Embracing the (Covid) evening hours with little kids

Back in 2010, I wrote a post on 10 ways to embrace the evening hours with little kids. It remains one of my most clicked on/searched for posts, probably because it’s a topic that is not well-addressed in most parenting literature.

In the normal telling of things, small children go to bed at reasonable times, like 7/7:30 p.m. In the normal telling of things, this is not parental choice, it is a matter of biological necessity. Many working parents feel like their evenings are very short. If you get home at 6:00 p.m., and your kid starts the bedtime routine at 6:45 p.m., well, filling the evening hours is not high on your list of problems.

Then there was me. My oldest child is a now an inquisitive, intense, and fascinating teenager who doesn’t need much sleep. When I wrote that post in 2010, he was an inquisitive, intense 3-year-old who didn’t need much sleep — a reality that became very clear early in my parenting journey. We rarely got him to sleep before 9 p.m. Even 9 p.m. was often an enforced “in your crib/bed” time, and he’d just play and talk to himself for…a while.

There were upsides to this. My husband was working on some projects at the time that had him home at 7:15 p.m. on the nights he wasn’t traveling. He would not have seen a normal baby much during the week. He saw our baby!

The downside: This also made for some long evenings, and the world of kid activities is not set up for filling the night time hours.

Now, of course, the world is even more restricted in terms of what is available for kids. I’m not really facing the “long evenings” issue right now. My current baby does go to bed around 7:30 p.m. (if he doesn’t stay down consistently…sigh…) and the older children can entertain themselves. Indeed, sometimes evenings with them are … fun. My 11-year-old and 9-year-old are working with me to make a Lego Christmas toy workshop (discontinued; I had to buy it off eBay). The 11-year-old has been making me and him root beer floats a great many nights. And — a key thing — I’m not staring down these evenings solo either. My husband hasn’t been on a business trip since March.

But I still get emails from people who find that post and who are facing down long evenings. People find themselves wishing time away, and given that life is short, this seems like such a miserable bargain. With Covid, my 2010 ideas of libraries/bookstores/having friends without kids over are not going to fly. Some things can still work, though, and overall, my best advice is to have an intention for the evening. If you can plan three top work priorities for a day, you can plan 1-2 things you’d like to do in the evening — which makes the time feel less amorphously long. You could…

Go outside. Yes, even if it’s dark and cold. Fresh air is a known mood booster. We’ve done stroller walks around the driveway, all bundled up. If you live in a place with sidewalks and street lights, a post-dinner walk is a great way to pass the time. Slightly older kids can do flashlight games in the back yard, or flash light sidewalk chalk or anything like that. Figure out a way to create some light and do whatever you would have done in the afternoon.

Create a baby safe zone. One of the things that makes evenings feel so long is that little kids require constant vigilance, and at some point, you want to relax and zone out. So create barriers around some spot in your house and put the little kid toys in there. If you’ve just got one little one (so you’re not refereeing fights) you can sit there and read on your phone (on and off at least) while the child chews on stuff. A nice craft beer might make this more like happy hour.

Connect. Friends and relatives who could have helped out in the past might not be able to visit now. So FaceTime them. A child who’s about 3 or so might be actively entertained by the conversation — helpful if you need to feed a baby or something. Or at least you will feel less alone.

Choose a project. When you’re tired at the end of the day, being asked to do something you really don’t want to do (like play Candy Land) can feel oppressive. So come into the evening with an idea for something you wouldn’t mind. You’ll manage your energy to do that project and little kids, unlike teenagers, will generally be excited about what a parent suggests. Coloring, making collages, building towers — steer the night toward an objective you find semi-fun.

Stretch bath time. Contrary to popular belief, small children do not need to be bathed nightly. However, a tub is a contained spot, and some children might be willing to play for a while. Don’t worry about actually washing them. Just let them sit there.

Control the story. Reading with kids can be fun — as long as you become something of an expert in children’s literature, because there are a lot of really tedious books on the market. I am a fan of the slightly subversive ones. It might be worth looking at some of the older, classic titles that were written before the powers that be decided children’s literature needed to be self-consciously educational. And then head to the classic chapter books as soon as the children can focus for long enough.

Take a night off. All through those long early days, my Tuesday night choir rehearsals were a sanity-saver. A once-a-week commitment gives you a reason to arrange coverage (with a partner or sitter) and ensures that you will go do something. Of course, this is harder now, but even if you aren’t going to rehearsals/practices/a regular in-person volunteer gig, I would recommend some form of weekly escape you can count on. Maybe on Tuesday nights from 7-8 p.m. you can go sit in the tub and listen to music and read and not be the “on” person. This little one-hour holiday might be enough to get you through the rest of the 168 hours.

Photo: Stroller walk in the garage/driveway. 


14 thoughts on “Embracing the (Covid) evening hours with little kids

  1. My kids are older now (10 and 12) but I STILL feel like I struggle with evening hours sometimes. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and I think it might be that I sometimes feel out of “control” during those hours. When they are at school and I’m home working, I can time block/ plan my days and I run the show. When they are home at night, obviously there are more moving parts in the household. It still always feel like we face a good amount of unknowns, too- maybe a homework assignment they suddenly need help with that I wasn’t expecting, or quizzing them for the test ends up taking 40 minutes instead of 20. Length of dinner time seems to wax and wane depending on the day too, plus the activities runs and as they get older they never want to go to bed!! Anyway, our evenings are 100% better than those crazy toddler years since they are obviously quite self sufficient now. But I think I just start to get tired by the end of the day and am not in the mood to parent, period, by that point in the day. I have literally said to them after 9 pm some days when they come looking for me, “I’m sorry, I’m done parenting for the day, goodbye.” LOL. *cue weird looks from them…*

    1. @Grateful Kae – my equivalent quote is “I am done with children now.” I wish I could be in a better mood about it but…after 9 p.m….nope.

      1. My neighbor refers to this time as PTO – Parenting Time Over. At this point, she basically says to her kids (6&8): “Do anything you need to do in order to get to bed ASAP. It is PTO. Dad and I are done!” I have no idea how well this works at actually shuffling them along, but I love the acronym!

    2. Thanks for posting this 🙂 Mine are 8 and 11 and “putting them to bed” is me telling Alexa to announce “Girls, it’s time for bed”. I feel a tiny bit guilty about not actually tucking them in and saying something loving and sweet but at that part of the evening I am just DONE. 😉

  2. Some more ideas:
    1. Have theme nights. Tonight was popcorn and Just Add Magic (Amazon family show). Game night, puzzle night, pizza on the couch night…. Whatever gives everyone a little yay.
    2. Have a craft waiting on the kitchen table for the home-from-work, before-dinner interval. There are tons of seasonal construction paper projects on blogs or you can buy $2-3 craft kits.
    3. Sometimes i randomly buy a new toy (worry I am spoiling my daughter? But it helps). I also “lose” toys in the basement storage closet for later discovery.

  3. Thanks for posting this! My kids are 1 and 3 and …. woof. I would give my left arm to go to a library, a weeknight little gym class or to a leisurely target stroll!!! I’ve at times tried to over engineer covid weeknights (let’s have bath beads and shaving cream in a kiddie pool in the backyard followed by 2 hours of everyone melting down). Really appreciate the simplicity here.

    1. @Jamie- shaving cream in a kiddie pool sounds like a level of ambition/mess tolerance I could never achieve. I got rid of all the kinetic sand because I couldn’t stand it!!

  4. I love this post and I loved the one from 10 years ago as well. I also have kids that just…don’t go to sleep. A lot of my weeknights seem to be about entertaining my 6-year-old who would prefer to be on the iPad 24 hours a day. When I feel like the evening has been long enough I sometimes bribe his older siblings to put him to bed. They will do toothbrushing and a story for about $2. It is a deal.

  5. Our evenings are pretty chill now that we’ve figured out that there can’t be trains on nursery nights (there will be a prolonged effort to put all the trains in the roundhouse and tears ensue when we hurry him along) and the “animal parade” in which my son hops on his hoppy giraffe, I pretend to be an animal, and my husband sings parade music. We parade across the hallway and into the bedroom, and then set a timer for potty, change, books. If he moves faster, there is more time for books.

    I do have to ask, will your new neighbourhood have sidewalks? I’ve always thought this was so sad that you can’t walk around the neighbourhood, especially since stroller walks were such a lifesaver for me.

    1. @CB – no, but we are on a private dead-end road and have a really long driveway. It will be possible to go for walks without seeing any cars whatsoever! And oh my goodness, the trains. We have the entire Thomas collection (well, mostly) and different children have, in the past, insisted on organizing by color, order in the Thomas song…

      1. Oh, that’s great that there will be more room to walk/cycle etc. We’re moving to a bigger (for us/the UK – 3 beds) house next month, and I’m looking forward to driveway and a backyard. As well as the ability to cycle quickly to the shops.

  6. Absolutely agree about taking the night off. About a month or two ago, my husband and I realized that we were both getting really burnt out by evenings, so we made up a schedule for each of us to alternate having the evening off from dinner until bedtime- “isolation time” we call it. Our oldest (8 yrs old) is old enough to help with dinner clean up, so after dinner, one person goes into isolation and the other spouse and the eight year old clean up after dinner. (The 4 year old and one year old just get in the way…) Husband gets Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. I get Tuesday and Thursday. The eight year old gets Thursday and Sunday off. (The husband gets three nights off because he does Thursday all by himself). Knowing when I will have that hour and a half to myself has been amazing for my mental health. It gives me something to look forward to when the evenings are crazy. And yes, sometimes I use my isolation time to do work or pay bills or clean, but even then it is so nice not to have someone crying at me while I try to do it.

  7. Prior to COVID, I was attending a weekly improv class. Now that we cannot attend classes, my teacher offers free bi-monthly virtual improv hangouts. They have been a wonderful way to stay connected to my improv family, laugh heartily, and take a break from the current issues of the world. It really provides a happiness boost not just for that evening, but provides lasting joy for the remainder of the week.

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