Recently I’ve found that the best way to get my kids (ages 2.5 and 4.5) to play nicely together is to announce that it’s time to get in the car.
I’ve never seen anything like it. The second I call out “socks and boots!”, they dive right into a game of Restaurant or Trapping Imaginary Monsters or Let’s-Pretend-These-Empty-Laundry-Baskets-Are-Boats. It’s cute and all, but it’s a little maddening too. Where is all this goodwill when I want them to entertain themselves on a random weekend afternoon?? And once they’re engaged in a game, it is even harder to move them through space.
This issue of how best to shepherd kids through the morning and get them out the door has been a common theme across my therapy sessions in recent weeks. Some people get irritable and end up shouting at their children, and then feel bad about it later; others maintain calm but are chronically late (and therefore frustrated/in need of a solution). Either way, it highlights the inherent stress that mornings generate for so many families.
With all that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips for a smoother morning departure. A lot of these pertain more to younger kids, but many can be adapted to older children as well:
- Set a timer. Kids often respond better to an external alert that is not you. An alarm grabs their attention more effectively than your voice, especially if you change the sound periodically (“when you hear the ducks quacking, it will be time to get your shoes on!”) It also shifts the authority onto your phone or kitchen timer, which can take some of the emotional “charge” out of the interaction and prevent a power struggle from developing.
- Have a routine. Make sure your kids know how the morning will unfold and what they’re expected to do, especially if something is going on that will disrupt the usual routine. It’s really helpful to do things in the same order each day so that your kids can start to move on autopilot a little bit. A white board or piece of paper on the fridge with a checklist can be a fun, interactive tool and can help kids keep track of where they are in the sequence of events.
- Allow them to make some choices. Kids of all ages do better when they feel like they have some control over their environment and their life. You might let them pick their own clothes, their own snack for the car, or the song or podcast on the way to school. Save the authoritative determinations for when you really need them (like setting and enforcing the time of departure). If you find yourself saying no all morning long, your kids may be less cooperative overall.
- Leave enough time. This seems obvious, but it really is true that rushing around creates a lot of unnecessary stress. We often think we can accomplish more than is possible in the time we have. If your child is a slow eater, or has particular trouble with transitions, you need to budget a realistic amount of time for the whole routine. You may be surprised how much it helps to get yourself (or even your kids) up 15 minutes earlier.
- Help them transition whatever they’re doing to the car if possible. If they’re engrossed in a book or a writing project or a game, see if there’s a way to continue this in the car in some modified fashion. You might give them a clipboard so they can keep doodling, or allow them to choose one toy to bring with them in the car. Even if they’re not in the middle of something, inviting younger children to pick out a toy to bring with them can ease the transition and prevent meltdowns.
- Be specific with requests. Saying “let’s go!” over and over again is not as effective as “It’s time to get your socks and boots on, and then we’ll walk out to the car together.”
- Make it into a game. For older children, you might try timing how long it takes them to accomplish their tasks, or finding another way to incentivize their cooperation. Maybe it’s a coin in a jar for every morning they go through their checklist without reminders, and at the end of the week they can trade in the coins for a reward.
- Communicate with your partner. If you have a partner who’s also part of the morning scrum, make sure he or she is on board with planning the routine. Assign/take jobs based on logistical considerations and/or your strengths. And make sure things feel equitable, or you may find yourself seething with resentment — a behind-the-scenes stressful emotion that can increase irritability and decrease patience.
What challenges do you face when trying to get out the door? What works for you? Shoot me an e-mail and let me know.