3quarksdaily: MR. NOBODY: How Children Use Metaphor to Get to Sleep, Cope, Grieve and Grow

By Kate Fincke

Over the years I have asked many children how they get to sleep at night. I collect these stories. More often than not, when the children find out about my collection, they ask me to tell them all the stories I know. Secreted in the telling is a point: all children must find a way to put themselves to sleep. While parents may put them to bed, the children alone must drift off. As adults we know that insomnia is commonplace, and we do what we can to fend it off. Children, however, often rail at the realization that despite bedtime stories, snacks, lullabies or back rubs, they are, in the end, on their own. They are frequently bewildered that we cannot make them sleep. Even if adults offer suggestions (the famous sheep counting, or prayers or reading), children must actively choose to invest themselves in the strategy. Often they rebel, refusing all suggestions, insisting they have tried them all, and they just don’t work. 

Their recalcitrance lies in the alone-ness of sleep, the isolation, and the self-reliance. The solution lies in turning away from whomever is tucking them in — away from the hope that they can be accompanied across the threshold of sleep—and turning toward their own creativity. I believe, in the end, that drifting off is a solitary creative act.  

Toddlers, we know, cannot be given their security blankets; they create them.  And for a time, the security blanket soothes and will ferry the child from sleepiness to sleep. As children mature, however, the blanket no longer suffices, and the life of the mind takes over, opening the door to both imagined fears and imagined remedies. At night children commit themselves to the power of imagination. Eight-year-olds find themselves believing in monsters that during daylight hours are ridiculed. In my profession, help often comes in the form of stories —sometimes stories that are made up on the spot by child and therapist together. So when the kids ask to hear my collection of sleep stories, it often goes something like this:

I knew a boy once who was afraid of burglars at night.  He was particularly worried about his window — a natural entry point for bad guys. So when he went to bed, he had his mother tuck him in extra tight so no one could get at him. Then he had her line up his twelve polar bears all around him with the biggest one at his feet and all the rest facing in, watching over him. 

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