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September/ October 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 7

Parenting: Routines That Work

By Anne Cassidy of PARENTS Magazine, June 1996
(To view it in the archives of Parents Magazine --- click here!)

Two-and-a-half year-old Kate Stephenson has her bedtime routine down pat. Every night after dinner she has a bath, brushes her teeth, listens to three stories, then gets tucked into bed. Kate is such a stickler for the ritual that if her mother, Lyn, starts to read one of the stories out of order; Kate says, "No, no, no. We're reading this one next."

Like Kate, most toddlers are so devoted to their routines that many parents feel they have become slaves to their 2-year-old's schedule. But when a toddler demands that things be done in the same way at the same time, she's not acting out of stubbornness or bossiness -- she's just asking for what she needs. Regular schedules accomplish a number of things important to a toddler's development. They provide a sense of security, give her a framework to master new skills, and allow her to feel a sense of control over her environment. And routines can make a parent' s life a lot easier as well.

Routines help toddlers feel safe when their emotions are out of control

A set order of events also give 2-year-olds a handle on the tempestuous emotions they experience. One moment your child may be playing happily; the next, she's furious at you for telling her she can't have your necklace for her doll. The intensity of a toddler's emotions can be frightening for her at times. But if she can count on a nap with her teddy bear every day after lunch, it makes her feel that someone will shepherd her through the day's activities and restore equilibrium when she feels overwhelmed.

In addition to giving your toddler a sense of order and security, establishing regular schedules allows her to adjust to the demands placed on her this year. For instance, eating and sleeping at similar times each day helps her get used to regular trips to the potty. And a bedtime ritual makes it easier to overcome separation anxiety and learn to sleep alone at night.

Two-year-olds aren't the only ones who benefit from routines. Knowing that your child will nap sometime in the early afternoon and will go to bed by about eight makes the day more manageable for you. "Routines free you from perennially bickering over what's going to happen next," says Marian Houk, Ed.D., director of the Annandale Christian Community for Action Child Development Program , in Annandale, Virginia.

If your household tends to be chaotic and you'd like to give your 2-year-old more cinsistency, begin with the two most crucial times of day, morning and evening. Minutes count more in the mornings, so add up the time it takes to do everything -- from eating breakfast to getting dressed -- then pad it with 30 extra minutes. Decide the order in which your morning flows best and stick with it. A nighttime ritual can be more flexible, since the objective is to help your child wind down from active play to quiet sleep. Just make sure there's an event that clearly signals the ritual has ended, or you may find the goodnight routine taking up half of your evening.

Keep in mind, too, that every day doesn't have to be the same as the next," Hansen says. But there should be enough similarities that kids can hang expectations on them. At best, your routine should be a kind of supple insurance that each day will flow along as you'd lit it to, but with enough flexibility to accommodate that last minute errand. Above all, it should fit your life. Eleanore Keenan regularly lets her 21/-year-old don, John Henry, stay up until 10:00 PM so he can spend time with his father, who often doesn't get home from work till 9:00 PM. John Henry can sleep late in the morning, and he still gets to play with his dad.

Once you've come up with the basics of a routine, let your child design the particulars. For instance, let him choose whether he want to brush his teeth before or after reading a story.

When you have some routines in place, it's easier to help your child through the inevitable transitions from one activity to the other. Give frequent reminders of what's coming next. "Say, 'In a few minutes it will be time to put away your toys and get ready for bed,' " Houk Suggests. Use cues such as setting a timer, flickering the lights, or clapping your hands to let your child know the activity is about to change.

It's inevitable that you'll have to occasionally break the routiens you've established. Remember, it's much harder for kids to switch gears than for adults. When the routine mus t be altered, alert your child to impending changes. If possible, follow an abbreviated version of the schedule. ~Anne Cassidy, a freelance writer in Herdon, Virginia, is the mother of three children.

1996, June. Copyright 1999 Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing. Excerpts reprinted from PARENTS Magazine by permission. You may also find the original article at 

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