Following any routine requires a lot of effort and skills that most children have yet to develop, including the ability to transit from one activity to another, sense of time, attention span, self-control, and motivation to do the designated activity, even when you don’t feel like it. And let’s face it, some of these skills are difficult even for adults.
Why some kids cannot follow a routine
1. Requires activity transitioning skill
Transitioning from one activity to another can be a big challenge for many children – and it poses one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to following a routine.
For example, a child is enjoying the new Lego set he was eager to get back to since the night before. If one of his parents walks into his room and asks him to change his clothes for the day, the child will most likely want to push it to later, so he can play a little longer with his new toy.
Or imagine he is having fun playing a game, but mom calls him for dinner. It won’t be easy for him to robotically drop the game and come to the table. A more realistic reaction would be, “Five more minutes!”
Especially small children, who are not communicating clearly yet, have a hard time accepting changes in activity on short notice.
2. Sense of time
Young children do not have a strong sense of the passage of time. Imagine following any routine when you have no clue what time it is, or even the day of the week. A routine is pretty much about time, place and activity – what we do, where and when.
For these reasons, it is important for parents to help children learn about times of the day, starting with a basic sense of morning, day and night, and what we do at those times, and why.
3. Short attention span
Seeing something through from beginning to end requires willpower, unless we repeat it so many times that our body and mind go on autopilot. Well, to accumulate that level of habit we have to be seasoned with age – it is a bittersweet fact.
But young children get easily distracted, and many times they are just too clumsy to get something right before they lose interest. Many times they are dependent on their parents for help with everything from putting on clothes to brushing their teeth.
It is natural for their minds to wander to something else, whether it is a sound from the street, the movement of a jumping cat, or even something as little as the booger in their nose.
We just have to recapture their attention with eye contact and engaging conversation, while helping them to complete one activity and move on to the next.
4. Lack of self-control
There is a saying that the best thing you can hope to give to your child to be successful is self-control.
As humans, we all fight with this demon called self-control. Imagine, if we all could tackle this monster, how much more elusive success would be – the competition would be boiling hot.
Children, in general, lack self-control, and we feel this acutely when we get into a tug-of-war with them over daily routines.
5. Unmotivated, with a low sense of responsibility to fulfill each activity
Often it is much easier to understand our children when we think about our own behaviour as grown-ups. If we could get away with making excuses to not get up in the morning, arrive at work by 9, and stay until 5, we would probably do it. But we have a sense of obligation and responsibility, since we cannot be dependent on our parents anymore.
But young children have no sense of obligation or desperation to achieve each task, since we provide them with all of their basic needs. Consider how hard it is to add gym time to our schedule. Unlike showing up at work to earn income, we need additional motivation to fulfill the extra task successfully.
That is why so many different versions of award charts to motivate children have been used by so many parents and educators. Children simply need the motivation to follow any routine.
How do I get my child to follow a routine?
1. Set a realistic routine
Especially when children are young, only stick to necessary routines. And then as they grow, we could add more routines based on their ability to accomplish them on their own.
If you add too many activities to your child’s routine, with the hope of exposing them to a variety of activities to educate them, you run the risk of pushing their limits.
2. Use simple and clear instructions
Since children have short attention spans, keeping words to a minimum and using simpler vocabulary are much more effective.
So, for instance, saying, “Bedtime. Bathroom. Brush teeth,” is better than, “Now, ready to brush your teeth? Hurry up. You should brush your teeth, otherwise, you’ll get cavities. Let’s go to the bathroom. We have to get ready for bed.”
Using fewer words helps kids grasp the information more easily by lessening distractions, and they are less likely to argue when you deliver instructions in a neutral, factual tone.
3. Give gradual transition reminders
Since children lack a sense of time, it is important to let them know the time for the next activity is coming.
If your children struggle with transitioning between activities, start much farther ahead and remind them more frequently – maybe from half an hour before the next routine. Otherwise, you could start as little as 5 to 10 minutes before the next routine and give kids a few reminders to prepare them for the upcoming activity.
4. No tug-of-war – distract them with fun play
Even after your gentle reminders, your child might still decide to fight to not put on her/his jacket and shoes, for example. Well, you still have to be at work on time, so what should you do?
First, you could try making the jacket dance while you beatbox a drum track, to make the negative mood more silly and fun. If you see your child pop a grin, you know she’s ready to put the dancing jacket on.
Sometimes detours and distractions are the best shortcuts in parenting.
5. Readjust routines according to your child’s temperament and your lifestyle
A routine should flow and be helpful for the family to function as a whole. If the routine does not work, there is no reason to cling to it.
So check your current routines regularly to see if the one you set six months ago is still working for your family – and especially for your rapidly growing child. If not, adjust it to fit your family’s lifestyle, so everyone can be content, or at least tolerant.
What happens when a child has no routine?
If someone asks me why structure is important for my children, I would say it is because a routine is more than just a timetable.
For me, a routine is a set of boundaries, helping define the necessary tasks to live our lives by, and a tool for building self-control.
When I think about routine for my children, it is not about me as a parent filling their day with activities. It is about building a sturdy fence around them so they learn a sense of time, responsibility, and self-control. Once my children become old enough to make responsible decisions for themselves, I hope this structure will become the foundation for them to build their own routines.
How can no routine affect a child – no routine parenting
I am sure there is a perfectly sound philosophy behind why some parents go for No Routine Parenting. From what I have gathered so far, No Routine parents want to raise their children to work around the parents’ schedules. They follow their children’s lead to give them more freedom and flexibility, while preserving the lifestyle the parents followed before they had children.
Although I understand where No Routine Parenting is coming from, I have to say I find parenting with a routine more practical for the whole family. Since I am not scheduling every waking hour of my children’s day, the routine can be adjusted to suit the children’s age or our evolving family lifestyle.
For example, living through the pandemic that has changed everyone’s life, in our household, we have to juggle two work-at-home parents, homeschooling, and two children at home all day.
I also look for ways to adopt flexibility, involving my children in routine making wherever possible, as long as mixing up the order does not interfere with anyone else’s schedule.
For example, I cannot change what time of day we should eat dinner, since it can adversely affect everyone’s bedtime, but I can let my child decide the order of her bedtime routine. She might want to brush her teeth before her bath, or she might choose to wear tomorrow’s outfit to bed, to avoid the morning ordeal of changing out of pajamas.
It might not be ideal, but I am willing to bend the rules if my child is perpetually struggling with a particular area. I am giving my child a little breathing room and time, encouraging her each day to follow simple routines until she is ready to incorporate more.
To recap, a routine is not an easy thing even for grownups to follow, so when we help our children to follow a routine, we should encourage them as well as lowering our own expectations.
It might not be easy to make our children follow a routine seamlessly each day, but by praising them and making the process more fun than nagging, we can teach our children to earn a sense of accomplishment while developing self-control.