As a child, I read in the dark every single night of my life for as long as I had a scheduled bedtime. Long after my parents said goodnight and flicked off the switch, I angled the pages of my book to catch the light from the hallway. I read in bed, in secret, tucking the book under my covers and feigning sleep if I heard footfalls on the stairs. I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more, and then I woke up at dawn and read some more.
As far as I can tell, my reading-in-the-dark habit had no ill effects. While it’s true that I eventually did need glasses, I got my first pair my early 20s, with only a mild prescription, and no ophthalmologist ever suggested that my minor vision problems were the result of contraband reading. I was a model student. I had plenty of energy, if my parents’ accounts are to be believed. And I find it difficult to imagine that all those extra hours upon hours of communing with books weren’t at least slightly beneficial to my current career as a writer.
Which may just be why a little part of me dies inside each time I remove a book from Rowan’s hands at, say, 10:13 p.m. on a school night.
It’s one of those parenting conundrums: Why do I discourage in him the very same habits that I adore about my own childhood self? Why do I ask him to stop reading in the dark when I argue that reading in the dark may well have made me a better writer?
Partly, I want him to get a good night’s sleep. Partly, by 10:13 p.m. on a school night I’m usually ready to go to sleep myself, secure in the knowledge that no child is still awake. (Partly, I just want to watch the next episode of Mad Men.) Partly, I suppose, because somewhere in me there still lingers the idea that “bedtime is bedtime,” even as I can see that there will be a time not too far in the future where my kids will put themselves to bed whenever they’re tired enough to do so.
Still, why not just let him read, now? Why not just keep the lights on and let him self-regulate and go to sleep when he’s good and ready, tiptoe in and gently take the book from his sleeping hands and pull up the covers the way I occasionally do already?
These are all good questions, ones that I imagine we’ll return to again and again over the next few years. But in the meantime, I’m thinking about the deliciousness of reading under the covers, about that sense of mystery and excitement of getting away with it, huddled like Harriet the Spy with her flashlight, half-listening for your parents’ footsteps while devouring a book. I’m thinking about falling asleep with a story running through your brain. I’m thinking about waking up and not quite realizing that someone has turned off your light and put your book gently on your nightstand and pulled up your covers and maybe even kissed you quietly on your forehead. I’m thinking of the role I played as a kid, and now the role I play as a grown-up. There’s something about acting out these essential parts of childhood with my own sons that makes me feel as though we’re creating a larger story together.
So, for now, the official house rule is that bedtime is bedtime. But the subtext is — always — more complicated.