Family life

Changing up the morning routine

Morning routines have become a bit of a battleground in Susan Goldberg's house.

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Susan creates a morning routine calendar to get her family moving. Photo: Susan Goldberg

Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

We generally have great mornings at our house, with everyone up and dressed and fed in enough time to get to school. Our mornings have been great enough that Rachel and I have remarked on them as a bright spot in our parenting: no matter what else happened, we could count on the fact that we weren’t those frazzled mothers careening madly into the school parking lot at 10 minutes past the bell, tearstained kids eating breakfast bars in the backseat.

We shouldn’t have tempted fate.

Because recently, our mornings had started to deteriorate. Nothing major, just a slow slide into nagging and cajoling that inevitably ended in frustration: Come down for breakfast. Did you hear me? Breakfast is ready? Can you eat a bit faster? Do you have to leave your dishes on the table? OK, it’s time to get dressed. It’s time to get dressed. Can you please get dressed? We’re going to be late. Pajamas away — hands to yourself— and when I said “pajamas away” I didn’t mean your floor, I meant in the drawer!

Did you make your bed? It doesn’t look like you made your bed! We’re going to be late. Get out of his room, please. I said get out of his room, please, and brush your teeth, and — and can get the toothpaste on your toothbrush and not all over the bathroom counter, and it’s 8:13 and where your mittens? Did you bring them home from school yesterday? We’re going to be late! We are officially late.

And so on.

After too many mornings where the nagging turned into yelling, and the yelling into fights and tears, it was clear that we needed something to get back on track. But how?

Read more: Tips to get your slowpoke kids moving >

Enter the checklist: a couple of years ago, I had made up an Excel spreadsheet that detailed the various tasks for the kids each morning. I printed off an updated version. We added an incentive: for every morning the kids made it through the list and out the door on time, they’d get an extra five minutes of iPod on the weekend.

But that was only half the battle. The real fly in the ointment — I will admit freely — was the parental nagging. My kids know perfectly well what has to get done every morning. But with me and Rachel micromanaging and nagging them through every step of it, they had abandoned any responsibility for getting themselves ready. Why bother, when mom was keeping close tabs on everything? The second half of the equation involved giving agency back to Rowan and Isaac.

“I’m going to try really hard not to nag you in the mornings,” I told them both. “You don’t like it, and I don’t like it either. You know what you have to do, so it’s up to you to get it done. And if you’re late, you’re late. That’s your choice.”

And then, we put the plan in action. Here’s the blow-by-blow of the first week or so:

Day 1: The first day of the new regime and Rowan emerges from his bedroom at 7:30 a.m. already dressed and with his bed made, hairbrush in hand. He gets through every item on the checklist in record time and, in a flash of inspiration, I tell him that if he practices piano before school that he can have a bonus five minutes of iPod time on the weekend. Both kids are out the door and happy by 8:15 a.m. Rachel and I high-five each other, and resolve to stay the course. It’s easy when things are going well to abandon the system. Conversely, it’s easy to ditch the system at the first sign of a hiccup.

Day 2: Coincidentally, a Monday morning. Rachel shakes me awake at 7:30 a.m. — we’ve all managed to sleep in. Rowan wakes up cranky and tells me that he doesn’t like the chart and isn’t going to do it any more.

“OK,” I respond, managing to rein in the urge I have to argue with him. “That’s your choice. The chart is just there to help you get yourself ready for school on time, but if you have a different way of doing that, that’s just great.” He’s still eating breakfast at 7:47 AM; shortly after, Rachel whispers to me that he’s back in bed, reading. I resist the urge to nag. Instead, I tidy up the breakfast things and pack up lunches, repeating to myself, Let him fail. Let him fail.

It’s torture.

When I go upstairs, 10 minutes later, both kids are fully dressed. Rowan is making his bed. Isaac is on his way downstairs to put the cutlery away. By some miracle, I manage not to nag and my children walk out the door with every item (except piano) checked off their lists.

Day 3: Like butter (even after a night where I toss and turn and ultimately end up eking out a few hours of sleep on the couch). I ask Rowan to check off his own list, and to help Isaac with his — all in the name of taking ownership. He likes that idea.

Day 4: As I’m tucking him into bed, Rowan says, “Oh! I forgot I have homework! I have to write a big long story for tomorrow!” I refrain from smacking my palm to my forehead, and instead suggest to him that if he can cross all the items off his checklist early enough, he can use my computer to complete his homework. And — with only some very minor somewhat restrained prodding from me — he does, although at one point I have to retreat to the basement in order to stop myself from once more suggesting to him that he hurry up. He finishes the story and actually goes back upstairs to brush his teeth and make his bed. Both boys are the door with about a nanosecond to spare.

Mental note: ask about homework every day.

Read more: The do’s and don’t of homework time > 

Days 4 & 5: my sister-in-law is visiting from out of town, which — of course — throws a spanner into the works for the morning routine. The kids are too excited to focus, and the result is a meltdown and a very late arrival to school, although in the end all the items are checked off the list.

We regroup on the next morning, when it’s once again just us. Both kids are dressed and with their beds made before breakfast (that’s really key to a smooth morning, I’m finding), happily checking items (even piano!) off lists. We chew some celebratory gum on the walk to school.

I remember to print out a clean version of the chart — in fact, I’ve put a reminder in my phone so that I can’t forget and slack off again.

Day 6: After a chaotic weekend filled with family visits, birthday parties, late nights, soccer matches, and the resulting meltdowns that accompany all those things, I almost cry with relief to pull at the chart on a Monday morning and resume some kind of order. I think that the kids are, too — they happily check off their items and head out the door.
* * *

And so it goes. Not a perfect system, but it’s certainly a huge improvement over chaos and nagging. I still have to curb my impulse to chivvy them along, and we’re rarely early, but I do feel as though Rowan and Isaac are taking on more of the responsibility for getting themselves up and out the door each day. And everybody’s happier.

Now I’m just wondering what else we can chart.

Do you use some kind of checklist to get your kids through routines? Tell me about it.