Why Young Children Protest Bedtime: A Story of Evolutionary Mismatch

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By Peter Gray

The monsters under the bed are real.

Infants and young children in our culture regularly protest going to bed.  They make all sorts of excuses. They say they are not tired, when in fact they obviously are tired. They say they are hungry, or thirsty, or need to hear a story (and then one more story)–anything to stall.  They talk about being afraid of the dark, or afraid of monsters in the closet or under the bad.  Little babies without language, who can't yet describe their fears or try to negotiate, just scream.

Why all this protest?  Many years ago, the famous behavioral psychologist John B. Watson argued, essentially, that such behavior is pathological and derives from parents' overindulgence and spoiling of children.[1]  Remnants of that view still persist in books on baby care, where the typical advice is that parentsmust be firm about bedtime and not give in. This, the experts say, is a battle of wills, and you, as parent, must win it to avoid spoiling your child. 

But clearly something is missing in this explanation from the experts. Why do infants and young children choose to challenge their parents' will onthis particular issue?  They don't protest against toys, or sunlight, or hugs (well, usually not). Why do they protest going to bed, when sleep is clearly good for them and they need it?

More of the story on 'Freedom to Learn' blog, click image