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.