Did you make a New Year's resolution to invite more calm into your family life this year? Congratulations, you are one of the many parents who are feeling like a frenetic chicken running around with our heads cut off and who want the chaos to stop!
If you want more namaste in your family life, my recommendation is that you put your energies into tackling better family routines. I consider this to be one of the master skills of parenting, and it's so worth the investment! Here are the top pointers on why routines are important and how to set them up and enforce them.
Why routines are so important
Routines are predictable and consistent, which make us feel safe. First we hang up coats, then we put our boots on the mat and then we wash our hands before snack. We are safe! In doing so, we can predict what happens next and we know what we're supposed to do. There are no surprises nor potential dangers now that we know this sequence, so now we can relax and turn off our stress response.
According to a 2012 study published in the journal Sage, there's a correlation between chaotic homes and behavioural problems in children.
And researchers at the University of Louisville, Columbia University, New York University, and Virginia Polytechic Institute found that the more chaotic a family's life is (in which household chaos is defined by disorganization, lack of routine, excessive noise, crowdedness, and an overly fast pace), the more likely their kids will encounter a string of issues, including smaller vocabularies, lower IQs, more stress, higher levels of aggression, poorer sleep patterns, less positive relationships with parents and siblings, and worse overall health.
The reality is that most of us default to the routine of yelling at the kids to get out of the damn bath, beg them to put on their pyjamas, and then negotiate on whether we read one or 10 bedtime stories. The fact is, we as parents are largely inconsistent and unpredictable in establishing and maintaining routines, and our children's bad behaviour proves this.
Tips for setting up new routines
1. Start small and be consistent
I can't stress this point enough. Just pick one simple routine you want to work on and don't tackle any others until this one is going smoothly. A good starting point might be clearing your plate from the dinner table, scrapping the leftovers into the compost, rinsing your plate in the sink and placing it in the dishwasher. Don't tackle your biggest issues first.
2. Take time for training
Don't assume your kids know how to do everything — sometimes, they must be taught. Scraping a plate takes some dexterity. Knowing the best way to load a dishwasher takes experience. Help them practice and learn what is expected. Your mindset should be that of a patient teacher instead of cursing them for being sloppy and doing things wrong.
3. Invite children to participate in routine-setting
Children are more likely to be co-operative if they feel they had some say in the rules and routines they are expected to live by. Of course this is an age-dependent factor, but live by the rule that the more say they have, the more co-operation you'll likely get.
My children once requested a change to the family routine: They wanted to have private reading time before the family bedtime stories. So, we adjusted our timing accordingly so lights out was still at the same time.
Some families may prefer to take turns clearing the table, so instead of everyone looking after their own plate each night, each person has a turn doing all the clearing. There is no right or wrong way, only that you decide together and are consistent in living by the routines you've chosen together.
How to enforce the routines
We're all good at setting routines, but get frustrated when our children don't comply. Here are three fast ways to hold them accountable:
1. Natural consequences
What would happen if we did nothing? If their dinner plate is still on the table when breakfast is being served, you can say, "I would love to serve you breakfast, but there is a dinner plate in the way." The reality of their need to look after their plate will come to light and then they can hustle to get it in the dishwasher.
2. Logical consequences
You can also create a consequence, either on your own or with your older children. Simply ask them to help you come up with an appropriate consequence. For example, you could say, "We all know we are supposed to clear our plates from the table after dinner. What should happen if someone doesn't do their job?" Make sure the consequence is related (logical) to the behaviour.
"When ___," and "then ___" statements replace threats and yelling. Simply state the routine and the order that must be followed: When your dish is cleared from the dinner table, then I know you're ready for playing cards. When your pyjamas are on then I know you're ready for stories.
Use the clock or timer to keep the routine on schedule. "I'm sorry, you pyjamas aren't on, but the clock says tuck-in time is over. There is no time left for stories. Tomorrow night we can try again and see if we can move faster through the routine to ensure we get story time." (Learn about how to de-escalate temper tantrums here. You may need it.)
What to do if you aren't getting anywhere
If you're thinking to yourself, "I've been there, done that but with no success," then here are five key questions to ask yourself:
- Have I been totally consistent?
- Have I been persistent? Don't give up too soon!
- Am I in a power struggle? Kids won't comply to routines if they perceive you as being controlling.
- Have I made too many routines? If your house feels like a military regime, your children may rebel quietly or overtly.
- Who can I turn to for help?
There is always more to learn about raising kids. Don't get overwhelmed, just recognize that it's one of the best investments of your time. If you need more help with your parenting I recommend you move in ascending order from the most generic to the most expensive, but also the most in-depth. Ask your pediatrician for recommendations of other resources in your neighborhood. These can include:
- Parenting books or podcasts
- Parenting classes with trained facilitators and peer support
- Parent-coach 1-1 help (by phone, Skype or in person)
- Family counselling
Also on HuffPost: