10 Tips to Help Your Kids Build Routines

Like most parents, we try really hard to teach our kids responsibility, accountability and routines. Most of the time it works. Today, it didn’t.

“You forgot to pack my library books today”, my 7-year-old said as she climbed in the car after school. “And it was library day”. Her disappointment was palpable and I could feel a meltdown coming on. I completely understand that my daughter was bummed. She was the only kid that didn’t bring her library books and as a result, didn’t get to check out new ones. She was probably a little embarrassed. That stinks and I felt bad for her.

“It was indeed your library day today. We need to get your new schedule up in your room so that you can always know what you need to pack for school”. I said it gently, but my message was clear to her – remembering her library books and everything she needs for her day is squarely her responsibility and I wasn’t going to let her shift the blame to me.

Oddly, I actually saw the library books sitting in their bin after she left for school that morning. I was heading in the direction of her school and could have probably dropped by before her class’ library time. But what lesson would I have been teaching? That mommy will bail you out if you forget something? That I’ll always be here to remind you what needs to be done?

Why We Do It

It’s sad/crazy to think, but our bouncing little daughter will be leaving for college in about ten years. That means we have just one decade to make sure she’s a self-sufficient human being ready to make adult-size decisions. It’s a little dramatic, sure, but it’s also the reality. I could wait until she turns 16 and hope to cram a ton of life skills into those last two years of high school.

But by that time, we’ll all be stuck in our ways, her used to me doing everything for her, and me worried that this kid won’t know what to do when I’m not there every day. Instead, my husband and I purposefully look for ways to give our kids increasing responsibility from a really young age. We set clear expectations, use simple systems for helping them know what they need to do, and heap on the positive reinforcement when they do it.

Daily Routines

Daily routines are a big part of teaching this responsibility and accountability. At age 7, my daughter largely gets herself up and ready in the morning and again at bedtime. We just do the fun part of coming in for reading and snuggles! She follows a simple checklist (below) that outlines her morning and evening routines.  We’ve been using the same list for two years now and for the most part, it works well.

Above and Below: Morning and Evening Checklists for Our 7-year-old

They lists are taped to a magnetic board in her room. As she completes each tasks, she slides a magnet from “To Do” to “Done”

She also has a list that tells her what she needs to pack for school and any extracurricular activities.

Even our toddler has a tiny set of consistent responsibilities. In the mornings and evenings, he takes his dirty clothes to the laundry hamper. At night, he puts his shoes and jacket by the front door, ready for the next day. After meals, he brings us his dirty plates to be washed. Does he do it perfectly every time? Not a chance, and I wouldn’t expect him to! But the look of pride on his little face when finishes a task and gets a high five assures me we’re on the right track.

Don’t get me wrong here – our kids aren’t perfect robots. There are days when my daughter tries to negotiate skipping her shower or whines when the alarm clock goes off. I consider that normal child behavior for her age. We don’t shame or chastise our kids for acting their age. That said, we don’t encourage poor behavior by caving on the expectation or tolerating disrespectful outbursts. We’ve found consistency to be huge here – the same behavior always returns the same response.

Here’s what’s working for us as we’ve continued to build our household routines and keep our kids accountable for their responsibilities.

10 Tips for Helping Your Child Create a Routine

  1. Consider your child’s age and readiness. 

    I don’t expect my 2-year-old to get ready independently, but I do know that he can pull on his own pants and toss his dirty diaper after I’ve changed him. Find small, manageable tasks and build up from there.

  2. Be reasonable with your expectations.

    We’ve found we can only add 1-2 new responsibilities at a time. Once our daughter is nailing those for a while, we add another.

  3. When giving new responsibilities, do it together several times.

    If you’ve packed your sixth grader’s lunch every morning since kindergarten, suddenly announcing “starting tomorrow you need to make your own lunch” likely won’t go well. Instead, try doing it together for a while. Then watch while they do it themselves a few times. Finally, have them do it alone.

  4. Write down the routine or the schedule.

    For younger kids, pictures work really well. Keep it simple. Keep it visible. Examples of our daughter’s checklists are below.

  5. Make sure that routines are realistic.

    Time your kids with a stop watch to figure out how long tasks really take (hint: it’s always WAY longer than we expect). Then add in an even bigger time buffer.

  6. Be consistent.

    Our routine and responsibilities are the same whether I’m home, my husband is running the show that day or we have a babysitter here.

  7. Recognize good behavior with positive words rather than toys and treats. 

    “I love that you did your bedtime checklist so fast that you had time to play a little afterward” works better in the long run than external rewards like stickers or food treats. The thrill of extrinsic rewards wears off quickly and you’ll have to continue upping the ante in order to get the same results.

  8. Avoid the temptation to “rescue” children from their own mistakes.

    Unless it’s something that will cause a real safety or medical issue, like forgetting her inhaler, my older kiddo is pretty much on her own when she forgets something on her list. No towel for swim practice or belt for karate? We’ve taught her to problem solve (Can you borrow one? Improvise? Do without?) but try to let the consequences be her own.

  9. Role model organization and accountability yourself.

    I now pack my bag the night before and put it right alongside the kids’. I also try really hard to be up and ready before they wake in the morning so if something goes off the rails, I can help get things back on track. This is really hard for me as I’m NOT a morning person, but it makes things go so much smoother.

  10. Have a few visible clocks to track time.

    We have a large digital clock in our daughter’s room and another in the bathroom so she can easily see how she’s doing on time.

** I made (copied!) these checklists a couple years ago from a great example I found online. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original source, otherwise I would attribute it here. If anyone knows, drop me a note so I can give credit where it’s due.

Would love to hear in the comments below what your children are responsible for doing for or by themselves.

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