My home is my laboratory. I'm constantly tweaking this or that around my house, trying to make life run more smoothly. One of my favorite places to experiment is with daily routines—in the morning, after school, and at bedtime. They're self-contained periods of time in which specific things have to happen, but there are endless variations of how those things can happen.
If one part of our day is particularly dysfunctional (and there's always something), I analyze it, identify the major pain points, and try different solutions until I find one that works for my five little lab rats.
This year I have more potential solutions than ever, thanks to the great ideas shared by my fabulous contributors. I have so many new experiments to try! Here's our current experimental schedule, a few weeks into the school year:
Mornings before school used to be my least favorite part of the day. It was hard to get the kids moving, and once they did they moved very slowly. When it was time to get in the car they'd be missing homework or backpacks or one shoe. They'd fight about where they wanted to sit in the car. One memorable day, one of my sons even made it all the way to school without pants!
We're still fine-tuning our routine, but we've made a lot of progress, and mornings run pretty smoothly around here now. Here are some of our current solutions:
1. I wake up early. Our worst mornings were the days that I overslept. I'd wake up in a panic and then frantically rouse the kids. That's a pretty rude awakening, and no one wants to have to rush to get ready. Now I set my alarm for 5:00. If I've had a late or interrupted night I let myself sleep until 5:30 or even 6:00, but this way, even if I sleep in, I'm still up before most of my kids. I usually do a bit of reading and writing and stick in a load of laundry, and just enjoy some time to myself before the kids get up. This way I'm actually happy to see my kids when they wake up, instead of groaning and trying to get a little more sleep. Plus, we never have those rushed, woke-up-late mornings.
2. Breakfast schedule. We are a gluten-free family (several of us have Celiac Disease), so with our limited options, cereal every morning would get extra tedious. Plus, I like to send them to school with full bellies, because you never know how much they'll eat in their short lunch time. But figuring out what to make for breakfast each morning gets old really fast. So we have a set schedule each week: Monday muffins, Wednesday waffles (or pancakes), and Friday french toast. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they make their own cereal, yogurt and granola, oatmeal, or eggs.
3. Staggered wakeup times. My 12-year-old wakes up at 6:00. This earlier wakeup time for him is a new experiment, to try to fit in more one-on-one time with him. We spend time together and talk about the upcoming day while he makes his lunch and gets ready for school.
4. Morning snuggles. I used go around at night and snuggle each of my five kids for a bit at bedtime. But that just prolonged our already too-long bedtime routine. Plus, I was totally faking it. By bedtime I need my space and did not enjoy the hugs. But I actually really love snuggling in the morning when I'm refreshed. It's a nice gentle way to wake them and we can talk about the day ahead. I start at about 6:30 and make my way from kid to kid. I also started bringing them a glass of water to drink right away, because we rarely drink enough water around here.
5. Kids make their own lunches. This is new this year. For some reason I always used to pack lunches for them. It took way too long, and was often the reason we were late to school. After talking to some smart moms about it this month, I realized my kids are fully capable of making their own lunches (even the kindergartner), and they're more likely to actually eat what they pack themselves.
I have three bins in my pantry and one in my refrigerator, full of everything they need to make their lunches. They just grab what they want. It's amazing. Thanks to a tip from my friend Jennifer, I now pack a lunch for my three-year-old, too, while everything is out.
6. iPad time. Anyone who finishes all of their chores, including getting completely ready for school, cleaning their rooms and bathrooms, and practicing the piano, can have iPad time, but only if they play it in the car. Then they're already in there and ready to go. The others usually gather in there to watch them play, which is another bonus.
7. Assigned seats. Thanks to more great advice, we no longer have skirmishes about who gets to sit where. The odd-numbered children get the preferred seats one week; the even-numbered children get them the next.
8. Music. Honestly, our drives to school often used to involve long lectures on what went wrong that morning. Now, inspired by my friend Lori who likes to play fun music to pump her kids up for the school day, we rotate who's in charge of the playlist on our way to school. My kids love curating their perfect playlists. I'm pretty tolerant of their sometimes questionable taste, but there are a few banned songs (the really obnoxious ones).
9. Morning story time. I've always been religious about reading to my kids before bed, but, again, our bedtime routine has been getting really long. So I decided to read to my three-year-old in the morning instead, after we get home from dropping kids off. Wow. It's so much more fun. I'm not half asleep. We laugh and interact way more. And if he wants another more books, I'm happy to oblige.
After school is crazy for different reasons: helping the kids process what happened at school; driving to after-school activities; homework; and hangry, overstimulated children, to name a few. Here are some of our current experiments:
1. I prepare myself to be fully present. This is mom-code for taking a nap. I used to use the last hour or two before the kids came home to finish everything I wanted to get done while they were gone. I'd come home from picking the kids up at school and just collapse on the couch for a while, exhausted. But that was the time they needed me to be at the top of my game. I finally realized that I should take my rest before they got home. Now I take quick 20-30-minute nap, or just sit and read a book, right before it's time to pick them up from school.
2. Dinner on the table. My husband works late almost every night, so he rarely makes it to family dinner. Without that restraint on our timing, I've always just tried to have dinner on the table when the kids get home from school. I typically start cooking dinner at about 2:00, so I still have time to fit my rest in afterwards. I sometimes have to reheat a few things or keep it warm in the oven. If I have any last-minute prep to do, I try to at least have some fruits or veggies out on the table for a first course.
3. Clean up together. The plan is to clean up after dinner together, right away. We're kind of failing at this right now, but we're working on it.
4. Planner check. Last year we had major problem with kids not using their planners. I even went so far as to charge them a dollar every time it was blank. This year I realized that positive reinforcement is a better tactic. So I've been doling out gummy worms for filled-out planners. Then they get started on any homework they have to do.
5. One-on-one time during activities. The fall is our busiest time for extracurriculars. We have flag football, soccer, piano lessons times four, dance, robotics club, and boy/cub scouts times three. Last year, I decided to look at this time chauffeuring kids around as an opportunity to connect. We all go to each activity when possible, and I take turns spending one-on-one time with the kids who aren't participating—usually 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Sometimes this means pushing them on the swings or playing some tennis; sometimes it's helping with homework or reading together.
6. Arriving early at soccer practice. My soccer player said he wanted to play soccer. He enjoys practice--once he gets there. But he also really enjoys playing with his little brother and sister, so getting him to come willingly to soccer practice is a struggle. We even made him record a statement at the beginning of the season, right before we shelled out the fees, stating that he would come to practice willingly. But last week, I had to force him into the car for practice, and once we got there, he refused to get out of the car. Since I refused to drag him there kicking and screaming, there we sat, in the parking lot, and I eventually had to drive away with him still in the car.
Worried that this battle would happen twice a week for the next couple of months, I've been wracking my brain for a solution. With the help of some wise friends/advisors, I came up with a very simple experiment. We're going to go to the park a half hour earlier than practice starts, and let him play with his siblings at the playground. Then when it's time to go to practice, it will be an easy and natural transition. This experiment is so new I haven't even tried it yet, but here's hoping!
Bedtime is our biggest struggle right now. I kind of created a monster with my youngest this summer, by lying down with him to help him sleep. I'd often fall asleep too, which taught him that I was his human teddy bear. The other kids would just kind of run amok during this time, and bedtime would stretch on and on. Plus, I'm really not a nice mom at that time of night. Now that school has started, we've really been working on streamlining our routine and getting back to a reasonable timeline.
1. Family devotional. At 7:00, or as soon as we get home from our activities, we gather as a family in one of the bedrooms for a brief scripture reading and a family prayer. Thanks to a tip from the wonderful Emerald Austin, we choose one family member each night and take turns complimenting that person.
2. Massage. The fabulous Georgia Anderson posted a video tutorial on her Instagram stories of how give kids a goodnight backrub. I started trying it, and I found that it actually took less time than our normal goodnight routine, and was really calming. I don't make it to everyone every night, but I do give my three-year-old a back rub every night now.
3. Sleep Rules. I recently remembered a tip I learned from the book, "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, to recite sleep rules for littles who like to pop in and out of bed at night. So each night, my three-year-old and I recite the rules: 1. Stay in bed, 2. Stay quiet, 3. Close your eyes, 4. Go to sleep. If he gets out of bed more than once, I shut his door and, if necessarily lock it (temporarily) until he settles down.
4. Storytime. Once upon a time, I used to read three different stories, for three different age levels every night at bedtime. I've streamlined it to one by reading to my two youngest kids earlier in the day. Now I just read a chapter book in the hallway between bedrooms for anyone who wants to listen from their beds.
5. Adult time. My friend Molly is really good at enforcing a strict adult-time rule, starting at 8:00. So my husband and I are trying to do the same. The biggest shift for me has been using this time to connect with my husband rather than writing or cleaning up. We both need the break and the time together. It's been great and it helps us get to bed earlier if we can actually start at 8:00. We're getting better at it.
These are the experiments we're trying at the moment. I have dozens of routines saved on my computer from different years, seasons, and stages, and every one is different. But it's such a fun challenge to identify what isn't working and to experiment with solutions until we find the ones that click. Inevitably, our routines will continue to evolve, and so will we.