There is a tendency to portray the bedtime of small children as something idyllic: warm milk, brief books read aloud from memory, the tucking in, the easy descent to slumber, the uninterrupted rest following, the sweet dreams. And there is without doubt a specific holiness in the quiet of a room where a child sleeps—once the child of a certain age is truly asleep and no longer occupied by fear-of-missing-out should she close her eyes.

I have come to know this time of night in toddlerhood as the managed period during which a myriad of things happen: the brushing of teeth, the changing into pajamas, the kicking of sisters, the hiding of fruit-snacks under pillows (and once a tin of sardines), the disastrous acquisition of a hangnail, the loss of a stuffed penguin whose importance is immeasurable, the need for another tinkle, the theft of a pillow, the taking of inhalers, the request for a Band-Aid on an invisible knee-cut that really really hurts, the extra glass of water, the desire for another back-pat or one last hug. The sweet quiet is reached through the deliberate labor of a Moses of a parent: the parted Red Sea of the bedtime itself, its tempest and power, the holding up of tired arms longer than they should be aloft.

We all play our set roles in this nightly drama, knowing we will fill them as though they were written for us. It is its own ritual that soothes us in simplicity and repetition. There are many times when it works as well on me as it works on them, and I am asleep before 8:30.

As much as the things we do at bedtime, it’s the things we say that settle us. Two of the things we say repeat my childhood bedtimes, and one of them is hardly older than iTunes.

We say together the early eighteenth-century prayer Now I Lay Me, asking God to bless our family, friends, neighbors, teachers, aunts and uncles and cousins, and, if the younger one is alert, “five dogs, five ones of them.” We pray the Lord our souls to keep, to watch and guide and wake us.

We say the Lord’s Prayer—which they both lisp through with abundant malapropism.

On some nights I feel us all lifted out of the whining, the toilet talk, the hours of “why?,” the normal bumps on the way of growing in wisdom and stature. On others, I feel a modicum or abundance of defeat while they fuss. On still others, I imagine the hundreds of years of bedtimes before us when the same prayer was said in the same words by people whose hearts work in the same ways ours do, and I glimpse a perspective in which I find comfort for them and for me. Their little minds are soaking in words and thoughts that I know will ground them as much as or more than any other gift I can give them.

But it’s in a decade-old song by Renee & Jeremy that we end every night as I sit on the floor patting one of their backs at a time and singing. The song is hardly older than they are:

I will be your home,
I will be your guide.
I will be your friend,
Always on your side.
Sleep now in your room,
Quiet in the night,
Surrounded by the moon,
Till you see the light.

It is not twenty seconds long, and I sing it from after we pray until they fall asleep. Two minutes, five minutes, maybe as long as fifteen or twenty minutes on a few hard nights. My older daughter sings along with me now, and her sister mostly squirms rather than joining in.

I will be your home,
I will be your guide.
I will be your friend,
Always on your side.
Sleep now in your room,
Quiet in the night,
Surrounded by the moon,
Till you see the light.

Monastics and soldiers alike know that the repetition of a phrase while singing prints it onto the heart in ways that change a person. In five and a half years of bedtimes, I think the song changes me most of all into someone who will sing the same eight lines with patience until they take their effect—like the old lullabies before them. I am by nature tenacious but not generally patient, and this is a change in a good direction.

I am traditional enough in my ideas of parenting to bristle a little at singing “I will be your friend” to children their age, except that that is couched in the future tense. They have still and all a father who will always be on their side, who tries to be their guide, who wants to be their home. In the fullness of time, perhaps “I will be your friend” develops in ways that make good sense. And so we keep singing on our nights together, as we did tonight:

I will be your home,
I will be your guide.
I will be your friend,
Always on your side.
Sleep now in your room,
Quiet in the night,
Surrounded by the moon,
Till you see the light.

The day had been its blessing. We swam, ate, played, went to a museum, shared pizza with friends. The girls climbed on me as they do furniture, and punched one another over the perception of an unequal distribution of Fruit Roll-Ups. Everyone emerged unscathed in a general sense, and I have a good hope of the morning.

The song has worked its magic again, and they are both asleep: one in her bed in the pajamas she now calls her “kitty jams” because of the cats on them, the other clad in elephant prints in her bed and snoring as though she has a trunk rather than a nose. The secular lullaby is over, and our place is still for now. It is good to just keep singing.