The Importance of Routine in Your Child’s Life

Routines make children relax.  When kids know what to expect they see the world as having a natural order to it, and therefore, living in the world becomes less stressful for them.  One way of reinforcing the natural orderliness of the world is to create rituals in your family so your child will know what the family rules and routines are and will learn how to follow them.  When rituals are not established in early childhood there is an unequivocal carryover into your child’s later life.

Sarah, for example, was beginning to struggle in high school.  Her grades were starting to suffer and she was having a hard time getting her homework done.  She would go to her room and sit down with her books but before she could get into a good study rhythm she would check her email, text a few friends, make a phone call, and then turn on her TV.  Thinking that the problem was all the distractions in her room, her mother, one by one, began taking away her electronics.  Soon, Sarah was left with nothing in her room but her bed, desk, chair, lamp and books.  With nothing else to focus on she would sit down to do her homework and would begin to daydream.  Sarah was not challenged academically in any particular way; she just never developed proper study habits.  Until now she could get by in school on her natural intelligence, but school was becoming more demanding and Sarah’s performance was beginning to slip.

Sarah’s mother was right to focus on the immediate problem – the distractions in her daughter’s room that were keeping her from studying – but that was only part of a bigger picture.  What she missed was that her daughter never established consistent routines in the first place.  As it turned out, Sarah’s lack of study skills was also due to the fact that she was chronically tired, a condition that made it more difficult for her to concentrate.  Sarah’s sleep pattern was very erratic, and she could not fall asleep easily.  Not surprisingly, the same was true when she was a child.  Without the proper routines in place to ground her when she was younger, Sarah did not have the proper balance in her life as a teenager.

Routines provide balance in a young person’s life.  The two most important routines established early in childhood are eating and sleeping routines.  Children learn by repetition, so it’s important for parents to establish an order of activities so that over time the repetitious action will become a habit for their children.  A good example is the nightly task of teeth brushing.  When your children are young you need to brush their teeth for them nightly.  As they get a little older you can let them brush their own teeth, and then go over it for them to make sure they are brushing well.  This nightly routine gets children into the habit of brushing their teeth every night.  If you end up letting your children skip a night, or if you brush their teeth for them because it’s easier than fighting with them about it, your children will begin to resist you rather than incorporate the task into their daily routine.

Just as Sarah’s poor study routine needed to be seen in light of her sleep habits, teeth brushing needs to be seen in the context of other nightly routines.  By the time teeth brushing becomes a factor children should already be accustomed to a bedtime routine that begins after dinner.  This routine can involve playing a little bit at the end of the day to burn off some energy, having a bath, brushing their teeth, being read to and then put to bed in their own bed.  The repetition of this routine let’s your child know what to expect.  Once these routines become habits parents can deviate from them when necessary.  Other important routines to establish when your child is young are eating routines.  Try to have meals at the same place, generally the dining room table, and at the same time.  Snacks should also occur at approximately the same time every day.  Set aside time for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  These routines form the basis for future sleep and eating habits.

All of these early rituals were missing in Sarah’s life, consequently, as a teenager she sometimes ate at the table, sometimes in front of the TV, and sometimes by herself.  She would often eat only if she was hungry, sometimes having a late snack around 5PM, then a light dinner with her family because she was no longer hungry, and a then larger snack at 9PM.  When she was younger she would take a shower in the morning before school, if she woke up early enough.  Sometimes she was late so the morning shower was skipped and taken at night, unless she had too much homework.  Her routine was so haphazard that no reasonable level of expectation was incorporated into her life, including when to go to sleep.  Without structure all that was left was disorder.  The only thing that was certain was that she had to be up at 6:30AM for school.  Additionally, from an early age, her parents never established a set study time, or a set time when they checked her homework.  As a result, Sarah’s life lacked the orderliness that children need, and subsequently, poor habits in many areas of her life ensued.

Children are not naturally cooperative, they learn by repetition and reinforcement.  For children to develop good routines, parents have to teach good routines.  Aside from loving our children, and providing for them, we must structure them.  Imagine going to a foreign country where no one speaks your language, you have no idea what people expect of you, you’re constantly being bombarded with stimulation that you cannot process, and there is no set schedule; that’s what children experience during their first year of life.  In other words, children are born disoriented.  The security of early repetitive routines, therefore, provides order and predictability and gives them their bearings.  Quite naturally, developing repetitive routines makes a child feel more secure.

When children are not given consistent structure they end up feeling anxious, or pushing against conventional boundaries.  With the proper understanding of the role regular routines play in childhood development, parents can help their children create positive habits and adaptable behaviors by establishing consistent routines when their children are young.  Children will have a greater sense of mastery as they grow older when good habits are formed early.  As we have seen with Sarah, sometimes the lack of consistent routines is the major cause of other symptoms, such as poor school performance.  This is precisely why routines are so important.  They produce predictable expectations, which in turn, builds confidence, teaches self-discipline, breeds familiarity, guarantees sufficient rest and good nutrition, makes you more adaptable to outside structures, such as school and work, helps you establish boundaries, and makes you feel safe and secure in an over stimulating world.

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