Illustration by Sam Island
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Maybe you’ve been cooking the same five dinners on repeat (mealtime rut), or you spend your time at the gym listlessly pedalling on a stationary bicycle (workout rut). These patterns of behaviour are somewhat life sucking, but they’re also comfortable, so they can be hard to change.
Add kids to the mix, and it’s even more difficult to hit the reset button and break out of unhealthy or unproductive routines. Kids, after all, are creatures of habit, and they find it unsettling when there’s a shift in the daily program. And sometimes parents benefit from autoplay too. But there’s hope. Here are four common parenting ruts and how to get out of them.
Any parent who’s ever set their kid up on Disney+ as an electronic babysitter or used a smartphone or tablet to occupy kids at a restaurant knows how easy it is to fall into a screen time rut. The first time I plopped my son, then seven, down with an iPad open to YouTube, I did so to keep him busy while I cleaned up after dinner. I was thrilled when he navigated to another music video and hit play—it meant I could respond to a few emails. At the time, I thought it would be an easy way to occasionally keep him and his big sister occupied.
I was shocked how quickly it became an after-dinner expectation, and not just for my son. I came to rely on technology to carve out time for self-care.
“In most families that have established screen time routines, we use them to get things done or for time to yourself, which we all deserve,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, an organization that teaches digital and media literacy. But he cautions, “As those routines get reinforced, it gets more difficult to change them.”
Johnson says the first step toward weaning kids from screens is to be aware of when and how they’re using connected devices—perhaps you’re handing over the phone without realizing it any time you’re in a waiting room. The second step is to understand what your kids are getting from time spent on a device so you can discriminate between what’s important (playing an educational game) and what’s just filler (mindlessly watching YouTube). The third step is to provide alternative activities instead of screen use.
"Where you’re going to get the most resistance is when you say, ‘Put it away,’ and you don’t offer anything else to fill in that space,” says Johnson. Depending on their age, reading, colouring or playing with toys like Lego are good options, but if kids push back, nudge them toward more positive screen activities first, such as playing an interactive video game together.
“You have to assess how big a step you can take at a time,” says Johnson.
You can also establish rules and expectations around screen usage, but make sure to follow them yourself, he says (like no screens or phones at the table). And don’t be afraid to be the parent—you’re in charge and you can always take away devices.
The good news is, it doesn’t take long for kids to establish a new routine. I cut my son off from YouTube cold turkey, and though there was an initial tantrum, after a few days he made jumping on the trampoline his new post-meal activity.
We all love treats, so when your daughter asks if you can go to Starbucks after her swim lesson to get a cookie and hot chocolate, of course you say yes. When she asks again the following week, you know the better answer is no, but you could use a latte pick-me-up yourself, so you go. It soon becomes an every-week thing.
For Mary-Ann Kroeker, the slide into unhealthy eating was sparked by the family’s summer snack-fuelled camping trips.
“We bought a bunch of junk food to make life easy and we haven’t really gotten out of that summer eating rut,” says the mother of three.
Kroeker grows a lot of her own vegetables on their acreage near Priddis, Alta., and has always made healthy eating a priority. She envisioned her kids, ages 11, nine and four, snacking on raw veggies and plain yogurt sweetened with fruit. The reality is, they prefer sugary, packaged foods, especially her youngest. He won’t eat all day but then expects an afternoon snack of muffins and gummies. Kroeker has given in because it’s easier—planning healthy snacks takes time.
“It’s definitely an expectation that the quick foods are going to be there and that when they’re hungry they want to eat right now,” says Kroeker. What’s more, now that they’re accustomed to Paw Patrol-branded yogurt, her kids would rather go hungry than eat cucumbers.
Tristaca Curley, the owner of Fueling with Food, a nutrition counselling company in Kelowna, BC, sees families in junk food ruts all the time. Curley says the key to better eating habits is allowing children time to build up an appetite. Let them go a few hours between meals; then those cukes might start to look more appealing.
Next, talk about it with your kids. Explain your commitment to healthy eating; describe the role different types of food play in their body and what healthy eating entails. Tell them that instead of hitting Starbucks, you’re going to save the money and spend it on a family outing such as a visit to a science museum or the aquarium. Then stick with the plan.
If the problem is snack foods purchased from the store, take the children grocery shopping with a mandate to find parent- and kid-approved fruits, vegetables and protein options, such as a flavoured low-sugar yogurt. And don’t cave in to pressure to buy unhealthy items.
“If you don’t want your kids eating certain types of bars or junk food, then don’t have them in the house where they see them. And certainly don’t be eating them yourself! We really have to be role models for that,” says Curley.
The bad news is that breaking out of this rut takes a commitment from the entire family to meal and snack plan, which takes time.
“Feeding kids, like parenting in general, is really about the long game,” says Curley.
When my kids were little, I was terrified that if I ever caved at bedtime—snuggled my daughter in her bed after story time until she fell asleep, or let my son crawl into our king bed after a night terror—there would soon be four of us sharing a bed till they left for university. Turns out it wasn’t an entirely unfounded fear.
For Valérie Gagnon, a mom in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., it started when her daughter’s dad left the family just before she turned two. “It was a big change, so she started coming into bed with me in the middle of the night. I would let her do it because she was small and needed comfort,” says Gagnon. Besides, she thought it would just be a short-term thing while they adjusted to their new family dynamic.
“Now she’s six and she’s doing it for other reasons—she’s scared of the dark and scared of monsters,” says Gagnon.
She recently redid her daughter’s room and now her daughter is finally sleeping in her own bed. “We’re just at the beginning of the transition and she seems excited to be a ‘big girl’ and sleep alone.” Gagnon says she’ll keep encouraging her.
Setting a sleep expectation is an important first step for parents looking to break out of a co-sleeping rut, says Alanna McGinn, founder of Good Night Sleep Site, a sleep consulting practice. The conversation—applicable to kids age three and older—should address who sleeps where, why a good night’s sleep is important and why the best sleep happens uninterrupted in their own bed.
“It’s really important to put those boundaries in place, and that might mean bringing the child back to bed,” says McGinn. This practice is called the “silent return” and involves walking a child back to her bed with minimal interaction, sometimes multiple times per night. No fuss, cuddling or story time.
“I know that we’re exhausted and it’s just so much easier to scoop them up, stick them in your bed and fall asleep that way. It might mean a couple nights of really bad sleep for everyone,” says McGinn.
If a child keeps boomeranging back to the master bedroom, parents can look at “cribbing” the room to contain the child—close the door, gate the door or add a childproof handle. The eventual payoff is that when the new sleep routine sticks, it means better sleep for everyone.
You know the drill. It’s bedtime and you’ve told your kid to put on his pyjamas three times and yet here he is, still wearing day clothes, sitting on his bedroom floor and searching for a Playmobil lion that will complete the African safari set-up. So you scream, “I SAID, GET READY FOR BED!”
The first time Suzy Foster yelled at her three-year-old daughter, she thought it was a one-off. She raised her voice to get Ruby’s attention and it worked. Foster felt certain that the next time, her daughter would listen to Mom’s indoor voice (she didn’t).
“For some reason my daughter doesn’t hear me or listen until I yell,” says the Annapolis Royal, N.S., mom. “She’s at a phase right now where she’s pushing boundaries, and yelling feels like the only option,” Foster explains.
It also bothers her that she’s started yelling at her one-year-old son and that yelling at the kids is something she does in public.
“Typically we yell when we feel like we’ve hit a wall,” explains Elana Sures, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver. “It’s important to take a step back and inspect the situation without judging yourself or your kids. Just look at what’s going on.”
If you do a “yelling audit,” you’ll likely find the culprit is either parental burnout or a family factor, she says. With parental burnout, typically one of the parents (or a single parent) is shouldered with the majority of parenting duties and is feeling the squeeze. If it’s a family problem, it might be that something isn’t working in the daily routine—perhaps after-school activities and late dinners mean the kids don’t have enough evening downtime, so they ignore bedtime. Other family factors could include a child who has not had appropriate boundaries set or has not acquired the necessary skills to carry out the behaviour that the parents want, or parents whose expectations are too high.
Once you know why you’re yelling, it’s easier to stop doing it in those situations. Set expectations around behaviours and routines. If the kids still won’t listen, try to take the emotion out of it. You can attempt to tame the roar in the moment—take a deep breath, reset and continue in a calm voice—or be proactive and practise mindfulness daily so you’re in the habit of cultivating Zen.
“You can even say out loud in front of your kids: ‘Whoa, look at us. We’re yelling so much at each other—I don’t want to yell at you guys,’” says Sures. “You can almost always stop the pattern by making it obvious.”
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