Bedtime – Construct or Cruelty

July 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

One summer evening when I was a teenager, I drove with Don Bane, a guitar player, from our WASP suburb of Pittsburgh to the projects in the Hill District. Don was the only other kid in Mt. Lebanon High who wanted to play jazz. We could often find a bass player and drummer to jam with, but they weren’t really into jazz. Don was, it was the only thing he was interested in, and he would find connections outside our small world. That’s how we wound up in the public housing apartment of a Black kid our age, a bass player named Mickey Bass.*

It was probably about 9p.m., maybe later, when we got there, and as Don and I walked to Mickey’s building, I was astonished to see so many kids still running around, playing  in the courtyard – kids as young as six or seven. Wasn’t it way past their bedtime?

I had led a sheltered life.

What reminded me of this moment was a piece in the FiveThirtyEight section “Science Question From a Toddler” (here).The questions are from kids; the answers are for grown-ups. 


“Why is it bedtime if it’s still light outside?” asked a 5-year old.

The headline phrase “social construct” is what drew me to read the piece, but Maggie Koerth-Baker’s answer rambles through biology, circadian rhythms,“bedtime resistance behaviors,” daylight and darkness, etc. but never uses the term “social construction.” The closest she gets is this:

In 2005, Jenni published a paper in the Journal of Sleep Research critiquing an earlier paper that tried to . . . define childhood insomnia as occurring when a 7-year-old can’t fall asleep by 8:45 p.m. In his critique, Jenni pointed out that this definition ignored the fact that average bedtimes varied widely from country to country. For instance, out of six countries whose data Jenni reviewed, three had bedtime norms that would make a perfectly average 7-year-old a candidate for medication.

If you Google “What bedtime,” it auto-completes to discussions of age-appropriate times (plus a couple of other frequently asked questions not relevant here).


These bedtimes are social norms, of course, and they vary not just from culture to culture but from family to family. Even within families bedtime norms are often the subject of negotiation. Because “bedtime” involves just a few people in an informal setting, it does not become institutionalized like other time norms like university schedules,  (e.g., MW 10:00 - 11:15). I don’t have my copy of The Social Construction of Reality at hand, but I think that Berger and Luckman use “lunchtime” as an example of how a mere agreement between two people – let’s meet for lunch at 1:00 – can become a stone-like reality as it intersects with more and more people and activities. 

What most of these discussion of bedtime miss is not that it is socially constructed and therefore subject to variation but that it is constructed at all. We just assume that every society or family has it. It’s the way we used to think about religion. Beliefs and practices may differ, but everybody has a religion except for a tiny handful of atheists, and they’re weird and don’t really count.

But what if an entire society has not constructed “bedtime”?  What if a culture sees bedtime not as a comforting and necessary construct but as something alien to their basic values?

Tim Parks, an Englishman married to an Italian and living in Verona, came to this realization when he attended a get-together for apartment owners in his condo building. The host’s four-year old son is running through the apartment, crashing into lamps, and raiding the refrigerator. Someone asks Parks about his own son, age two and a half.

    When I reply that Michele is in bed, others at the table show a mixture of awe and concern.
    “You have left him alone in bed at only two and a half?”
    I point out that it’s late for a little boy, and I am just about to go on to say that his bedtime is seven o’clock, when I remember that there is no word or expression to translate “bedtime” into Italian. [emphasis added]

Parks makes his living as a translator. If there were an Italian word for “bedtime,” he would know it. This absence of the word isn’t a failure of the Italian language; instead, it suggests a completely different set of ideas about children. Parks explains:

There is something coercive about the notion of a bedtime. It suggests that there comes a moment when parents actually force their little children to go to bed and will not take no for an answer, something unthinkable in these more indulgent climes. In explanation, I have to say that Michele “habitually goes to bed at seven o’clock,” which gives quite a different impression, and Francesca in particular marvels at what a wonderful little boy my Michele must be, hurrying off to his bed so early, not realizing that I had to pin the chap down for half an hour and more while I sang to him and told stories and said that Mummy would be back very soon, until finally he got more bored than I was and tired of all the crying he’d done and fell asleep. On more than one occasion I have heard such behavior described by Italians as cruelty. [from An Italian Education, 1995]
           
There may have been a bedtime for Bonzo, but not for Renzo

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* Mickey Bass went on to become a professional jazz bassist.  In the early 1970s, he was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (maybe the Pittsburgh connection had something to with it). He has played with Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and other jazz greats.

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