The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)
Back to the School, Back to Routines
Like many of you, my kids went back to school this last week. Of course, we captured the obligatory “first day” photo. The kids stood by the front door, donned their backpacks, and put on some pretty smiles. What this photo didn’t show was the chaos which occurred before it was taken.
The chaos involved me running around, tracking down school supplies that didn’t make it to back-to-school night, barking orders to put on shoes and brush teeth, and attempting to install piggy tails on the head of a constantly moving three-year-old. In the fun and carefree nature of summer, I forgot our need for routines.
My family has always relied heavily on routines. When I was still teaching and we had to leave the house ridiculously early in the morning, routines were vital to getting anywhere on time. Even now that we don’t have such a tight schedule, routines provide us with stability and comfort. We have routines for morning, after school, dinnertime, and bedtime that provide predictability and calmness in our home.
Consistently implementing and practicing routines helps children develop executive functioning skills. As a child is exposed to routines and training on how to stay organized and make positive decisions, the prefrontal cortex in the child’s brain builds connections that develop executive functioning skills, which include working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. In most people, these skills aren’t fully developed until age 25. In cases where children have challenges like ADHD, learning disabilities, or a lack of training by positive role models, these connections take even longer.1
Adults tend to assume that kids should just know how to do things like keep track of their homework, remember to do their chores, and follow simple directions. But kids aren’t born with these skills; they are only born with the potential to develop them.1 Being intentional about implementing routines, practicing routines, and adjusting routines to fit the needs of your child can go a long way in helping them develop executive functioning skills.
These are four key routines we’ve established in our home. What works for these routines in our home will need tweaking for your home, because every family has different needs. They don’t guarantee success every day, but they certainly reduce chaos and stress.
#1: To-Go Spot
I hate the by-the-door pile of backpacks and coats. Putting the kids’ coats and bags in their rooms didn’t work for us either. So my husband constructed “lockers” for the kids to place hats, mittens, coats, backpacks, and sports equipment. This sets up our mornings for success because the kids can grab all their things in one spot and get out the door. Every night, we do a check to make sure everything that needs to go to school is in the lockers.
You don’t have to have a carpenter in your house or make a trip to IKEA for furniture. Placing a large box or bin near the door for each person will work just as well. It will take a week or two to get your kids used to the routine of placing everything in the to-go spot and then grabbing everything out of it on the way out the door. I promise, though, this will make a huge difference in the morning if you feel the stress of the morning scramble.
#2: Family Meal
Admittedly, this doesn’t happen every day for us, and I know it will get even more difficult as my kids get older. But having at least a few meals a week as a family makes a huge difference in family dynamics. In a meta-analysis of studies done by physicians over the last 200 years on the impact of families eating meals together, researchers concluded: “Eating frequent family meals was associated with better psychosocial outcomes for children and adolescents. Frequent family meals were inversely associated with disordered eating, alcohol and substance use, violent behavior, and feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide. There was a positive relationship between frequent family meals and increased self-esteem and commitment to learning or a higher grade point average.”2 Eating dinner together doesn’t solve the problems of the world, but it does seem to have a generally positive impact on children as they grow.
For us, dinner is the meal we can all sit around the table together, share about our days, and spend quality time together. We don’t allow technology at the table (except when we’re having a debate or inquiry that requires assistance from Google), and we stay at the table together until we’re all done eating. It’s not what you’re eating that’s important to the routine; we’ve had our fair share of take-out and leftovers. It’s about the quality time we spend getting to know each other and growing together as a family.
With the exception of rare special events that keep us out late, we keep the same bedtime routine every day, all year long. We set bedtime based on what time our kids wake up in the morning. They are early risers even when they don’t need to be, so they go to bed earlier than many kids their ages to get an adequate amount of sleep. Sleep deprivation over long periods of time can lead to obesity, cardiovascular issues, and mood disorders.3 While there is a ton of debate as to what adequate sleep looks like for children of different ages, I have found that I don’t need guidelines from a doctor to tell me if my kids are getting enough sleep. I just go off of what my kids’ behavior tells me. Our kids are just not themselves when they don’t get sleep.
We’ve gotten some criticism for our strict adherence to bedtime. We’ve left events early, opted out of opportunities that would keep up out too late on week nights, and excused ourselves from social gatherings. But sleep is important, and so we prioritize it. Bedtime routines in our house continue to change as the kids get older, but they always involve settling down, having a snack, and preparing to go to sleep.
#4: Family Worship
A common phrase in the church communications world is “seize the 167”. This means that people who work in positions like me need to find ways to utilize the 167 hours of each week that people spend outside of church. Parents need to do the same. In his book Family Worship, Donald Whitney explains how family worship plays a role in children’s faith as adults: “It is unlikely that exposure to the church once or twice a week will impress your children enough with the greatness and glory of God that they will want to pursue him once they leave your home. That is why family worship is so important.”4
Our family accomplishes this with devotions. At least five times per week, we get together before bedtime to read a Bible story or devotion and discuss. We use the Bible and Bible for Kids apps by YouVersion because they work for us, but there are dozens of books available too. After reading Whitney’s book, we want to expand our worship time to include music and consistent prayer. Bedtime devotion become a routine that our kids eagerly anticipate each night, and we enjoy the opportunity to give glory to God through our family devotion time.
Start Small, Grow Big
You probably have some routines that already work for your family. And, if you’re like me, you probably also have some routines that you need to tweak. Whether you’re adjusting an existing routine or adding a new one into your day, I encourage you to start small. Changing one element at a time, practicing it with your family, and evaluating whether or not it’s working before making additional changes puts you on a path of success.
Maybe your day-to-day routines work so well that you don’t need to make any changes. (If so, please share your secret with me!) But if you don’t have a weekly routine that includes family worship and attending church, you’ve got yourself a great routine to start. This is the only routine with spiritual and eternal benefits for you and your family.
Routines are the key to getting to school on time, reducing chaos in your home, and increasing happiness in your home. We want our kids to be successful in school and life, and that success starts with the wisdom of God. So, start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6).
1 Harvard University. (2017). Executive function and self-regulation. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
2 Harrison, M. et al. (February 2015). Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Canadian Family Physician, 61(2): e96–e106. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325878/
3 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (April 2019). How does inadequate sleep affect health? National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/sleep/conditioninfo/inadequate-sleep
4 Whitney, D. (2016). Family Worship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. p. 14.