I glance at the clock. Uh-oh, it's getting close.
The younger kids have finished their homework and brushed their teeth, and pull me eagerly into the family room. We're not rushing to catch the latest episode of "Charmed" or "Just Shoot Me." No way. We've gathered for the most important time of our day: bedtime.
I love bedtime. And not for the standard reason that all parents of young children love that time when the little darlings finally konk out. In our family, bedtime means a peaceful, loving end to the day; a prayer, a chapter of Beatrix Potter or J.R.R. Tolkien, then one-on-one time where each of my four children have Mom's undivided attention for several precious minutes.
I wouldn't miss for anything this tender time of backrubs and quiet laughter, "Sandman," lullabies and whispered revelations. When he was three, my 17-year-old son Ben dubbed these last few minutes together "alone time," and the title has stuck.
Even as my children have grown from toddlers to teenagers, our evening ritual of prayer, story, and private time has persisted. In fact, it's even more vital now as schedules keep us apart to be able to say, "We'll talk about it at alone time." My kids know they have a standing appointment with me every evening, which might be the most important thing I can do for them.
Of course, this investment comes with a price. I'm glad to be my children's favorite prime-time personality, but I sometimes wonder what I've started.
As they've grown, alone time has stretched until it now takes about as long as your average pro basketball game. On tired days, I'm so tempted to just kiss them good night, shoo them to bed, and plop in front of the TV. But I can't; I would simply miss too much.
During a recent week, Rachel, my independent 13-year-old daughter, shared surprising feelings of exclusion at school, which were remedied by our alone-time conclusion that she should try out for the school play, while 10-year-old Morgan's and 8-year-old Ty's impromptu questions by night light became a comfortable discussion of intimacy and sex.
A bedtime backrub and Ben's comment, "I don't get girls," grew into a talk about the give-and-take of relationships. (And he listened, since I heard him quote me - sort of - on the phone to his friend; "Girls don't want us to solve their problems, they just want us to listen and pretend we care.") I know my children because of alone time; the quiet, the dark, and my total attention invite their confidences at any age.
Still, the enduring popularity of bedtime at our house often surprises me. The promise of a "long alone time" with mom is valuable enough to hustle up tired kids through homework and baths. If I'm with one child longer than usual, I hear "That's not fair!" from the others. When I ask a sleepy child as I tickle his back, "What was the best thing about today?" he often answers, "Right now."
So don't ask my children on which night "Sabrina" or "Felicity" or "ER" airs. They don't know or care. We'll continue quietly building our own "Seventh Heaven" one night at a time.
For us, prime time is bedtime.
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