Establishing Healthy Kids' Routines
Trying to figure out how to establish your kids' routines? Find out why rules and routines for children are important and how to get a sense of order wthout over-scheduling.
The Two R’s: Routines and Rules
Two-year-old Mia Sparks likes her bathtub filled three-quarters of the way to the top. She likes her hair washed first, then her arms, then her torso, and then her legs. And when her bathing agenda doesn’t go as planned, this toddler will take full advantage of her powerful little vocal cords. “When I asked my mother-in-law to bathe her, [Mia] screamed bloody murder because the water was not filled three-quarters and she washed her body first, probably not with the right soap,” says Mia’s mother, Masako.
The rest of Mia’s life is a lot like her baths—very orderly and very organized right down to her bedtime rituals, including the number of books that are read to her (two). Her highly-detailed schedule certainly has its advantages and disadvantages. “She’s an angel when things are going exactly as she expects. So normal day-to-day maintenance is low as long as I keep the routine,” comments Masako.
But Darien, a Connecticut mom adds, “I think having this strict routine has made [my child] a bit inflexible.”
Routines help us cut down on chaos by organizing our lives. Most parents create kids’ routines to cover the basics such as nutrition and sleep. Others, like Masako, implement them to guide time for play, bath-time, and reading time. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a little law and order.
On a developmental level, routines help young children, and even babies, manage the world around them. “Children do well when they have a predictable environment. They learn what to expect,” says Dr. Kurt Fischer, PhD, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “If you’re constantly trying to figure out what the rules are, what the schedule and regularities are going to be, then you don’t have the freedom to explore and play.” Rules, like routines, also provide children with that comforting element of predictability by outlining what’s expected of them.
Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, a psychology and linguistics professor at the University of Delaware who has done extensive research on how children learn, says predictability empowers kids. “So much happens in your life that you don’t have control over. So if you can make predictions like, ‘I know after lunch I’m going to go down for my nap and I’m pretty tired,’ it’s not going to be so bad,” comments Dr. Golinkoff. Like a favorite teddy bear, routines can provide comfort and security to a child trying to navigate and understand the unfamiliar world that surrounds him.
Too Much of a Good Thing
But you can have too much of a good thing. When parents are too rigid in enforcing routines and rules, they may stifle their children’s spontaneity, flexibility, and maybe even their creativity.
In her new book,Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Dr. Golinkoff and co-author Kathy Hirsh-Pasek address the trend of hyper-parenting and over-scheduling children. “If you’ve got everything worked out so that you have a half hour for play, a half hour for this lesson, a half hour for that lesson, then, yes, that can affect your kid’s spontaneity,” notes Dr. Golinkoff. She takes it one step further saying, “You want your kids to learn how to amuse themselves. That is key! That teaches them to use their imagination and to figure out what resources they have.” You can’t always have people telling you “what to do, what to play with and how to act,” she continues. “You have to have some spontaneous time so that you learn how terrific you are.”
A child locked into too many routines and rules may not be able to “go with the flow” when the situation calls for it. Dr. Richard Gallagher, PhD, Director of the Parenting Institute at New York University’s Child Study Center says, “Sometimes it might contribute to a situation where a kid is not very adaptable.” Masako says this is the case with her daughter Mia. “I think she is not as easygoing as some of her friends—granted that may be genetic, too—and definitely does not adapt to new environments as easily as I had hoped,” she says.
Dr. Gallagher says keeping a child to an extremely strict routine can sometimes lead to poor problem-solving skills. “I think it can result in a kid not having the experience to be able to think on his feet and respond,” explains Dr. Gallagher. “If a child is in the same pattern over and over again, with no variation, he won’t know what to do when there is a variation.” Take the example of a toddler who is accustomed to eating certain foods at certain times every day. What happens when that kid is stuck in his mother’s car in a traffic jam and can’t get home in time to have that certain food? Dr. Gallagher says that child probably hasn’t had an opportunity in the past to think, “I’m not at my goal. What else can I do? How can I respond to this new situation?”
Lastly, parents who try to control their kids with too many rules and routines may be looking at trouble down the road. Harvard’s Dr. Fischer notes, “Typically you see much worse terrible twos or much worse adolescent rebellions when parents have over-controlled their kids.”
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