Care and Feeding

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

How do we convince our kid that there are no monsters under the bed so she will just go to sleep? We’re so very, very tired.

Photo illustration: A young girl covers her mouth with a scared expression in her eyes as a clawed hand reaches toward her hair.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter, age 3 ½, has suddenly become afraid of the usual cabal of monsters/the dark/her room/going to bed in general. We just welcomed a new baby into the family five weeks ago, and although I’m sure she is genuinely experiencing some typical toddler fears, my husband and I are also pretty sure she’s milking this for attention.

How do we (lovingly) convince her she’s safe and needs to go to sleep? We just can’t spend two-plus exhausting hours dealing with tears and negotiating every night!

—Go the F to Sleep

Dear GtFtS,

To be fair to your little nightbird, kids do grow into being scared of the dark, usually between the ages of 2 and 6 when their imaginations begin to grow and work overtime. It’s surprising for many parents when kids who slept blissfully for ages without giving a thought to their surroundings are suddenly asking you to check under their bed for monsters. In other words, your daughter is right on time for this particular “milestone,” and the fact it’s probably being amplified by attention-seeking as she gets used to her new sibling is nothing out of the ordinary.

What you need, going forward, is a real bedtime ritual meant to address her fears, followed by shutting the door and not re-entering unless you hear breaking glass or the sound of a goat being sacrificed to King Paimon. The ritual to you will feel like an elaborate shadow play, but it’s crucial that you act like you’re not rushing her. Amble in, read some stories, remind her that monsters are not real, help her check under her bed and in her closet “just in case,” turn on a nightlight (I like the ones that shine constellations on the ceiling, but you do you), say it’s time to go to sleep and you’ll see her in the morning, and then get out. It should only take a few nights before she’ll get reassurance and security from the bedtime ritual, and also realize you ain’t coming back until morning.

And during the day, make sure you’re taking time for each parent to focus on just her. It’s easy, in the haze of new parenting, for the older child to legitimately feel like they’re lower on your priorities list than they were before, and at five weeks you are right in the middle of the storm. Spoil her a bit more during the day: Lift some ice cream restrictions! Make sure she gets a new toy or two and doesn’t have to watch a slew of visitors drop off stuff for the new baby and barely wave in her direction! Compensating during the day will help you be firmer at night.

I hope you’re all sleeping more soundly before too long.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I both work at a university, and we have a 9-month-old son. We’re trying to figure out whether to save the money our baby has received for his eventual university education, or if we should spend it on sending him to a private Montessori elementary school instead. I feel that providing our child with a Montessori foundation to learning will be a great way to start out, but not saving for college seems too risky somehow. I also feel that no one really knows what higher education will look like in 18 years, so we might as well invest sooner in what we know will be worthwhile. Thoughts?

—Worry Now or Worry Later?

Dear WNoWL,

I am happy to inform you that Montessori (like any other educational program) may or may not be the best fit for your actual child, who is currently 9 months old. There are kids who thrive on Montessori, and kids for whom it’s frustrating and upsetting. My daughter hated Montessori and loved a more academically oriented, structured environment. My point is that there’s no reason to be planning on your child’s grade-school experience before you have a child nearing grade-school age. Pop that money into your college savings account (also, who is showering your baby with all this money? Do they have more?) and enjoy these final few years before you get shuttled onto the treadmill of parents trying to get their kids into The Best Schools.

Congratulations on your baby!

More Care and Feeding:

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 31 weeks pregnant and have a 2 ½–year-old who seems excited enough about the new baby-to-be. I want to move her baby furniture into the future nursery and get her new “big girl” room ready. Any advice on how to do this smoothly? With her at home helping? As a surprise? Should we move all pieces or just a few at time? Do I lock the new room for a while so she doesn’t want her crib and dresser back?

—The Clock Is Ticking

Dear TCIT,

“Excited enough about the new baby-to-be” is better than most 2 ½–year-olds, congratulations on that. One of the real hacks of parenting is to offer a range of choices, all of which are acceptable to you, and then allow your kid to pick one of them. (This is also a hack for marriage, the workplace, and life in general.) Present a few inexpensive themes (sharks! space! stripes! puppies!) and beds and dressers, and let her pick the look she likes for her room. It will be good if she “helps” you set up her new digs, even if that’s just putting a few stickers on a headboard or arranging her dolls on the bedspread.

My 3-year-old, who recently graduated to a big boy bed with a Star Wars quilt and sheets and professed himself well-pleased, still asked if he could have his old room back the next day, and we visited it together to talk about how he’s too big for it now and how it was perfect for a little baby. Showing your daughter pictures of herself as a baby, sleeping in that crib, etc., will help emphasize that the nursery is for babies.

You may find her camping out on the nursery floor with a pillow and a blanket one night, but big girl beds will be the way of the future, I promise.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I need advice on getting your kids to clean up, because otherwise I’m going to have a massive parenting fail where I throw myself through a window. My 4-year-old likes to pick up bins of toys/boxes of playing cards/Legos/etc, dump them all over the floor, and essentially just walk away. It then takes a ridiculous amount of time to convince him to clean it up. Threatening to throw it away doesn’t work because he doesn’t care. He has a million toys! (That’s a separate issue.)

I’ve tried turning it into a game, telling him it’s a race, threatening to never buy him another toy again … nothing works. If it’s in the playroom, we just take away his TV privileges until it’s picked up, and about 10 days later he gives in. Well, tonight it’s in the middle of the kitchen floor. I don’t have 10 days!

Please help.

—So Many Transformers

Dear SMT,

Congratulations on giving birth to a brilliant young man who has realized very early in life that all earthly attachments can be used against him, and has chosen the path of freedom and austerity over the gilded cage of plenty.

Look, the boy has too many toys, and it’s not really a separate issue! He doesn’t need bins of toys that he doesn’t care about. Keep a few things he reliably plays with and donate the rest. A little artificial scarcity will make the prospect of losing toys a lot more upsetting.

You also need to keep the toys in his bedroom/play area. He should never have the opportunity to dump them on your kitchen floor. Any toys that leak out into common areas can be held captive and ransomed with better behavior.

It seems as though, at the moment, you’re running low on working consequences for bad behavior, and you’re going to need to work on that regardless of how this particular battle of wills shakes out. What does he love? Dessert? Going to the park? Saturday cartoons? Would keeping him restricted to his room (minus toys) for a while do the trick? You are going to have a lot of dust-ups over the next few years—you’ll need an ace in the hole or he’ll continue to let rebukes slide right off his back.

—Nicole