Sunday, October 13, 2013

How Math Saved Bedtime

(This post was inspired by @Trianglemancsd's blog Talking Math with Kids.)

The bedtime routine at our house begins at 7:30. We have a chart showing the steps: take a vitamin, go potty, brush teeth, put PJs on, read three books, go to sleep. Lately, the middle three steps have evolved into a serious power struggle with my four year old. He whines, complains, drags his feet, says he's too tired... and the resulting cajoling amounts to leading a horse to water and finding that it stubbornly will not take a drink.

After a particularly frustrating night, I happened to notice the potty / brush his teeth / change into PJs sequence had taken 24 minutes. This gave me an idea. I went downstairs and found a piece of black construction paper and a white crayon. I quickly constructed the axes for a simple bar chart, extending the vertical scale up to an optimistic 25 minutes, and sketched the horizontal scale that would hold the days of the week.

As Adam looked on, I drew a single bar up to 24 minutes.

Adam: What's that Daddy?

Me: It's a chart that shows how many minutes it took you to get ready for bed. Today, it was 24 minutes. That's a really long time, isn't it? See how tall the bar is? It goes almost all the way to the top of the paper! I think we'll start keeping track of how long it takes you. Right now, your record is 24 minutes. I wonder if you can beat your record tomorrow?

Adam: Hey, it's like in Mario Kart! You know, where you race against your ghost and try to beat your best time?
Racing against your "previous best" in Mario Kart's time trials mode

Me: Oh yeah! Maybe you can pretend there's a little "ghost Adam" getting ready for bed, and you can try to go faster than him.

Adam: Oh yeah! I can DO it! [Fist pump].

    (He loves anything having to do with racing...)

Me: Ok, we'll see tomorrow. Now let's read some books.

The next day. Bedtime is announced. Adam begins to throw his usual tantrum. I interrupt him and say, "Adam, it's fine. Take as long as you want. Your toothbrush is all ready to go. I'll just go in your room and wait for you to be done so we can read books."

Adam eyes me warily. I suspect he's taken aback by the fact that I'm not pushing him tonight.

Me: Oh, wait, remember that chart I made? I wonder if you can beat your time from yesterday? Let me check the clock. Ok, it's 7:34, let's see how long it takes you.
He gets down to business, though somewhat haltingly. When he gets too far off track, I remind him about the chart, and he immediately refocuses on his routine. He finishes in 16 minutes. Still not great, but it was so much more relaxed, and there was NO power struggle.

When he finished, he watched while I added the new bar to the chart.

Adam is impressed with how much faster he was. He wants to know how many minutes. I told him yesterday was 24, today was 16. And we count up together from 16, saying "17, 18, ... 24", and I hold up a finger for each number we name. Eight minutes!

Wow, we agree, that's much faster. 

We skipped a day Tuesday -- I can't recall why. By Wednesday, his time was down to 8 minutes, still with no cajoling and no power struggle. We count up again to find the difference: "Eight minutes faster again, just like last time!"

On Thursday, he improves by another minute. I ask him how much faster he was today, and he says in a whisper-voice: "eight, seven..." then announces, "One minute!"

Then things got fun. He says, "Tomorrow, I will be able to do it in six minutes!

Me: You will? Why do you think that?

Adam: Because it's one less. And after that, it will be five, then four, then three, then two, then one, then ZERO!"

Me: Wait, you think you can get ready in ZERO minutes?

Adam: No, not really. That's just the pattern.

Me: Oh, I see. Because zero minutes would be pretty amazing, wouldn't it? Like...zzp, I'm done! No one can go that fast for bedtime, can they?

Adam: No. Except maybe a superhero. My friend told me about a superhero who can run around real fast and tie people up. I bet he could do it in zero.

Me: Oh, is that Superman?

Adam: No, someone else.

Me: The Flash?

Adam: No, I think maybe it was Superman. I don't really know.

Adam: But Daddy, what about ONE minute?

Me: I don't know, one minute is still pretty fast. I think five minutes is the best anyone could EVER do for bedtime. Let's add a line at five minutes and see if you can beat that.

He watches as I draw a dotted horizontal line at five minutes.

Adam says, "I can do it faster than that. I'll show you tomorrow."

Me: Ok, we'll see. You ARE pretty fast...

And sure enough, that little cur did the entire routine in three minutes the next day.

The day after that, it took him four minutes. 

Adam: Oh man, only four? But that's longer! [He seemed pretty disappointed.] Daddy, you know why it took longer? It's because of my pants. Today, I had button pants. It takes longer to get them off when they have a button.

Me: Well, I still can't believe you can do it in less than five minutes, AND you did that for two days in a row. Look how much faster you are now than you were on Sunday. That's pretty amazing!

Adam: Yep. Hey Daddy, can I see the crayon and paper?

I gave it to him and went to help our little girl brush her teeth. When I returned, I noticed he had added boxes above the bars for his two fastest times.

Pointing to the box he drew around my 3, he said "See? This shows how much faster I was than five minutes. I was going to do that for the 4 too, but the 4 was in the way, so I went around it. 

He added, "Tomorrow I'm going to try to do it in three (minutes) again."

So I suggested he start a line at three minutes so he'd know what his target was.

Tomorrow, I'll have him draw the new bar. I wonder if he can meet his goal?  

Wait, did you catch that? His goal. Wow, that's nice. 

And that's how math saved bedtime.

+++  UPDATE (10/18/13) +++

Adam has continued to stay on task during his bedtime routine, and he has also begun requesting the crayon after he has finished so that he can add the next column to the chart. Here are the latest results:

Note: the 2 minute effort on Wednesday is a bit of an exception. It was a bath night, so upon emerging from his bath he really just had to brush his teeth and put his pajamas on. But he saw an opportunity to post a really fast time, so we rolled with it. Maybe I should have had him draw the bar in a different color? Shall I tarnish his record-time with an asterisk? Nah. He's only four.

Hmm, maybe one day he'll get ready all by himself, then come downstairs and say, "Daddy can you time me getting ready for bed?" And I'll say, "Sure," and he'll say: "Zzzp, I'm done! Zero minutes!"

Hey, a father can dream, can't he? But if that ever happens, I'll be sure and let you know.



  1. I think dentists recommend 2min of teeth brushing - something to think about for the future. Also, it is a fixed cost.

    1. His rule / routine is he sings twinkle twinkle little star, twice Takes him about a minute. I'm ok with that.