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Children and parents at bedtime: Physical closeness during the rituals of separation

Lella Gandini, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In families with young children, bedtime is widely experienced as a difficult and draining task. This study examines the relationships and interactions that emerge at bedtime between children two-to-five years old and their parents. In particular it focuses on the physical closeness they exchange in mediating difficulties or potential difficulties at bedtime.^ A review of cross-cultural and of historical studies of childhood shows that the problematic nature of children's bedtime is itself a modern western phenomenon. Where there are no separate sleeping quarters, there is no clearly defined period in the daily cycle set aside as children's bedtime. Seen thus as a modern problem, and in terms of child development, bedtime is a form of separation.^ This comparative study utilizes a quantitative approach in two separate cultural communities, one in the United States and one in Italy. The method involved the formulation, distribution, and analysis of a questionnaire filled out by the parents of 468 children: 208 in Amherst-Northampton, Massachusetts and 260 in Pistoia, Tuscany. The behavior described in responses to the questionnaire was grouped into four categories: direct physical closeness, indirect physical closeness, surrogate to physical closeness, and child difficulties at separation.^ The results show that the two-year-old children tended to get more physical closeness, the most difficult age that emerged was three, while the five-year olds tended to be less demanding. They were receiving more indirect and more surrogate physical closeness than direct physical closeness.^ The cultural differences proved more striking than those related to age. Parents in the American sample tended to put their children to bed earlier, to make more use of certain forms of indirect physical closeness (reading) and to make more use of surrogate to physical closeness (leaving the light on, giving the child a soft toy).^ The examination of family interaction during the preparations of young children for sleep, an aspect of social development as yet little explored, is in fact a study in "attachment and separation". ^

Subject Area

Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Gandini, Lella, "Children and parents at bedtime: Physical closeness during the rituals of separation" (1988). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8906282.