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May 2009

Ages & Stages

Stop the Chaos! Rely on Routines That Work

By Maureen McElroy, M.A.

"Where's my gym uniform?" 8-year-old Michael shouts downstairs to his mother, Alison, who is gulping coffee, feeding the dog and answering the phone. Meanwhile, 5-year-old Susan spills milk all over the floor. "You're going to be late for school, Michael," screams Mom. "Yikes, another chaotic morning," she thinks, "and it's only Monday!"

Scenes like this occur every morning in thousands of homes across the Washington metropolitan area. Is this chaos inevitable, or can parents bring more order to their homes? While a certain amount of unpredictability and disorder comes with having kids, there is one key that can make order out of chaos--routine.

"Routine is to a child what walls are to a house; it gives boundaries and dimension to his life." This is as true today as it was when Rudolf Dreikurs wrote it, more than 45 years ago. Routines provide structure, security and comfort.

Weekday Morning Routines

Don't battle over clothing: Let a younger child decide between two shirts and two pairs of pants. As she gets older, expand the number of choices and keep school clothes separate from other clothes. Have breakfast after children are dressed. When it's time to go, it's easier to grab an apple to eat on the way than to make a mad dash to get dressed.

Make breakfast easy: Keep milk and cereal in child-friendly containers, teach young children how to use the toaster safely and older kids how to cook eggs and oatmeal.

Read a breakfast story: Linda Jessup, a Silver Spring mother of five, began reading a chapter book aloud in the kitchen at 7 every morning. "When I started, and without my calling them, [the kids] came from every corner of the house." While Jessup read, the kids finished dressing, ate breakfast and cleaned up. "The beauty of this system was that it kept me from nagging, reminding and yelling," she says.

Pack the night before: Make lunches and sign permission slips after dinner so kids can have their backpacks ready at their "launch pad" by the door.
Make a routine chart: Involve your children in its creation (see sidebar), and train them to follow it by focusing on one responsibility at a time. When Suzanne Ritter, of Washington, D.C., was expecting her third child, she knew she needed to get her 7- and 8-year-old boys into a good morning routine. In a parenting class, she learned how to get them to take responsibility for the things they could do. Although it took months, by the time the baby came, the boys had a "Five-Finger Routine," using the fingers of one hand to remember: 1) get dressed, 2) eat breakfast, 3) brush teeth, 4) prep snack and 5) pack bags for afternoon activities.

Dinnertime Routines

Dinnertime with a young family will be calmer and more enjoyable if you control the elements that you can.

Pick a mealtime and stick with it: This might not be possible every day, but keep the time as consistent as you can. When signing up a child for a new activity or team, consider seriously how it will affect the family dinnertime.

Eliminate distractions: Establish a policy that dinnertime is family time, for eating and conversation. That means no television, toys or iPods. For parents, it means no newspapers, phones or BlackBerry. Studies show that children who eat dinner regularly with their families are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs, reason enough to make this important time together a priority.

Bedtime Routines

School-age children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A consistent sleep schedule and a loving, calming bedtime routine will help your child get the sleep she needs. Putting the routine on a chart, as with the morning routine chart, helps kids to stay on task and eases the transition from a busy day to a quiet bedtime.

Set the bedtime and stick to it: Studies show that even on weekends and holidays young children do best with a consistent time for sleep. For older children, experts suggest that bedtime and waking time vary by no more than one hour from the weekday times. If your child doesn't wake easily in the morning, set the bedtime earlier.

Less is more: If tidying up is part of the bedtime routine, remember that fewer toys make for less cleaning. "It's easier for kids to pick up 10 books and put them in a bookshelf with ample room versus 30 books that have to be jammed in an overstuffed bookcase full of toys, books and musical instruments," says Paige Trevor, a professional organizer in the D.C. area and mother of 10- and 12-year-old boys. "The easier the routine is, the more likely your family will follow it."

End with a loving ritual: School-age children usually enjoy reading a story with a parent. Another ritual that encourages connecting is "roses, thorns and buds," when each of you shares the best part of your day ("roses"), the worst part ("thorns") and something you are looking forward to ("buds").
If the idea of routine is new to your family, start simply and build gradually. Over the next few months, as you and your family begin to see your routines take shape, you will experience the structure, security and comfort that every busy family needs.

Maureen McElroy is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). PEP offers parenting classes and workshops for parents and caregivers of kids of all ages. PEP's free workshop, "Why Don't My Kids Listen to Me?" will be on April 10 in Kensington. Visit, or call 301-929-8824 or 703-242-8824 for details.