I'm a bit exhausted getting my 3 year old daughter through the evening. Getting home, washing hands, sitting at the dinner table, eating dinner, eating fruit, taking a bath, towel drying, drying hair, brushing teeth, flossing, reading stories, going to bed.

Every step is like pulling teeth and she is wandering and wants to do something else.

Tonight I basically just decided to (1) post this question and (2) let her tell me when she is ready to do the steps (we're already done with dinner.)

Is there harm in letting her do this? I asked her to let me know when she wants to do the steps in our nightly routine.

  • As noted in comments on an answer, can you clarify if you're interested in answers focusing on your daughter choosing the time of the routine, or the content of the routine, or both?
    – Joe
    Oct 9, 2014 at 21:18
  • Hi Joe. Timing and content of the routine would be great. Thank you.
    – milesmeow
    Oct 10, 2014 at 4:00

10 Answers 10


3 years old is a prime time for children to assert their independence, developmentally they understand they are separate entities from everyone else.

With some kids, choices are key. Many are extremely motivated to do something as long as it is in their own way.

I would recommend that you don't allow her to decide for herself, but give her meaningful choices. This can involve things like 'do you want to brush your teeth or get a story first?', 'Do you want to brush your teeth naked or in your pajamas?', 'Choose two story books', 'Do you want snack or bath first' and so forth.

Simply decide what is not a choice, such as brushing teeth and bedtime.

I agree with others that you definitely don't need to bathe a toddler everyday, they don't have 'smelly sweating' like adults, and their skin benefits from not getting a bath every day.

The short answer to your question is: No, within limits giving her say in her bedtime routine is empowering and helpful.

  • 3
    Probably a better way of stating this is: Give your child choices, just make sure that each of them are acceptable to you.
    – NotMe
    Oct 10, 2014 at 16:52
  • @Chris or not. If we're going to ask our child to step out of their comfort zone, perhaps we should too.
    – corsiKa
    Oct 10, 2014 at 18:57
  • 1
    @corsiKa: "unacceptable" isn't just about comfort zone, though. Yeah, if you're not a natural performer and your kid wants you to "do the voices" from a book then you're going to have to step outside your comfort zone to give them their choice. If they don't want to go to bed at all night after night, or if they want to sleep on the roof, then boundaries may need to be set ;-) Oct 12, 2014 at 15:03

Giving some freedom won't hurt. But make sure you are confortable with whatever she comes up. Preferably it shouldn't be her deciding, you should come up with an "evening plan" together.

A good trick is to discuss the problem, reach a consensus, and write down what you decided together on a sheet of paper, then hang the sheet somewhere visible. She can't (probably) read, but she will know what is there. And when she, later on, tries to change the routine, you point to the sheet and say "that's not what we decided". This, sometimes, works wonders.

The benefit is that, if you agree on a routine together and it works, you will actually spend less time on the routine and it will be more pleasant. Harm - I don't see one, unless your daughter will try to overuse her newly gained freedom. You have to watch your steps giving it to her;)

  • 2
    +1 for writing it down and hanging it somewhere. That's good for convincing her, but also because you won't ever question weather you might have made a mistake if she doesn't agree.
    – Patrick M
    Oct 8, 2014 at 16:57
  • 4
    Doing it together is key. If you make the sheet with graphic representations instead of words she'll be able to understand it better, and if you use cutouts on a sheet you can both change the order of things easily if she doesn't like the order chosen previously. Oct 8, 2014 at 17:41
  • 2
    While I think this might work on some kids, I think having a choice in daily routine (as opposed to choosing ONE daily routine) might work better for some kids.
    – Ida
    Oct 8, 2014 at 20:19
  • @Ida well, the routine you agree on doesn't have to be very strict, does it? The clue is to come up with it together and write it down. If you decide - and are both comfortable with it, and agreed on it - that there's no routine at all and the kid can do whatever he wants - it's your choice. And at least it's in writing.
    – Dariusz
    Oct 10, 2014 at 11:02
  • +1 for writing it down, as this will motivate the child later to learn to read. She will she that knowing to read is important and useful, and doing so is a way to make a convincing argument.
    – dotancohen
    Oct 11, 2014 at 16:19

The only harm that might come of allowing your child to choose when to get ready for bed is that they might not get enough sleep, and they might develop poor sleep habits. As long as you place a reasonable limit to how late she can choose so she gets plenty of sleep at night, then there's no reason you can't let her choose.

In my experience, however, children become more difficult to work with as they become more tired. If she's used to going to bed at a certain time, and you allow her to go to bed later by her own choice, you may find she's a little more grumpy than usual.

I suggest you cut back on the baths though, and this alone may lighten your load and may make her happier about bedtime. Daily washing can be hard on young skin. Washing faces and hands frequently, and bathing a few times a week is usually enough for toddlers, though there are obviously times when they need a bath. If you believe giving her more control over the process will help, then when she's not obviously dirty, ask her if she wants a bath or not, and let her choose that aspect of the bedtime routine.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is important to develop healthy sleep habits at this age, so take care so she doesn't develop bad habits. Some of their recommendations are found in these two articles:

  • I give my kids unstructured playtime between dinner and bedtime. Dinner is usually long (for a toddler!), and it gives them a bit of a break from having to sit still. I wonder if that's what you're trying to accomplish by giving her a choice to start the next step of the process? It may be better to split dinner apart completely and not consider it part of the bedtime routine.
    – Adam Davis
    Oct 8, 2014 at 15:12

Agreeing on a routine together is important. We have used sticker charts to great effect in our house when if, for example, they go to bed nicely 5 days they get a treat. Then you can focus on the "Next we will do the and let's see if we can do that well too as you might get a sticker tonight" so it's a positive thing. We have found that battling with our children doesn't work nearly as well as a reward based system. Our LO took ages to stop biting his nails; we bought Nailbite gel, told him off, he had sore fingers, but the only thing that worked was saying to him "If you let your nails grow long so we have to cut them you will get a big treat". And it worked. May not work for you but that's fine because every child is different.

  • I think this answer holds a major key to managing kids. You have to be careful they don't develop a resisting attitude to routines and so you have to be careful about how you impose routines. So as you suggested, a "game" system composing of achievements & rewards will motivate them to follow the routine on their own because it's i. rewarding, ii. empowering and maybe iii. fun. At the same time you still have the ultimate control and less stress. Win-Win.
    – a20
    Oct 9, 2014 at 11:02

Some people hate the idea of having to follow a structured routine. I'm not sure how you present the breakdown of the evening to her, but if it's at all an ordered sequence of events, she may simply not care about it or she might want to break out of it. Either way, I'd say the root of the problem is you don't have her 'buy in'. She likely doesn't quite understand why these things need to be done.

Choice is important. It empowers us. I would suggest creating a chart of all the things she needs to do at night, but then let her choose which ones and when, except for bed time. Set that in stone. Not sure how crafty you are, but maybe use magnets on the fridge to represent the different things, and she can reorder them.

She might already understand that brushing teeth comes after dinner and before bed, but if she says she wants to brush her teeth before dinner (or after bed) it's an opportunity to teach and explain to her the rational for the why, ie, we brush our teeth to clean them because they are dirty after eating, and she can't really brush them after she goes to bed, since she'll be in bed.

I would then take it a bit further, and give her some measure of reward. I'm always a fan of words, letting her know how smart she is and how proud you are IF she completes everything before bed time. Words only worked for so long for my son, so I came up with Daddy Coins and have been using them for years to great effect. He uses them to purchase things from me (1 for an extra tuck in, 10 to sleep in my bed, 1 to beat a level for him, 2 for a boss, etc etc). I don't award them when he simply does what is expected of him. I give them when he does something I expect of him that he has struggled with, until it becomes routine, which is quickly after he understands the why. For example, I used to give him 2 coins for sleeping in his own bed. He did that for a few nights in a row, I dropped it down to 1 coin and he still kept at it. Eventually he didn't get any, and at that point he had to spend coins to sleep in my bed.

Also to note, be careful what you expect of her! She is only three. I'd focus more on getting her to understand the reasoning now than I would about simply obeying. It will take time, and if you fight with her every night, she will come to learn that is routine and that is the last thing you want lol.

If it feels like pulling teeth, I suspect she's able to pick up on some of your frustration, so when it feels like that again remember to try to relax. Walking away from an argument with a three year old doesn't mean she has won. I find it harder to parent "correctly" without a clear head, and walking away to simply cool off and take some deep breaths will really help.

If she goes to bed with missing some things, during the tuck in you can express some disappointment that she wasn't able to get everything done tonight, but hopefully tomorrow she will!

Now, unless she always gets real dirty, I doubt she needs to have a bath every day. Also not a big deal to eat fruit before dinner, here is some evidence she would actually get more out of the fruit by eating it first, but they do also make a great dessert!!

In theory, I think it's good for kids to see parents being flexible. I would just keep in mind to make sure they understand you are flexing.

She'll eventually learn that getting everything done is 'right' and will also understand the why, which at the end of the day is what I think is most important.


Children are generally able to handle much more freedom than modern parents give them credit for. Usually a bad result when you first try granting more freedom is due to a lack of practice, out of rebellion more than anything else. Just because a child wants control over her own body doesn't mean she won't tend to make similar choices to the ones you would make for her.

My almost 5 year-old daughter inherited some of my night owl genes, so she chooses to stay up later, but that's okay because she can usually sleep as late as she needs. When she's ready, she goes to sleep completely without complaint. My 10 year-old daughter who has approximately the mental capacity of a 3 year-old due to her cerebral palsy, actually comes and tells us she's ready for bed.

My 7 year-old son is somewhat different. His impulses drive him to stay up all night if we don't intervene, despite how tired he gets, so we tend to be more authoritarian with him. We don't like to do that, but find it necessary due to reasons I'll detail later.

Children have difficulties with freedom in two main areas:

  • Considering medium and long-term consequences of their choices.
  • Considering how their choices affect others.

The first reason is why I consider the job of a parent to be mostly converting long term consequences into short term ones. Kids need hygiene of their bodies and their environment. They need a certain amount of sleep in order to be healthy and happy. However, there's no obvious short term benefit to attending to those needs.

The way we handled those long term needs while still giving our kids as much freedom as possible is we made a list (with pictures) of all the things that need to be part of their bedtime routine, but we let them choose the order it's done, and give them wide leeway in how long it takes.

If your daughter still needs help with part of her bedtime routine, like brushing her hair, it's okay to impose more restrictions on those parts, because those parts affect you too. Children often realize intuitively, and others can be taught, that involving others necessitates some compromises. In other words, it's easier for them to accept some loss of control in those areas.

We keep the time reasonable with a consequence. After their bedtime routine, we have a family quiet time where we have a religious message and a family prayer, then if there's time we watch something funny like AFV. The kids really enjoy all of it. If they take too long with their bedtime routine, then they miss out on part or all of that family time.

The reason I feel comfortable imposing a consequence like that is because of the second difficulty with freedom. Making other people wait for family time is a choice that affects other people. Not letting parents have some quiet time after the kids' bedtime is a choice that affects other people, which is why I insist my daughter leave us alone after bedtime even though I don't insist she go to sleep right away.

That's also the reason we make my son actually lie down and try to sleep even when we don't force the other kids. The extremity of what he would choose for himself throws off the entire family's schedule the next day, and the resultant grumpiness throws off the entire family's mood the next day. We can handle a child sleeping an hour longer. We can't handle a hyperactive child being tired all day. If he could handle staying up all night without affecting the rest of the family, we would let him do it.

A lot of families have more strict morning routines than we do. They have to be to school or work at a certain time. That pretty much necessitates everyone going to bed at a certain time. That's an okay freedom to restrict on your children, because their choice affects others. It also happens to restrict the adults' freedom, but for some reason a lot of parents don't think of it that way.

However, you can still negotiate some leeway, and find a way to say yes. "Okay, you can stay up for an hour if you don't interrupt my quiet time, and if you can show me it won't be any more difficult to get you ready to leave in the morning." One of two things will happen: you will prove them wrong or they will prove you wrong. If you prove them wrong, they'll usually be much more willing to abide by the rules, which is worth the price of one or two difficult mornings. If they prove you wrong, you've both learned something wonderful and will be happier for it.

You asked about the benefit of giving a 3 year-old more control over her bedtime routine. The benefit is people are much more willing to do things they have more autonomy over. You'll have fewer power struggles and still be getting most of what you want. Also, I haven't parented teens yet, but I've heard from others that giving their children more freedom earlier eased the teen power struggles later on. Ironically, the best way to control children is often trusting them to control themselves.


I personally don't think there is any harm. There may even be benefits, especially when she is older. It starts the idea of respect and independence, generally not something you work on with a three year old, but I don't think there is nothing wrong with that.

I would take on the advice of others allow leeway as long as she understands the repercussions. For example if she doesn't want a Bath one evening because she wants to play with her toys more, or have a longer reading period. She has to have a bath the following morning which means she will have to be up earlier and have less time to play with her toys in the morning, watch TV or even miss out on treats and trips if she doesn't follow the routine in the morning. With that in mind still set ground rules of what is and isn't movable. For instance teeth brushing can never be delayed or missed out on, to still instill the importance of some tasks.


We've considered this for my three year old (and will probably think more about this for my 18 month old, as he's just lost his crib rail). We had all sorts of problems with his bedtimes, probably as bad as what you describe, even back at 18-24 months.

What we realized over time was that his schedule wasn't centered on the times that we'd like. It seems that he operates on a 26 hour schedule (or so). That of course isn't really feasible (though I haven't ruled out the 28 hour day (note: crude humor along with the information) in the long run, though I doubt it), so instead we basically live with him sleeping a bit less than he probably should, and try to make up by keeping him on a nap schedule. This is basically what you're asking, if I interpret your real question correctly: is it okay for a child to go to bed later, if that's what seems to work for the child.

It's worked very well for us; he rarely has issues with going to bed now, and generally doesn't seem to have any obvious sleep deficiencies. He falls asleep around 10 or 10:30 each night, wakes up at around 7, for 9 or thereabouts hours a night. We let him have an extra hour on the weekend, but it's important not to let it go later than that as it can mess up his internal rhythms. He also takes a 2 hour nap most days, and that's the key to making this work: making sure that nap happens. 9 hours is too little for a 3 year old, but 11 is well within reason, and on days where he doesn't nap it's obvious in his behavior later in the day.

Secondly, if yours is a two income household (or single parent), you might want to consider whether part of bedtime issues is that your child wants to spend some time with you. Wandering and making it take longer might well be a way to try and extend mommy/daddy time. We definitely found this helped; when I was able to start walking my kids home from daycare (rather than driving from a further away one), that added quality time alone helped things at bedtime, as they felt they were having more daddy time. If you can figure out how to add an hour or so of quality time into the nightly routine, that could be a significant boost and might save you time from the rest of it.

  • I think that you have a point regarding wanting to spend more time with us. We are a two income family and she's in someone else's care all day.
    – milesmeow
    Oct 10, 2014 at 4:23

You can't let children do whatever they want to do because they don't know what needs to be done...that's why they are children.

That you even ask the question suggest that you think of the child as just a small adult, able to balance conflicting desires, understand long term consequences and make decisions leading to an optimal outcome. Well, they can't, that' why they are children.

Fixed schedules and routines are important because children like repetition. That is why they watch the same movie over and over and over again, until you shoot out the TV. Children like repetition because they are learning and repetition is how we learn. Learning means being able to predict what happens next. Repeating rituals like a bedtime ritual, helps children understand what will come next and what needs to be done. It allows them to predict the sequence of steps to bedtime.

The problem with the "terrible twos" is that children reach the point where they can hold two conflicting desires in their mind at the same time. But they haven't yet learned how to choose between them. They want desperately to fall asleep and want equally desperately to stay awake. An adult knows, after decades of experience and years of brain growth, that they must pick one so they do. The child does not understand they must choose and they don't even know how. The more choices they face, the worse the clash of desires they experience is.

The biggest mistake a parent can make is trying to give the child more choices in a desperate attempt to find something that will make the child happy. It doesn't work because the child wants everything at once and that causes internal emotional conflict. Adding yet more options for things the child wants just adds more turmoil.

Children need to learn to choose but only in controlled doses. Don't ever child more than two choices at a time. Preferably, give the child only one choice between to desires at any one event e.g at dinner, they cannot choose anything on the entree but they can choose between a cookie or ice cream for desert.

Also, remember that children are innocent only in the sense of understanding the morality of their action. In fact, they are highly manipulative and observant of your reactions. They will try to control you, after all their survival my depend on it. If you let them succeed in misbehavior, it will simply provoke more as the child tries to test the limits of your indulgence.

So, in the main, yes it wrong to let a child's resistance derail an evening ritual of necessary task. Everybody has their off days or perhaps the child is angry or afraid because of some reason, valid or invalid. You may never know what happened but if you let her bully her way out of a necessary routine, she will do so again and again to try and gain more control over her environment, while not understanding the long term consequences.

If a child suddenly develops a pattern of misbehavior then their maybe something needing investigation but usually it's just the child's inner conflicting desires combined with testing her manipulation of you. The best response is to force the ritual schedule through. In most cases, the ritual needs to be done for health and safety anyway.

I add lastly that walking children through these daily rituals is one of the core functions of a parent. You need to pay attention to the child, observing them closely all the time for reactions. You just can't "phone it in." Children enjoy interacting with their parents and they resent if they don't have your attention. That will be the more so if they don't see much of you.


Part of raising a healthy (behavior-wise) child is finding that happy medium between allowing them assert some independence, but at the same time teaching them that they must operate within a particular boundary. Just like I can't pick my start time for work, they can't pick their bedtime. But I can choose things like my route, what I wear, the color of my shirt, etc. Allow them to choose things that are inconsequential to you -- ie does it matter which they do first between brushing their teeth or reading, or whatever -- so you give them choice which gives them some control (which is really what they want), but you control the import things -- like the fact that the teeth DO get brushed, and they get a bath, etc.

My wife and I discussed those kinds of things at great length for years as our kids were growing up, and we feel that we did pretty well. Now they are 10 and 13, and we don't even have to tell them to go to bed anymore. It's just something they know they have to do. But they also can choose all other aspects, like what they wear (undies or pajamas, etc), which blanket they use, whether or not they open their windows (weather and A/C permitting), etc.

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