With new school year, reset your children’s routines
Parenting is about rhythm.
Sure, it helps if you can sing and dance (or think that you can, no matter the reality). But parenting is about the rhythms of eating and sleeping and toileting. It’s about the rhythms of awake and asleep, quiet and active, together and apart. The rhythms of sunrise and sunset, summer-fall-winter-spring run nature. The rhythms of the school week followed by weekend, holidays and traffic lights run society. Our job as healthy parents is to slowly and gradually help our children fit in to these rhythms.
The process can be painful.
The importance of parenting rhythms comes up at times of transition. Right now, most of us are transitioning our families from the slower, later, less demanding rhythm of summer to the faster, more demanding “the bus will be here in three minutes!” and earlier “yes, it’s time for bed” rhythm of the school year.
I’m sure that I don’t need to explain the pain associated with the process to you. You’re living it.
Our bodies and minds are rhythm machines. We thrive on the routine and regularity of schedules. Want proof? Ask anyone who travels to a different time zone how hard the adjustment is. We teach ourselves to be tired at a certain time, to be hungry at certain times, even to pee and poop at certain times. Changing those rhythms is hard for mature adults who understand what’s happening. Changing those rhythms for a child can become a war.
“But I’m hungry now!”
“I’m not tired. It’s only 8 o’clock. I was up until 10 o’clock all summer!”
“Pleeeeaassssseeee … don’t make me wake up now. It’s still dark outside!”
Why bother? Shouldn’t we accommodate our children’s natural rhythms? Wouldn’t it be easier – and maybe even healthier – to let them fall asleep when they’re tired, wake up when they’re rested, and eat when they’re hungry?
Of course it would be easier for you, the parent. Think how many fewer battles you’d have to fight. How much happier everyone would be.
I’ve known parents who parented this way. The first is a young mother who believed that her preschool daughter should eat what she wants when she wants. The second is the single father who couldn’t tolerate his junior high school son’s unhappiness, so he bought him everything that he wanted. The boy’s bedroom had more tech than Best Buy. But it worked. Both the young mother and the tech-dad had very happy children and very few arguments at home.
What’s wrong with this picture?
A lot. Both parents are mistaking happiness for health. Neither of these two children had developed the capacity to delay gratification or tolerate frustration. Neither had developed the rhythms necessary to fit into the social world in which they live.
Delay of gratification means being able to wait to get what you want. It’s the skill necessary for taking turns and waiting in line. It’s essential to the ability to manage your needs and wants and wishes and desires. It’s a critical skill to the development of essential rhythms associated with eating and interacting with others. The simple rhythm of give and take, listen and talk.
Tolerating frustration is the complementary skill necessary to control the primitive me-here-now impulses that we’re all born with. The newborn needs food now. She needs sleep now. She needs comfort now. By preschool, most children have developed the basics idea of waiting, even if briefly, to get what they need. Living with siblings, visits to the playground, “mommy and Me” classes all give basic lessons in “wait your turn.”
It’s our job, as healthy parents, to comfort and reassure our kids when they struggle to tolerate frustration. It’s our job to model turn-taking, hand-raising, and how to experience disappointment when we don’t get what we want.
More often than not, the answer to “I want…!” and “I need …!” and (my favorite), “It’s not fair!” is “I know that you’re frustrated, sweetie.” Label the feeling. Validate the experience. Sit through the rage and resentment and jealousy with your kids. Over time, the experience will become easier. They’ll learn the rhythms of giving and getting, waiting and managing their emotions.
Why not give in? You could be like the junior high school boy’s father. You could solve every potential upset by buying the latest whatsit or the ten terabyte, wi-fi enabled, Bluetooth whozit. You could be like the preschooler’s mother who rationalized that if her daughter is hungry, she should eat. These are selfish fixes that might get you through the moment because you don’t want to face the upset. Maybe you yourself are scared of the rage. But these parents are doing their children a huge disservice. They’re cheating their children of the opportunity to learn the rhythms of our world.
And like most problems, this problem only gets bigger and badder over time. It’s far easier to help a preschooler manage her upset when she learns that dinner will be served in an hour, than it is to manage a 13-year-old’s tantrum.
Right here, right now, make the start of this new school year your opportunity to establish rhythm in your children’s lives and in your family. Hat time I bedtime? What time is wake up? When is supper? When and where does homework get done? Bathtime? Screen time? Play time? Chores? The rules don’t have to rigid and immutable. Life happens. But establishing the rhythms now and facing the complaints and limit-testing now will make the remainder of the school year flow much more smoothly.
Many parents find that their kids struggle with bedtime, especially when the family schedule changes. Here’s some suggestions:
1. The pediatrician advises to limit caffeine (e.g., soda), limit liquids after supper, to eat healthy meals and to get healthy exercise every day.
2. Value your child’s opinion about when her bedtime should be, but this is a parenting decision. Very few children would put themselves to bed early enough to get the sleep that they need. Remind your kids what their bedtimes are at supper.
3. Don’t fall for “it’s not fair” about other children’s bedtimes. Your job is not to be fair. Your job is to see that each child get what she needs.
4. Many families allow screen time after supper and before the bedtime routine. Reverse this: bathtime, pajamas, lay out tomorrow’s clothes before screen time. This will motivate the kids to get those basics done efficiently and diminish family upset.
5. Create a bedtime ritual, then stick to it. Give one five minute warning. Do not give in to whining-pleading-demanding “just one more minute” arguments. All devices are parked in the kitchen overnight, not at bedside. Read a book together in bed quietly. Hug. Kiss. Lights out.
6. And all those “ups” after lights out? “I need a drink of water” or “Come tuck me in again” or “I saw a monster.” Teach your children that you will check on them when they’re quiet. If you reward these pleas and whines with your time and attention, there will be more and more pleas and cries.
Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. He writes and speaks internationally on subjects concerning child and family development. His latest book is “Holding Tight/Letting Go” available from unhookedbooks.com. Learn more about Garber and his child-centered services at HealthyParent.com. Find a collection of Garber’s popular press articles on his blog at bdgarberphd.wordpress.com. Garber welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.