By Dr. Laura Markham
“Now that school is back in session and I need to get both kids out the door and myself to work, I’m always running late. No matter how early I get up and get everything prepared the night before, my 4 yr. old is sooo slow and it is a nightmare…No matter how I phrase the request, “Let’s get our clothes on so we can get something to eat, who can do this faster let’s race, or who wants to be a cheetah or a turtle, do you want to do it or me, pick between these two shirts, etc….he will take the opposite position or just start whining or collapse to the floor… refusing to move, making it virtually impossible for me to help him get dressed which I have to do or else it would take another half hour…..He is also very stubborn and will remove all his clothes because he didn’t do it himself ……He will say, “I don’t want to get up or pee” even though I know he needs to do these things and he is so slow that I find myself losing it… All the time, I’ve got my 17 mo. old on my hip crying to get downstairs to eat….I want all of us to have as full of a bucket as we can; not a depleted one as is the case by the time we get to school and work.”
The bad news is, even working as hard as Kristina is — offering choices, making it into a game, preparing the night before — is no guarantee that things will go smoothly. Those things help enormously, but sometimes the needs of kids and adults simply clash.
What does a four year old need in the morning? Well, everyone is different, but most of us need some time to make the transition from sleep into busy activity; most kids balk at feeling pushed. Most four year olds need to “do it myself.” Most four year olds want to make their own decision about when their body needs to pee. And I’ve never met a four year old who understands why that meeting Mom has to get to is more important than whether he can find his toy car.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if all parents could have flextime, so there’s more time in the morning for small humans to have a more humane start to their day? But that’s not possible for many families.
So what’s the answer? Re-frame your idea of the morning routine. What if your main job was to connect emotionally? That way, your child would have a genuinely “full cup.” Not only would he be more ready to cooperate with you, he’d be more able to rise to the developmental challenges of his day. How?
- Get everyone to bed as early as possible.
If you have to wake your kids in the morning, they aren’t getting enough sleep. Every hour of sleep less than they need sets them back a year in access to brain function, meaning they act a year younger.
- Get yourself to bed earlier.
If you have to use an alarm, you aren’t getting enough sleep. (Sorry.) The morning routine requires infinite creativity and energy from parents. Your kids depend on you to start your own day with a “full cup.” There’s no way to stay patient when you’re exhausted.
- Build in extra time.
Get up earlier than your kids so you’re dressed and emotionally centered before you interact with them. Plan on routinely getting to work fifteen minutes earlier than you’re due. Half the time, you won’t make it but you also won’t lose your temper at your kids because you won’t actually be late. The other half of the time, you’ll have a more relaxed start to your work day so you’ll be more effective at work.
- Prepare the night before.
Backpacks, brief cases, lunches made, clothes laid out, coffee pot prepared, breakfast planned. Involve kids the night before too, so they choose their clothing and find that toy car.
- Make sure you get five minutes of relaxed snuggle time with each child as they wake up.
I know, it sounds impossible. But if everything else is already done, you can relax for five minutes. That time connecting with your child will transform your morning. You fill your child’s cup before the day starts, and you re-connect after the separation of the night, which gives your child the motivation to cooperate instead of fight with you. This is the best way to prevent morning whining and resistance.
- Use routines to make transitions easier.
Kids find transitions hard and the morning is full of transitions. So if getting her out of bed is a challenge, end your morning snuggle by holding hands as you go downstairs together, and make that a meaningful connection time for your kid, during which you both come up with something you’re grateful for, or something you’re looking forward to today. (Naturally, yours will relate to your child.)
- Realize that kids need your help to move through the routine.
If your goal is to give your child a good start to his day, then you need to see your job as helping him move through the morning routine happily, not just barking orders. That might mean you bring his clothes downstairs with you and he gets dressed next to you while you’re feeding the baby so you can acknowledge him: “I notice you picked your blue shirt again. You like that shirt….You’re working so hard on figuring out which shoe goes on which foot…Today you’re humming while you get dressed.” Remember, getting dressed is your priority, not his. Your presence is what motivates him. He’s borrowing your “executive functioning” to keep himself on track.
- Keep the routine as simple as possible.
So, for instance, you may want to rethink breakfast. I know, you want to serve your child a hot breakfast at the table. Me too. But I have one kid who just wasn’t ready to eat as soon as she got up, so there were times when she regularly ate a sandwich in the car. No less healthy, more peaceful — a better start to the day.
Worried about brushing teeth? I handed her a toothbrush and sippy cup of water after her sandwich. No toothpaste in the mornings for a few months. If you consider that too much of a compromise, you’ll need to find a solution that works for you, but my point is that there are no rules. Why can’t they sleep in the tee-shirt and leggings they’ll wear to school? Why can’t you just put her hair in a ponytail instead of brushing it, or let her sleep with it in a braid?
- Give Choices.
No one likes to be pushed around. Does he want to brush his teeth standing on the stool at the kitchen sink while you’re getting the baby out of the high chair, or upstairs in the bathroom? Does she want to put her shoes on first, or her jacket on first? Cede control whenever you can. You may think he should use the bathroom as soon as he gets out of bed, but he wants to be in charge of his own body. As long as he’s not wetting his pants, you can probably let him make that decision for himself.
- Play it out.
Sometime on the weekend, grab a mom and baby stuffed animal. Have them act out the morning routine. Have the little one resist, whine, collapse. Have the mom “lose it” (but don’t scare your child by overdoing it. Have the mom be a funny, incompetent bumbler.) Your child will be fascinated. Then, hand your kid the “mom” and play out the scenario again, with you being the kid. Make it funny so you can both giggle and let off tension. Make sure to include scenarios in which the kid goes to school in his pjs, or the mom goes to work in her pjs, or the kid has to yell at the mom to hurry up and get ready, or the mom says “Who cares about that meeting? Let’s tell the boss it’s more important to find your toy car!” Give him in fantasy what he can’t have in reality. You may learn something about how to make things work better. Almost certainly, you’ll see more understanding and cooperation from your kid on Monday. At the very least, the laughter will defuse the tension.
- Ruthlessly prioritize.
If both parents are working full time while children are small, there is simply no way to do anything “extra” during the week. This is the only way you can go to bed early enough to stay in a good mood in the morning. And your child depends on your good mood to regulate her own moods. Don’t worry, these years don’t last forever. You’re laying a wonderful foundation for her to take more and more charge of her own morning routine.
Modern life puts pressures on kids and parents that undermine our connection to our kids. But we need that connection to smooth the speed bumps of life. Our kids need it, not only to cooperate, but to thrive. Luckily, when we make connection our priority, everything else gets a little bit easier.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.