Do you remember your childhood bedtimes? I remember mine. Until I was six or seven, I always got a goodnight kiss from my parents. Later, they opened the bedroom door and said, “G’night.” I hit adolescence, started junior high, and by my teenage years, was watching television later than my mother and father stayed up. The routine faded. Goodnight became something mumbled, if bothered with at all.
When I began running the orphanage, I quickly recognized the importance of bedtime. For one thing, it was when the newest kids cried or looked lost. This makes sense, when you think about it. In the joyous freedom of sunlight and playmates, you can forget that your mother or family is no longer around.
But when darkness falls, you feel vulnerable and alone.
Devotion, hugs, and kisses
This is why I started the routine of “hugs and kisses” after devotion. Those evening prayers are the last thing we all do together. So before we disperse, we hug and kiss one another. We make sure every kid gets a gentle squeeze and a peck on the cheek or forehead.
I’ve noticed some kids hang on for a long time. They don’t want to let go. The smallest ones raise their arms to be lifted. Even the teens will linger with an arm around your shoulder. Remember, there is no TV. No internet calling. The joyous cacophony of being together fades at night, like a disappearing sunset. Is it any wonder some want to linger as long as they can?
After that exercise, which takes place in the gazebo (the “town square” of our orphanage) the younger kids disperse to their bedrooms. From the early days, even until now, I would periodically go to each room and tell a bedtime story.
The rules were simple. Every kid needs to be in his or her bed – or the story stops. This may sound easy. It isn’t. The little ones love to roll off their thin mattresses or dash across the room. You become part storyteller, part traffic cop.
Each night, I tell a segment of a bedtime story, always leaving off on a cliffhanger. (Hey, I do write for a living. It’s in my blood.)
I’d like to say every one is a classic. But I went through all my Grimm’s fairy tales in my first year, and all the comic book origin stories my second year. By year 12, I am literally making up new legends and enchanted forests every night.
The kids don’t seem to mind. They enjoy the distraction of a story, and their eyes go wide whenever I describe someone flying or an explosion or a monster approaching. When I break the tale by saying “And do you know what happened next?…I’ll tell you tomorrow!” there is always a small groan.
I then go from bed to bed, giving each child another goodnight kiss and telling each one “I love you.” If one of them looks scared or distant, I always say, “I’ll be here in the morning when you wake up.” I don’t know if it makes a difference. I just imagine that’s what I would want to hear if I were in their situation.
[Clip from a video produced for the Detroit Free Press in 2015]
With the real little ones, I will sometimes sing a lullaby. I’m just an OK singer, but there is something about a soft melody at night that is soothing to children. And you never know how much they come to rely on it.
I remember singing a lullaby every night to Chika when she came to live with us in America. She often conked out while I was still singing, so I never really knew how much she was paying attention.
Then one weekend, we had to go out of town, and Chika stayed with friends of ours. That night I got a video with the message “Chika wants to say something to you.” I opened it up and watched Chika, in her pajamas, sing me back the lullaby I always sung to her. And when she finished, she said, ”Goodnight, Mister Mitch” and blew me a kiss.
I never again doubted the importance of how you put a child to sleep. Or how much they absorb it.
With the little ones off to dreamland, attention turns to the pre-teen and teenaged kids. Depending on their age, they get to stay up and do homework. They gather together outside, on a balcony, and work by the dim illumination of cheap Haitian light bulbs. Again, no TV. No surfing the web. No Youtube videos to pass around. No Netflix, HBO or Showtime.
By 9 pm, pretty much everyone is off to their rooms and by 10 pm, it is silent in the yard, save for a security guard walking or a stray cat darting between corners.
I often sit outside in that quiet darkness, ruminating on the day’s challenges and joys. I look at the buildings and think about how many young bodies are resting, dreaming and rejuvenating behind the walls. How many beds it takes. How many nannies it takes. How much food, how much water, how many sets of shirts and socks and underwear we go through in a single day, only to reach the end and do it all over again.
Once in a while, I will pop in on the rooms, just as my parents once did, opening the door a crack to assure that all is well. The childish symphony of soft breathing lets me know we are good.
When Chika sang me that lullaby, she messed up the words at the end, so instead of singing “off to beddy-bye we go”, she sang,
“Lullaby, and good night,
go to sleep like we do.”
I prefer her version. Go to sleep like we do. It may be simple, but that’s our routine. Goodnight until the morning, when we start the joyous challenges in this hot country all over again.
Feature image photo credit: Rick Smolan, former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer and co-creator of the Day in the Life book series.