Mornings before school at our house used to be the stuff of nightmares. Far too often, we’d wake up late, myself included, then scramble to find clean uniforms, eat breakfast and pack lunches. There was always at least one child searching for a shoe and often one trying to finish homework he’d forgotten to do.
One memorable morning, I realized, five minutes before we had to be out the door, that one son was still in bed. I roused him, grabbed a uniform so he could change into it in the car, handed him a bar to eat on the way, and we headed to school. When it was our turn in the drop-off line, all the kids piled out—except the sleepyhead. I turned around to see what the holdup was, and I saw a manifestation of one of the most classic nightmares of all. The kid literally went to school with no pants on. He sat there with his skinny bare legs and a sheepish grin and said, “Can we go back home and get my pants?”
I could hardly be mad when I was laughing so hard. We found his pants on the garage floor; he had dropped them in his haste, and I walked him into the office. I waited until he was out of earshot, then I couldn’t resist sharing our story with the office staff. My kids have forgotten a lot of things, but this was a first.
You may have noticed that I said mornings used to be terrible at our house. I’m happy to report that my use of the past tense was intentional. I used to get home after dropping kids off and I’d have to just sit for a while and decompress from the trauma of the morning. Now I actually enjoy our mornings, even though all five of my kids are in school now, from middle school down to preschool.
What brought about this great change, you might ask? Science. Once I realized how ridiculous our mornings had gotten, I put my mad scientist hat on and decided to deconstruct all of the recurring problems and conduct some new experiments to see if we could change our morning formula.
If you prefer you could also think of yourself as a designer, or an engineer—sniffing out the problem spots in your household routines and figuring out a new solution.
I like to think of my house as my laboratory, And one of one of my favorite places to experiment is with daily routines—in the morning, after school, and 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. Then, I find myself actually looking forward to those tricky situations, so I can try my latest experiment.
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!
In this episode, I’m going to talk about some of the routine experiments we’ve tried. Some worked for a while and then stopped being relevant, some failed quickly, others are still going strong.
It seems to make sense to start with morning, mostly because it’s first, but it’s also where we’ve had the most successful turnaround. I’ll share 10 of our best experiments.
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 Fried Egg Friday, which is actually eggs made any way, plus sausage or bacon. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they make their own breakfast of cereal, yogurt and granola, toast, oatmeal, or eggs.
3. Staggered wakeup times. My 13-year-old wakes up at 6:00. This experiment started as a way to try to fit in more one-on-one time with him. We spend time together and talk about the upcoming day while he eats breakfast, makes his lunch and gets ready for school. The added bonus is that he has loved waking up and getting his chores done early. When he sleeps in his day just doesn’t go as smoothly. He now usually gets himself out of bed and he’s even cheerful about it—most of the time.
4. Morning snuggles. I used to 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, I realized my kids are fully capable of making their own lunches (even in kindergarten), 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 also now pack a lunch for my four-year-old, too, while everything is out. He feels big, and has a lunch ready, whether we’re at home or out and about.
6. iPad time. A couple of years ago, I made a rule that 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 gathered in there to watch them play, which is another bonus. Now that they’re older and have more self-control when it’s time to turn electronics off, I let them use the computer or iPad in the house if they prefer.
7. Sock Dispensers. There were several problems I was trying to solve here. One was that socks and shoes were making us late to school. My kids were always looking for matching socks or a missing shoe. I decided I wanted to keep both shoes and socks by the garage door. So we moved our laundry room downstairs, turned it into a mudroom, with cubbies for each kid, including a place for their shoes. Then we added sock dispensers in the corner of each cubbie—just pvc pipes with a 90-degree joint at the bottom. Now the kids can stick their clean socks in the top and pull out fresh ones in the morning as we’re leaving for school. The other big problem this solved was the problem of matching socks, which I hate. Each kid has their own type of sock, and I only buy packages of socks that are the same and don’t need to be matched. The kids just put single socks in the dispenser and pull out two each morning. Instant matches.
8. 10- and 5-minute warnings. I make sure to announce both 10 minutes and 5 minutes before it’s time to go out the door, just so there’s no last-minute panic. This is their signal to get off the computer, grab their shoes and backpack and make those final touches on their hairstyle. Sometimes I set an alarm on my phone 5 minutes before we have to leave with the song from Home Alone—the scene when they’re all scrambling to get to the airport. It makes us laugh, and
9. 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.
10. 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. I have five kids and there are 5 days, so each kid just has a set day, from youngest to oldest. 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).
11. 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 don’t fall asleep halfway through the book. We laugh and interact way more, even pausing to look at details of the pictures. And if he wants another book, 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 a quick 20-30-minute nap, or just sit and read a book, right before it's time to pick them up from school.
2. Strategic dinnertime. My husband works late almost every night, so he rarely makes it to family dinner. I know the family dinner is an important time for many families, and it actually took me a while to realize it just wasn’t going to be a thing for us. Instead, we try to do family time right before bed. But without that restraint on our timing, I can be flexible and strategic with dinnertime.
Once after-school activities begin, the actual time varies from night to night. But when we can, my favorite schedule is 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 some rest in afterwards. I sometimes have to reheat a few things once the kids get home or keep it warm in the oven, instant pot, or crock pot. 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 other advantage of an early dinner is that the kids have time to help clean up, since it’s not bed time right away. We have a wheel that rotates the jobs everyone is in charge of. Now that the kids are older and more capable, we’re getting more successful at this.
4. Planner check. My kids have always struggled with writing homework in their planners. A couple of years ago I even went so far as to charge them a dollar every time it was blank. Last year I realized that positive reinforcement is a better tactic. So I've been having a planner check after dinner and doling out gummy worms to the kids who filled them out. Then they get started on any homework they have to do.
5. Limiting extracurricular activities. Last year, I had one kid in robotics club, one in football, one in dance, and one in soccer. Two of these involved commitments three times a week, including games. Four kids were also taking piano lessons, and three attended weekly church youth group. This year, my four-year-old wanted to get in on the action too, and do soccer. And that’s when my head exploded.
It was time to get creative. I texted a couple of moms whose kids to football with my son, and asked if their younger kids wanted to play soccer during football practice. My plan is to do a couple of little drills with my three youngest kids and their friends during practice and then just let them play for the rest of the time. My oldest son will ride his bike to and from his tennis practices, all three boys will ride bikes to piano, and suddenly I’m only driving to football twice a week and youth group once a week. And I’m actually excited about fall!
Kristin Duke just released a great podcast about simplifying your family schedule, episode 75 of the Beyond Good Intentions Podcast. She and her guest Becky Proudfit have a really thought-provoking conversation about how to figure out what activities to sign your kids up for and when enough is enough. One of my favorite things they talked about was scheduling a family appointment each week, and protecting time for it like you would any other kind of practice.
6. One-on-one time during activities. Two years ago, , 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.
7. 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 started getting to the park a half hour earlier than practice started, and let him play with his siblings at the playground. Then when it was time to go to practice, it was an easy and natural transition.
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.