Every night, about 15 minutes or so after we’ve put my 3-year old daughter to bed, we inevitably hear a knock at the door. She’s typically knocking because she needs to go the bathroom. She’s also knocking because she wants to scope out what we are doing, find out if she is missing anything. One thing that bothers her is if me or my wife leaves the house after she goes to bed. In order to go to sleep she needs some kind of guarantee that we aren’t leaving and are getting read to go to bed just like her. It appears she’s found one–whether me or my wife have gotten changed into our pajamas.
If we come to her door in our pajamas–or at least different clothes (e.g. sweatpants, etc) than when she last saw us–she takes it as a signal that we are in for the night. If we were going out or not going to bed soon we would still be in our regular clothes that we wore earlier. If we haven’t changed, she probes–“why aren’t you in your jammies?” This let’s us know that she suspects we aren’t in for the night. It also means that she will likely spend a fair amount of time looking out her window to see if our cars stay in the driveway before she will settle in and go to sleep. Now, putting on pajamas isn’t that costly of signal–there is nothing stopping us from putting them on and then changing back into regular clothes to leave the house or host guests. (However, in all honestly this isn’t likely to happen.)
The lesson here is that a) the idea of seeking out signals is intuitive for people and we start at a very early age, and b) rather than fight with our daughter about going to bed we might be better served just changing into our pajamas out the outset to demonstrate to her that we aren’t leaving the house, no one is coming over, and we are also getting ready for bed. She may not believe our words, but she seems to believe the signal that she’s identified. Leveraging that signal can lead to better communication and the outcome that we want.