Back in August, a few weeks before school started here in Chicago, I read this post on one of my favorite blogs, Christine Carter’s Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids (in which she uses scientific research to back up everything I happen to believe about parenting!). Christine was writing about ways she was planning to get her girls prepared for the necessary routines of school, such as getting out of the house on time each morning.
Now, my kids weren’t going to be challenged by getting up earlier for school because they appear to be the only children in America who maintain their usual sleep schedule in the summer – no staying up later at night, no sleeping later in the morning. This was not our preference, it’s just the way they are hard-wired. However, I did know it was going to be a stretch to fit in everything that needed doing in the mornings; there would be no sitting in our pajamas watching Curious George at 8am. And I also knew that Lyle had never experienced the morning rush, lucky little man, and so this would be a big change. I share Christine Carter’s belief that “family happiness is all about being in good habits so that we don’t have to beg and bribe our kids to do routine things, like brush their teeth. I want my family to be like a well-run school: kids are in the habit of washing their hands, helping out, putting their things away.” I couldn’t have said that better myself if I’d tried.
I took her cue and that night, Matt, the boys and I sat down after dinner and discussed it. Although both kids approached the new school year with some anxiety and ambivalence, they were interested in what was going to be expected of them, and they always love to be part of the creation of family rules and routines. I think most kids do because it gives them the sense that they are important members of the family and they gain a sense of ownership about their lives. We talked through what needs to be done before and after school, and made decisions as a family – such as coming up with the idea that this year we would try making lunches after dinner to take that job off the busy morning list (a huge help – they make their own lunches every night, as pictured above). I wrote a draft of our ideas as we talked and once we’d all agreed to the routines, I typed them up. All of them are posted on the refrigerator and the before school list is also posted in their room.
To give you an idea, here is their list of expectations for independent tasks to be completed each school morning, in kindergarten & fourth grade:
- Get dressed – is it gym day?
- Straighten out bed
- Eat breakfast
- Clear dishes
- Wash hands & face
- Brush teeth
- Put your lunch in backpack
- Is everything in your backpack? (Lunch & drink, Folder with homework, Agenda book, School books – each one is broken down on its own line)
- Use the bathroom
- Put your jacket and shoes on
- Be ready to go by 8:15!
The after school and after dinner lists are much shorter but no less clear and sequential. The boys come home and they know that after their snack the first order of business is to unpack their backpacks, empty their lunchboxes, and get their homework done before anything else can happen. There is no reward for doing what we all call their “responsibilities”; they are not tied to an allowance and we don’t praise the kids overmuch for taking care of them all. At times we certainly note that they are doing great taking care of things all by themselves, but the expectation is clear: this is what you do as part of the family, and we expect you to do it all the time, just as we adults do the grocery shopping, prepare meals, and clean. Sure enough, from Day One, there have been no problems. Of course, on occasion someone gets distracted and starts playing while the clock ticks down towards the school day, but rather than harping on him to brush his teeth, we can simply ask him to check his responsibility list and we all move on.
For Baxter, our older son, this is really no big deal. He could’ve done it a lot sooner, but we didn’t think of it; probably, in part, this is because Lyle wasn’t on the same schedule and things weren’t as streamlined as they are this year. Baxter was previously in the habit of sitting down with a Harry Potter book in between every step of his morning routine, which was highly irritating to us as we raced through the morning, but this has completely stopped. I thought it might be a stretch for Lyle to follow these routines, but he loves taking care of things independently. This week he’s even getting out a crayon and running back to the fridge to enthusiastically check jobs off as he does them, just for fun. Yesterday he recited the entire 11-step morning responsibility list to me during breakfast, so proud that he knew the routine by heart. He clearly feels like a very big kid to be doing these things and going to kindergarten, and he’s embraced all of it. For us, it has taken much stress out of our mornings in particular, not to have to call out reminders and stay on top of everything the kids are doing. It allows us to get ready for work and get everyone out the door on time, which is happening every day as a matter of course instead of being a rare occurrence.
I can easily imagine a parent thinking, This is way too structured for me – I like more spontaneity and fun in my home! I might lean towards that philosophy myself if I hadn’t tried it. To this parent, I want to say that by turning these uninspired (but necessary) chores into smoothly sequenced routines, we get the “work” done faster and there is little to no discussion or arguing about them. This leaves a whole lot more time for fun and games around here – and we’re all in better moods, too.
I believe firmly that by putting these expectations into place as early as a child is ready – and by keeping the responsibilities reasonable and appropriate for each child’s developmental level – it’s possible to instill a sense of pride and a certain level of habitual independence in a child than what can be achieved if started later on.