Sometimes we don’t give kids enough credit — as easy as childhood can seem to those of us who are on the other side of it, it’s also essentially a long slog through a bunch of things you don’t want to do. Maybe you don’t want to finish the peas on your plate, or share your book with the classmate who’s peering over your shoulder, or clean your room, but you do them anyway, because someone older told you to. As an adult, you can eat what you want, and read in peace, and leave things as messy as you’d like; as a kid, you don’t have those luxuries.
The same goes for bedtime. In the latest installment of FiveThirtyEight’s (incredibly charming) Science Question From a Toddler series, writer Maggie Koerth-Baker tackled a question from a 5-year-old named Kayla: “Why is it bedtime if it’s still light outside?”
The answer, it turns out, doesn’t really have to do with any biological reality so much as our cultural expectations about when kids ought to be in bed. Yes, children do need more sleep than adults do (on average, 10 to 14 hours for preschoolers and 9 to 11 for elementary-schoolers), but there’s plenty of variety from kid to kid; one may actually be sleepy by eight o’clock, while another of the same age might fight tooth and nail to be able to stay up a little later because they genuinely aren’t tired. And if that’s the case, it’s fine: “Bedtime,” as Koerth-Baker put it, “is a social construct.”
Research has shown that kids and parents butt heads more frequently on when to go to bed the older the child gets; in one study, around a quarter of kids had what the researchers called “bedtime resistance” at age 2; by age 5, that number had doubled. Importantly, though, that study only looked at families in the U.S.; elsewhere, Koerth-Baker noted, another study painted a very different picture:
But kids whose behavior was documented in similar longitudinal research in Switzerland weren’t as rebellious. A 2005 study using that data found that, for them, bedtime resistance peaked between 2 and 4 years old, at around 18 percent. And rates of youthful rebellion changed as parental behavior changed. The 2005 study also found that bedtime resistance had been decreasing over time. The peak for kids born in 1974-78 was about 30 percent prevalence at age 5. Meanwhile, resistance among kids born in 1986-93 peaked at age 3, closer to 10 percent. Over that time period, the authors wrote, Swiss parents had shifted toward later and later bedtimes. In Switzerland, at least, putting kids to bed later meant less frustration for everyone.
Sounds like a vindication of the bedtime resisters, at least in part. Maybe knowing your own body, even as a toddler, ought to trump the all-powerful “because I said so” — after all, as pretty much any kid knows from personal experience, social norms can’t will you into being sleepy.