I’ve read the warnings about evening screen time interfering with sleep, school performance and attention span. So far, I haven’t had these issues with my son, but I know it’s a nighttime routine that shouldn’t continue.
We do read to him before bed — and he’s an avid reader himself. But there were a few weeks when we’d run out of new books to read, and I was too drained from my long days of motherhood to issue another “No!” when he asked to use the iPad instead. Before I knew it, a habit formed — one that’s proven difficult to break.
We set it up so he could text from the iPad. While I’m putting his brother to sleep, he entertains himself by texting me riddles and designing elaborate pictures using emoji and other characters. But eventually, I get texts like, “I’m bored,” and “When will you be done?”
My son is easily bored. He’s been blessed with a restless, buzzing mind. He always needs something to stimulate his intellect, something to do. Almost all kids have a tendency to become entranced with screens, but there is something about my son’s personality that seems to make him especially susceptible to their allure.
His particular temperament also makes it difficult for him to unwind at bedtime — this has been an issue since he was an infant. Things have gotten better as he’s grown, but in recent weeks, I’ve noticed an uptick in his nighttime needs.
We have a ritual where I give him a kiss on each cheek before I leave his room. He gives me kisses in return if it’s a special occasion (his rules; I am happy to oblige). Special occasions can be anything from birthdays to the ice cream party at school. Luckily, there are many special occasions, and I get plenty of kisses.
Lately, though, there has always been something wrong. He owed me a kiss from his aunt’s birthday. Groundhog Day only counted as half a kiss and he couldn’t remember if he’d already given it to me. All of this delayed my departure from his room, and many nights have ended with him wanting to come sleep in my room.
We have often been a bed-sharing family — and my toddler son still sleeps in bed with us — so I am usually fine with him dragging his pillow and blanket to our room and camping out there.
Still, I’ve wondered about it all. What is going on with my son? Why the sudden neediness? Why the hesitation to let me go, to sleep alone?
I wondered if the iPad was to blame. Was he too overstimulated at night to settle down? Was one of the games he was playing stressing him out?
The night of my birthday, I gave him his two kisses and received a lovely birthday kiss in return. Then I smoothed down his hair and said, “Goodnight. See ya.”
A minute later, my phone lit up with a text from him.
“I don’t want ‘See ya’ to be the last words you say to me on your birthday.”
My breath caught in my throat. Although my son is expressive in many ways, he is almost never overtly emotional in how he speaks to me. It usually takes a while for me to tease out what he’s feeling about something.
And yet, he seems to pour his soul out to me in these texts.
“I get this uncomfortable feeling if I don’t end important days on perfect sentences.”
My boy was feeling anxious. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but the beginning of my understanding was right there in the text.
I thought back to when he was younger. Sometimes we would have big fights when he did things that were not acceptable, and I would expect an apology. But he just couldn’t muster the words, so he would write me little notes instead: “I’m sorry I took the baby’s toy away” or “I didn’t mean to spill soap all over the bathroom floor.”
After the notes, we could talk about what happened. Soon enough, we would end up cuddling on the couch, laughing about what happened.
But now he is older, and things aren’t as simple. Now he is grappling with bigger, more complex situations — and the intricate emotions that accompany them.
The next evening, I found him in the hallway, walking to bed.
“Mom, I have that uncomfortable feeling again,” he said, his voice cracking.
“The one you were texting me about?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. I asked him a couple of questions about the feeling. He told me it started on his ninth birthday, when he realized it was the last birthday he’d be in single digits. Then, when it was my birthday a few weeks later, he realized that it was going to be my last birthday with him in single digits.
“Is there something that scares you about growing up? Is there something that feels really big about double digits?”
“I think so,” he said, resting his head on my shoulder.
I walked with him into his room. I told him that as you get older, the years feel like they are going by faster, but life is pretty much the same. I told him ages are just numbers, and he would always just be himself. And — because I’m a mom and couldn’t help but slip this in — I told him he would always be my baby.
He slept well that night, after getting it all out.
I’m still not sure what is causing his nighttime stress. Is it simply the swift passage of time? What is it about the end of single digits that triggered these feelings? I may never know everything that goes on in that busy little head of his, but now we have a language to communicate in.
I know texting is not the healthiest way to express one’s feelings. There is that layer of anonymity that can lead to unhealthy behaviors. If he were talking online to his friends, would he be apt to say something embarrassing, hurtful, or strange? Worse yet, what if he were messaging with a stranger? These sorts of conversations about social media are something we are starting to have, and they are worth continuing as he moves into the teenage years.
But in this case at least, there was something kind of magical that happened through texting. It was a way in, an opening. Now, the feelings are on the table, and we can talk them through — in person.
As for his iPad, I am slowly weaning him from it, mostly by substituting other things, such as a stack of brand-new library books. But I’m going to let him keep the iPad by his bedside, just in case he has something really important to tell me, and isn’t ready to say it out loud yet.
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