Some of my most challenging parenting moments, when I have felt utterly defeated and incompetent, have occurred before 7 a.m.
Over what, you ask?
“I have no pants to wear,” “I can’t find my homework folder!” “I am not eating cereal again for breakfast!”. So many mornings have felt mind-scrambling and impossible.
Getting my kids through the early hours of the day were usually thwarted by resistance, dawdling, and disorganization, often resulting in frustration and tears (for both of us). I just couldn’t make them listen to me.
But a solid start to the day -- as parenting experts tend to recommend -- revolves around caregivers providing guidance to their children, not barking orders at them.
I eventually realized that I, too, played a role in the dysfunction and, moreover, that I had the power to impact positive change. After lots of experimentation, here are six strategies that revolutionized mornings in my household and may help get your kids out the door with far less conflict.
First, take a deep breath. Heavy-handed parenting usually just adds to stressful situations.
If your child is having a bad morning and is unable to execute their responsibilities, save your admonishments or “I told you so” comments. A frustrated child is unable to retain any “lessons” and the ensuing battle will simply slow things down and leave everyone feeling worse.
Do your best to say as little as possible and commit to just helping your child get to school.
It may sound obvious, but simply talking to your children about what’s going on for them in these moments can help immensely.
When my son went to sixth grade, he was suddenly plagued by an inability to find his personal belongings. He wasn’t incompetent; he was overwhelmed with a rigorous new middle school routine and needed support.
My daughter and I constantly fought over her wanting to wear short sleeves in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. I somehow thought it effective to stand with crossed arms and yell that she needed to make better choices. But my daughter wasn’t resisting warmth, she was turning eight and wanted more autonomy.
When I stepped back and discussed the patterns that were throwing a wrench into our mornings with my kids, I could better identify what was causing the problems.
Once you have named your nemesis, use pre-bedtime hours to facilitate a better plan of attack along with your child.
My son put together a list of items (phone, subway pass, novel, favorite cap) that he couldn’t leave home without and started compiling them the night before. We established criteria for my daughter’s outfit choices when it’s cold out -- short sleeves require a minimum of 50 degrees. She’s in charge of checking the weather and selecting an outfit before bedtime, drastically reducing power struggles.
Prepping the night before takes just a few minutes and saves a remarkable amount of time when it matters most.
Putting my children in charge of their morning routines yielded more positive results than my nagging ever had.
First, we outlined an ideal morning. For me, that was asking my kids how long they thought tasks should take compared to how long they actually do. We discussed potential obstacles and now double the time required for each step in anticipation of distractions.
The order of tasks matters here, too. My son can’t eat breakfast immediately upon waking like I had been expecting, so instead of calling him to the table first thing and having cereal take up 15 minutes he didn’t have, he now washes his face, gets dressed, packs his backpack and then joins us.
If your child is old enough, have them draft the schedule and put it on the fridge to reinforce that they are in charge of their routine.
One of the easiest steps I took, with the most tangible results, was starting my own day earlier. Attempting to rush through my own morning routine alongside my children was adding to the chaos.
When I had more time available to lend a hand, it became obvious how much of my intolerance for my children’s behavior had to do with my own sense of feeling rushed and frazzled. It also allowed my children more room to breathe.
By waking up earlier, I was able to finish my routine first, and this gave me more time to support my kids’ routines later.
Just this morning, after weeks of hitting a stride, my son left in a light jacket on a 20-degree morning and had to rush back for a warmer option. He ultimately missed the bus for the first time and was left utterly defeated.
Note to parents: When kids drop the ball, they likely feel terrible enough for both of you.
Accept an anomaly for what it is and empathize with your child whenever humanly possible. Tomorrow is a new day.
If the first hour of your day is consistently challenging: step back, make sure everyone is getting enough sleep, and re-evaluate.
With some thoughtful discussion and problem solving with your child, it’s likely you can empower them with the life skills needed to manage their own routine.
And you can focus on cheering them all the way out the door.
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Mariko Zapf is a Brooklyn-based writer with a passion for parenting and healthy living. Her byline has appeared in Woman's Day, Runner's World, Organic Life, and Yahoo, among others.
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