"Ants, Mama! Ants, Mama!" my four-year-old son, Sebastien, calls out, peering at the sidewalk in front of our house. I’m way ahead of him, though — halfway up the street. In the minute it’s taken me to near the corner of our block, he’s barely past our front yard. Most mornings, he needs to pause and pet the neighbour’s cat, tiptoe along all the curbs, readjust his shoes and backpack, and even stop to smell the roses. I try to take a minute to relax and look at how cute he is before I rush him the rest of the way to school. When he was a toddler, I worried about how quickly he’d run ahead, but now things crawl at a snail’s pace.
Read more: Reader tips to get your kids out the door >
The slowpoke stage generally coincides with the start of preschool or kindergarten, says Michele Kambolis, a registered child and family therapist and founder of Vancouver’s Harbourside Family Counseling Centre. “Children with inattention, anxiety and those who get frustrated or discouraged easily are especially susceptible to dawdling,” she says. “Of course, moving slowly is also a great way for most kids to gain a little control and attention.”
And while it’s normal for parents to get frustrated or downright angry (and then feel guilty later), the more you keep a positive tone, the more success you’ll have in speeding things up, says Kambolis. “Happy moments build attachment, attachment builds security, and security builds a desire to ultimately work together,” she says. Maintaining a consistent routine is the best way to encourage easy transitions and reduces the number of warnings you’ll have to give, she adds. “Knowing what’s coming next creates an internalized sense of time that helps children feel that life is secure and predictable.”
Let your child know when an activity is ending five minutes ahead of time, but don’t make the mistake most of us do — warning “five more minutes” repeatedly but not following through. If you’re indoors, turning down the lights (where appropriate) to show it’s almost time to switch gears or finish what they’re are doing can be a helpful, low-stress cue. You can also try setting a timer at breakfast to signal when it’s time to go. A scooter may help with kids who meander on their way to school.
“Getting both my slowpokes out the door is the worst part of my day,” says Carla Troper, a Toronto mom. “Waiting around is the story of my life.” Her kids — Jonah, 5, and Ella, almost 4 — often thwart each other’s attempts to get ready, but Troper says that turning tasks into games has helped. “We have two strategies to make it out without them, or me, screaming. One is that we make it a race and see who can get ready faster. The other is singing about what we’re doing, which they find pretty funny. I start with the ‘Everybody Tidy Up’ song, then make it a little silly with different lyrics.” Troper also recommends learning to let go a little, and allowing your kids to experience natural consequences. “If Ella can’t decide on her outfit, she goes out the door as is — she’s been to nursery school in fleece pyjamas. If Jonah’s left his backpack at home and there’s nothing crucial in it, we don’t turn back.”
Identify the common stress triggers, and rehearse what you’ll say to your kids in those instances. And if you feel yourself getting flustered, leave the room, take a deep breath, and try to see the big picture.
I’ve learned that I’m better at being the parent I want to be if I eat breakfast before my son’s awake — a little time to myself is crucial to staying calm through the morning routine. A picture calendar has helped Sebastien remember to brush his teeth without reminding, and we’re trying to leave the house a little earlier. I haven’t totally mastered the slowpoke stage, but I’m practising my patience for when it reappears — the teenage years.
A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline "Slow going" p. 86.