It was the most difficult moment of every day.
Yelling, pleading, rushing, nagging, and general frantic running around every weekday morning sapped me of energy. It made me feel witchy. And I realized: I was babying children who were capable of being responsible for themselves.
My daughters were in kindergarten and first grade when we put an end to (most of) the morning madness. Our system still involves three key elements:
1. Kitchen timer
2. List of tasks to be done
3. Reward (and consequence) chart
Here is the chart we are currently using (my daughters are now 7 and 9).
As you can see, we added similarly challenging transitions: unpacking after school and getting ready for bed in time (“in time” meaning 15 minutes, not the two hours it would naturally take two or three kids who have an unbelievable ability to get sidetracked by show tunes, random plastic dinosaurs, bickering about who was using the stool first, making funny faces in the mirror — anything that will delay actually getting into bed).
The chart has a couple of blank lines to add some other behavior we want to work on, such as putting napkins on laps, following directions, flossing, telling the truth, etcetera, etcetera. (I included Saturday and Sunday because sometime we have swim lessons in the morning and we need motivation.)
Here’s how our morning routine works:
1. Parent Gets Self Ready First
Unfortunately this step is crucial if I need to leave the house with the kids. Whenever the captain of the ship thinks she can roll out of bed at the same time as her crew, it always ends badly.
To make this work, I have to wake up 1/2 hour earlier to down my caffeine and get myself ready. This takes real discipline (and ideally a good night’s sleep).
If I don’t have to get out of the door at the same time, I get to sleep an extra half hour. (Our current school bus will pick up my kids in front of our house, so I have to be motivated to get myself and the two little boys dressed so we can walk to school. Like exercising, I always feel better afterwards, but it’s not always easy whipping off those covers when the ground is covered with snow.)
2. Wake Kids and Start the Clock
I wake up my girls at 7:00 a.m. and set the timer for 60 minutes.
Very important: Build in an extra 15 minutes of fudge time. For example, my kids have to be ready by 8:00, but we don’t actually have to leave until 8:15. So if they mess up, we’re never actually late for school.
If they do get ready in the allotted 60 minutes, not only do they get a sticker (more on that later), but they get 15 minutes of free play time.
Note on timers for kids: We originally used a small version of the kind of visual timers that schools use, where kids can see in red how much time is left like a pie being slowly eaten. When our Time Timer mysteriously disappeared, I decided not to plunk down another $30 to replace it, since it was a bit fragile and the alarm sound was so faint and brief. Now we use a regular kitchen timer and that’s just fine.
3. Show What is Expected with a List
Last year we taped to their bedroom wall a list of the items that needed to be done (this year they can do it without the list). For pre-literate children, you could draw or print clip-art pictures of the basic tasks. Here is what our list included:
- Get dressed
- Brush hair
- Eat breakfast
- Brush teeth
- Prepare backpack
4. Build In Chores that Help the Family
With a system in place and plenty of time, I thought, why not throw in a couple of tasks that normal civilized people probably do every day? So onto our list went:
- Make bed
- Straighten up bedroom or living room (Cleaning up a room together caused squabbles about who was doing more or better, so my girls alternate straightening up their bedroom or the living room, which is often just as strewn with toys and craft supplies.)
What a win-win! Not only do I come back home relaxed and peaceful (most days), but our living space is (most days) free of clutter and my kids’ room is neat and tidy.
And amazingly, under those grumbles, I can tell they are proud of how they help me keep the house in order.
5. Use Carrots and Sticks to Motivate
This part is the most inconstant aspect of our routine, as rewards and consequences tend to lose their power as children grow and change. When things start getting a little too crazy and the kids would clearly rather horse around in the morning than get a prize (or punishment), I know it’s time to change things up again.
At first I think we used marbles in a jar. When the marbles reached a line I drew on the jar, the child got a prize we had agreed on. It was pretty big since they needed quite a few marbles to get there. I was in a clutter-hating phase (must have had something to do with living in an apartment in Manhattan), so the prizes were things like one-on-one time with a parent or going somewhere together like the zoo or ice-skating.
Much of this system was inspired by the no-nonsense tome Parent Power, where parenting expert John Rosemond suggests quite strict consequences. Instead of 15 minute time-outs, it was no playing after school (two to three hours alone in one’s room).
I found this to be too hard to keep up over time: the girls tested me and I had to use this punishment quite a few times in the beginning. It was embarrassing to have to cancel playdates and, frankly, painful for me as a parent to be so tough.
This year rewards or consequences alone did not work, so now we do both. If my daughters get ready for school in time, they write a smiley face in the box. After 15 smiley faces, they get a little prize.
I give them books from the Scholastic flyer, tiny animals they love to play with, flavored lip balm, or some other inexpensive thing they are excited about at the time. They are (currently) quite motivated by these prizes.
(Note, if one week ends without reaching the 15 smiley faces — which happens all the time — then we carry over the number of points earned so far by writing a note on the new chart.)
If they don’t get ready in time, then they get an X in that box. Each X is equal to a chore (above their normal chores like setting the table and sweeping after meals). I might ask them to fold laundry, straighten their brother’s room, play with the baby when he’s fussy, rake leaves, etc. When the chore is completed, they get to color in the box.
What I like about chores as consequences is that I win either way. I’d rather they get ready with time to spare, but if they don’t, at least I know that someone else will be sweeping the deck.
Are We Ever Late for School?
Since my third grader has been attending school, we have rarely, if ever, been late.
Are there close calls? Sure. Do I still yell and nag? Yes. Do my daughters spend 30 minutes giggling over breakfast, barely pulling on their boots as the bus pulls up, their beds still unmade and their hair tangly? Yes.
But most of the time, our routine works pretty well. Often the effectiveness depends on how much sleep they’ve gotten the night before, and how motivated they are by the carrots and sticks (which is why we unfortunately have to change ours every so often).
I’ve come to realize that no system is going to work like clockwork every day. Kids are not machines. That’s what makes them both exasperating and absolutely adorable.
And your routine will look different from mine, because personalities are so different. One of my daughters is internally motivated to be responsible and punctual, but her sister is the type to need a partner in crime.
Come to think of it, maybe I should have them get ready separately. Then again, a little bit of craziness is kind-of fun.