Managing the morning rush
“Never regularly do for a child what a child can do for him or herself.” - Maurice Balson.
Helping children to develop routine habits of self-management in the mornings may not be the monumental task that it first appears. Some families just seem to be able to get everyone out the door on time, while others are always late, always nagging, and always frustrated with their children’s lack of independence. So what’s the secret of these seemingly calm and organised families? It begins with attitude.
A family, regardless of its size or composition, needs to view itself as a team. All members contribute for the good of everyone. Family members rely on each other in a very real way for the daily management of the house and routine. All children above the age of two can be viewed as capable of helping. The expectation that children will help is a significant component of this ‘team’ attitude.
Mother of four, Tania Murphy says, ‘My kids just do their jobs because that’s how it happens in our house. I’ve always expected them to get themselves dressed and they do.’ Children can be shown that cooperation makes life easier for everyone. Homes can become family-centred rather than child-centred.
Many parents have trouble getting their children to carry out simple morning tasks that require a level of independence. It’s easy to fall into the habit of nagging and arguing (and then just doing it for them) in order to keep the peace and get everyone out the door on time.
Author of Great ideas for tired parents, Michael Grose, says, ‘This is a common trap that can be alleviated with a little common sense and determination not to give in for the sake of peace.’ It requires some hard work from the parents initially, but the long-term benefits are for everyone.
Balance the tasks
Grose says, ‘A child’s level of contribution depends on such factors as their age and stage of development and other issues such as level of schooling and outside interests that impacts on their ability to help.’ Look carefully at what you want your child to achieve as part of a self-management routine in the mornings and make sure it matches their level of capability.
For example, children of school age should be able to organise their own school bag. Don’t expect too much too soon – children age five can and should be expected to have their bag in the right place ready for checking. Once that’s habit, add another task like putting their lunchbox in their bag and so on.
List the jobs
Make a list of what has to happen in your house in the mornings and allocate jobs to people. Share this with the children and show them how everyone needs to contribute for the morning to run smoothly. Make a bright, clear roster for children to follow. Keep it very simple if you have trouble with cooperation. You can always add more later when the right attitude starts to set in and task become habit.
In the beginning, look at your own jobs and see if there are a few you can do the night before, so that in the morning you are calmer and not so busy. This will give you a little more time and patience to support younger children with their new routine. (This doesn’t mean doing the jobs for them, rather supporting them as they learn to do it for themselves.)
Break tasks into smaller parts
For some children, ‘Get dressed!’ is simply overwhelming, especially if you’ve always helped them to do it and they’ve never had to do any thinking for themselves. If this is the case, break it down into manageable parts and work slowly up to complete independence.
Have all the clothes ready and ask them to put on their underwear and you’ll help with the rest once underwear has been done independently. Or choose any part of ‘Get dressed!’ that you know they can complete independently and move on from there. Children from about age six should be able to tie their own shoelaces and you should let them!
Recognise and encourage contribution
Some kids love ‘tokens’ and this may work for yours. Stars and stickers on progress charts or rosters might be the way to start with a reluctant child. For some children, just ticking the job off (or wiping it off a whiteboard) can be enough of a reward. But these can wear thin and often have no appeal for older children.
There are many other ways to show that you recognise and appreciate cooperation. Grose suggests that positive comments, such as ‘thanks for your help with the tidying. It really made my job easier’, focus on the contributions kids make to the family. They are then more likely to help in the future when they know their efforts are valued and appreciated.
Don’t forget the impact of non-verbals as well. A smile, a hug, or a ‘thumbs up’ combined with a ‘thanks’ can go a long way towards making everyone feel better. Drop the attitude that children need to be rewarded and praised for doing everyday tasks every time. It will only lead to them saying ‘it’s not worth it’ and all of a sudden the reward bar is raised.
Language and communication
Listen to how you are asking for their cooperation. No one likes being bossed or nagged. If your requests sound cooperative you might be more likely to get cooperation (‘How about we. . .’, ‘and then we can all…’).
Make it clear and simple and one thing at a time for young children. Check that you have their complete attention first. This may mean removing distractions. Turn off the TV, put away the toys. They can play or watch TV as soon as they are dressed, or as soon as they have eaten something, or packed their bag. Be firm here. It won’t take them long to learn to learn cooperative behaviour.
Set an example
As with everything you want your children to learn, one of the best techniques is to be a great role model. Let them see that family members helping each other out is a normal part of your family life. ‘I’ll help you with your bag today. It’s extra heavy on Mondays. You could help me by pushing the stroller.’ Point out any opportunities you see for helpful cooperation and talk about how good it makes everyone feel.
Make a plan
It’s very easy to start out with great determination but quickly slide back into old habits and patterns. To really forge a new routine and new way of going about the mornings, make a plan.
At a time when everyone is calm, sit down as a family and talk about why it’s important. Discuss what’s going wrong and how it impacts on everyone. Talk about a new morning routine and encourage contributions from family members about how to make it work.
Give clear messages about what you want children to do (as opposed to what you don’t want them to do.) Be consistent, firm, but friendly in following it all up. Be quietly determined to keep at it until a new routine becomes the ‘norm’. Human nature will resist change so don’t expect it to happen overnight.
By Adele Amorsen
Useful books and resources
Many good general parenting books have chapters or sections on getting kids to cooperate and developing new family dynamics and routines.
One Step Ahead, by Michael Grose
Provides solutions to behavioural and developmental issues that concern most parents. This and other material can be found at Parenting Ideas.
A Handbook for happy Families, Dr John Irvine, Finch, 2002
The Happy Family, Ken and Elisabeth Mellor, Finch, 2001
Making family life enjoyable.
Rainbow Week Weekly Planner - A brightly coloured magnetic chart with both pictures and words. Developed by a pre-school teacher the rainbow wheel with moveable hand has 67 square picture/word magnets, 67 rectangular individual word magnets, plus blanks and comes in a resealable magnet storage envelope. From Tiptoe Educational Products. Suitable for age 5+.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2007. Updated July 2009.