what will finally work. I’m not yelling JUSTPUTYOURJACKETONWEHAVETOGOOOO. The exasperation level has fallen off a cliff. And bedtime, oh it’s so much better. More time spent cuddling and reading books together, and less time spent on the maddening toothbrush wars. Without getting worked up, she’s also been falling asleep easier.

Dave and I still whisper “I think the timer is actually working,” like it’s too good to be true. The routines just get done, with a happy, content kid and a happy, content parent. It’s pretty great.

One Response to “Ending Bedtime Hijinx: Putting Our Three Year Old on a Timer, With an Incentive Structure”

  1. Great tactics that Bean learned to have the upper hand. The article wasn’t meant for this but I thought this was funny. Kids are so smart. But she was outflanked by her mom-hope the timer continues to work. I’m going to have to use the timer method for my house. My mom is famous for screaming “3 minute shower!!! No, 2 minute shower!!!” That was our alarm and I’ve grown up to follow that time rule too. With the timer, you can time anything-should work for adults too.


    6/1/2016 at 3:38 am