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Habits of the Hearth: Children’s Bedtime Routines as Relational Work

Karen Gainer Sirota

UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families
Working Paper No. 27


Inspired by the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Bellah and his intellectual colleagues embarked upon a penetrating cultural analysis, entitled Habits of the Heart, which identifies and explores aspects of an enduring North American predilection for individualism, a cultural orientation emphasizing autonomy and self-reliance that co-exists in ambivalent tension with an equally essential impulse towards relational communion. Following Tocqueville (1969) and Bellah et al. (1996) in conceptualizing the family as a prime locus for cultivating habitual practices that undergird and mediate oft-times conflicting ‘habits of the heart,’ this discourse analytic study explores children’s bedtime routines as an interactional matrix for apprenticeship and negotiation of relational orientations involving intimacy and autonomy. Analysis is drawn from a corpus of naturalistic videotaped data documenting everyday activities of middle-class dual-earner families in Los Angeles, California.

Building upon prior work on children’s routines in daily interaction as a vehicle for language socialization (e.g., Ervin-Tripp 1967; Corsaro 1988; Peters and Boggs 1986; Schieffelin 1990; Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo 1986), this analysis illustrates how parents and children co-participate in negotiated routines constituting a “discourse of anticipation” that prepares for—yet simultaneously forestalls—the moment of bedtime separation. Embodied activities accompanying these routines additionally are examined as a salient aspect of their deployment.

Impending bedtime transitions commonly are marked and anticipated via parents’ narrated on-line commentaries (i.e., “We’re going to read a story and then we’re going to go to bed”). Children’s responses display a high degree of agency and initiative, contesting, negotiating, and proffering bargains through means of contrapuntal directives (i.e., “Leave the lights on for a few seconds so we can draw”) and counter-requests, often involving relative clause constructions (i.e., “If I close my eyes, will you stay?”). Parents, in turn, may utilize mitigated politeness forms (i.e., “It’s probably time to turn out the light”) and proffer counter-requests of their own (i.e., “I’ll stay here a little bit, but you put your head on your pillow”), thereby co-constructing bargaining routines in concert with their children as apprenticeship opportunities for the development of autonomous self-initiative in tandem with a growing capacity for relational communion with others. Importantly, this analysis illustrates how family members utilize communicative resources to carry out valuable relational work while simultaneously performing, and accomplishing, necessary instrumental tasks of everyday family life.

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