Comfort in Consistency: Why Routines are So Important for Families

Julie Pippert
January 19, 2010

Over the winter break, we lost our normal routine. Reliable and predictable schedules gave way to a treadmill of unstructured busyness.  My family is made up of the sort of people who do better with a plan. While we had plenty of plans over the break, our time was all over the place.

Some days were packed full and busy from the moment our eyes opened to the minute we finally laid our heads on our pillows...late. Some days were aimless and lazy. The busy time made my husband and I treasure the down, no-plan time. Meanwhile, our kids were slowly going crazy. Predictably, their behavior devolved. They fought getting ready to leave but cried when we had nowhere to go. They argued against bed time but could barely keep their eyes open some afternoons.

"I can't wait to get back into our school routine," I complained to my sister and friends, most of whom agreed with me. One did not. "I love having my kids home," she said. She's the same mom who says she can't wait for summer to have her kids home, with that dratted school year routine over. I figure either her family thrives in chaos, or she's one of those talented individuals who is able to overlay and implement a consistent routine into an otherwise unstructured day.

Routines are essential to family life. Routines let children know what is coming and when. It helps prevent them from being confused, feeling anxious about the day, and offers stability and reliability. For parents, it helps a day that's usually busy run smoothly. If the entire family is working towards the same goal using expected routes, then what needs to be done can generally be accomplished well.

"Routines, of some sort, are important to all kids and parents. I think most people function better when they have a sense of what's going to happen next, or during the day, or down the line," said Melissa Stanton, author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide and also of the popular blog, Real Life Support for Moms. She added, "A routine or schedule also provides kids with some structure so their days at home with mom aren't a free-for-all of chaotic activity or hours upon hours of whining and TV watching."

For weekdays, consider creating visual or word charts about daily routines. I used a large posterboard, which I divided in half, to illustrate and write the things my kids needed to do every day, regardless, in the morning and evening. I put a sun at the top of the morning half and a moon for the evening half. Then, for example for evening, I listed their bedtime tasks: potty, wash hands, wash face, brush teeth, PJs, bed, book. This is a great visual reminder for both the kids and us. I make sure we start and end every day consistently, which is a good way to clue your body into waking up or preparing for sleep, too. I make sure the kids know what each day's routine is, such as, "Today is Wednesday. We have school, then dance, then home for homework and dinner."

On weekends, we aren't that great about snapping to in the mornings. But the key to a routine isn't to be regimented -- it's to be consistent and predictable. While I do keep bedtime consistent, we often let other daily routines slack a bit. We don't hop out of bed by 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays like we do on weekdays. We also likely have a very different weekend from one to the next. To compensate for this, I let the kids know specifically what's ahead.

Clearly, communication is key. When kids know what to expect, either through predictable routines or clear communication, they are more likely to be prepared, not resist transitions, and they have lower anxiety. They feel more empowered through their knowledge of what lies ahead. Rituals are very comforting.

How, though, do you achieve these comforts and rituals during crazy or unstructured times such as holidays and summer? For moms like me who work, summer child care helps create some daily structure. I work from home, so last summer I enrolled my kids in a neat summer camp at the regular school. They went three days a week. That did leave, however, the other two weekdays and weekends without a regular schedule. For parents who stay home (and for those who do not), consistency and a calendar can help.

You can start by trying to keep consistency at the beginning and end of each day. For the rest of the time, set a plan. Write it on a calendar, and create a kid calendar that your children can reference. Mondays can be Outing Day, Tuesdays can be Pajama Day, Wednesdays can be Playdate Day, and so forth. You can shake this up, vary it week to week, and keep it flexible. The idea is to create a schedule and let kids in on it, so they are prepared. It's a good way to motivate you away from Every Day in Pajama Day, too. This is good for your kids, but it's good for you, too.

Melissa Stanton said routines are just as essential for stay-at-home parents: "I think having a routine is especially important for a stay-at-home mom, in part so her day doesn't become routine -- in the ho-hum, I'm bored, I'm depressed, sense of the word. Having a plan or a reason to get dressed, to get out of the house, to interact with other adults can be a sanity-saver to a woman who spends most of her day alone caring for a baby or small children."

She believes that at-home parents should acknowledge their job, and consider it in shifts, creating a schedule for themselves: "I think the most important part of any stay-at-home mom's routine is that she has an acknowledged end to her workday. If not, since she works at home -- and, yes, stay-at-home parenting is a job -- she'll likely clock in more working hours in a day than her income-earning, workplace-going partner does. In my house, I made it very clear that once my husband arrived home and was settled in for the evening, his parenting shift began and mine ended. While he cleaned the dinner dishes, played with the kids and took charge of baths and bedtimes, I escaped to our home office to pay bills, do household paperwork, answer emails, work on my freelance projects, have some waking hours in which my function and focus was not entirely kid-driven. That 'me shift' was essential to my sanity."

For two working parents, clear communication is once again, key. Define who has which role and establish clear parenting shifts. Kids like to know who they can count on for certain activities, which provides another layer of stability. You can add in "mom" or "dad" next to your kid calendar activities and tasks. This tells kids which parent -- or both -- will be with them and who to go to with questions.

Single parents can benefit as well through routines. Understandably, single parents face a lot of daily stress. They are solely responsible for managing all the tasks and information in a day.  Establishing a routine is always one of the top tips to help support that and ease the chaos. There are resources dedicated to single parents that offer great ideas for how to create routines -- including planning sheets -- and support.

Find what works for you, don't be afraid to change it -- because routines are like shoes: as soon as your kids seem comfortable in the right size, they grow -- and enjoy your comfortable routine. It's how you tame disorder, lack of cooperation and chaos into effective days. It's the secret to more pleasant days.

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