I remember the days when getting ready for school resembled a spoof on a boot-camp exercise. I was the reluctant drill sergeant trying to direct two giggling ornery monkeys.
Virginia was starting kindergarten, and Sofia was beginning first grade in a new school. We had just moved to New York, Mark was still a newborn, and I was adjusting to the noise and cement. Even though raising children in the big city was unusual in many ways, kids still had be at school on time, lined up on the asphalt playground at P.S. 183 when the bell rang at 8:25 a.m.
Since I started writing about unspoiling kids, people have been asking about how we manage our family chores. Ours started here: getting ready for school.
Asking children to take care of themselves — on schedule — is a perfect way to start teaching responsibility. Once kids can be counted on to do basic self-care tasks, like getting dressed and brushing teeth, they can move on to jobs that help the whole family.
It dawned on me that asking my kids to be responsible for themselves might be a good idea when our mornings were like mutiny in the barracks. “It’s 7:45, you guys should be done with your cereal by now!” I would say, when I realized there were two girls in their pajamas at the breakfast table, laughing and telling elaborate stories involving potty words and dogs jumping off skyscrapers.
“Sofia! Did you brush your teeth?” I would yell down the hall as I was changing Mark’s diaper. Besides exhausting myself trying to herd them out at the right time, I would come back to a house strewn with toys, last night’s craft projects, and dirty breakfast dishes.
Maybe it was having a new baby that made me realize I was also babying two competent kids. By not expecting much of them, they didn’t expect anything of themselves. In fact, it seemed that their job was to spend as much time resisting my efforts as possible.
First Kids Learn to Care for Themselves, then For Others
Here is the original checklist that marked the beginning of our journey toward a system of family chores. This simple task list, taped to the girls’ bedroom wall by the door, marked the beginning of expecting my children to start acting their age. By this time Virginia could read, but the same checklist could be made with pictures (as I’m doing for Mark who is starting pre-K in a few weeks, which you can see below).
The girls were expected to complete each task on the list in 45 minutes, without reminding or pushing on my part. A visual timer, like the Time Timer which shows in red how much time is left, helped them understand the passing of time before they learned to read a clock. I allowed a 15-minute cushion, so that if they weren’t ready, they had time to whip into shape and we wouldn’t be late.
Both Rewards and Consequences Work For Us
How did we enforce the system? First I imposed pretty serious consequences, like no playing after school, or going to bed right after dinner. Inspired by the book Parent Power, a pretty hard-core yet valuable book on discipline and raising responsible kids, I eventually found a policy that worked for me. You may remember the system of rewards and consequences that I explained in Getting Ready for School in Time — Every Day.
In the girls’ preschool years before this, I had experimented with carrots and sticks. At first I thought that kids should not be rewarded for behavior that I felt was normal. But then life became sour and negative, too much about punishments, chores, and frowns. So then I experimented with just giving rewards for good behavior. For example, the girls would drop a marble in a jar every time they got ready for bed by themselves. When the marbles reached a line I drew on the jar, they would get a prize.
But as I explained in The Chores and Allowance Question: Why We Shouldn’t Pay Our Kids to Help, kids aren’t always motivated by the marble, trinket, or coin. So in the end, I found that a system involving both a carrot and a stick works the best. If they do what is expected, they get a sticker or smiley face which add up to prizes. If they don’t do what is expected, they get an X which translates into a same-day consequence. (If you haven’t already, you can see and print our rewards chart.)
My daughters are now 10 and 8 and even though the types of rewards and consequences change over the years, according to their age and what matters to them, this system is still going strong in our household.
For Preschoolers, Try Charts with Pictures
Here is the chart I just made up for Mark, who is four years old and about to start pre-K at the elementary school. He doesn’t read yet, but I included words so that eventually he might start to associate the images with the language.
It’s not pretty — but it gets the idea across. If my daughters were not at their grandparents’ house now, I would have had them draw the pictures, because I love hand-made stuff much better than anything I can find ready-made.
There are plenty of chore charts out there, and neat magnetic tables and beautiful printable posters. But because every family has unique habits, I have found that using pre-made systems never works just right. In the rare case that your child needs to do the same things Mark does (or you want to customize our chart for your purposes), you can download them here:
How to Make Your Own Morning Routine Checklist
If you want to make your own, you could do it with pencil and paper, or with images cut and pasted from magazines, or you could have your child draw pictures and write the steps. Since I was feeling particularly uncreative today, I made mine on the computer with clip art and then had Mark color it in (which he loved so much that I had to print one for Luke).
Setting up systems that work for your family take a little time and thought. But the relatively small amount of effort (Mark’s chart took me 45 minutes to create) leads to enormous benefits. Not only do we parents get a smoother morning, a neater house, and a peaceful trip to school, but we give our kids the chance to prove themselves, to earn their self-confidence, and to learn some of the basics of being a successful adult.
Have you already started school yet? How are you managing the morning rush?