Getting breakfast ready and packing lunches for our six kids in time to get them all out the door to school in the morning sounds like a lot of hard work. Luckily, my wife, Kylie, and I don’t do it. The children do most of it while we guide and help where required.
Our kids — all daughters (and no, we aren’t and weren’t trying for a boy) — are ages 4 through 18. And over the years we’ve tried all kinds of systems and routines as we’ve tried to make mornings more manageable. Yelling didn’t work. Bribes and reward charts were more trouble than they were worth. Doing everything for them was unsustainable — we all were cranky.
So we kept tinkering with different ideas.
A while back we hit the jackpot with a plan that is finally working well.
We devised a personalized morning checklist for each child — with their input. And we created a breakfast menu and a lunch menu, just like the ones they give you in hotels. We’re talking the works here. For breakfast the children can have cereal, muffins, eggs however they want, smoothies. You name it! And the lunch menu is equally expansive. Each night the kids complete their menus for the next day’s breakfast and lunch.
We’re not serving as their cook, maid and butler. And we’re not forcing them into servitude, either. We’re teaching them life skills, based on the theory of the University of Rochester psychology professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. They suggest that for kids (and adults) to be motivated and happy they need three basic psychological needs to be satisfied: relatedness, competence and autonomy.
We need to feel positively connected to those around us. It’s vital for well-being, motivation and positive family functioning. But consider the average morning in most homes. Parents yell, “Hurry up or you’ll be late! Find your shoes! Where is your bag? Why are you dawdling?” This kind of interaction rarely builds those positive connections. Instead, we need to emphasize calm and kind interactions.
To foster competence, we had to do some heavy lifting in the early years to help our kids learn how to do things for themselves. They had to learn to cook, prepare school clothing, organize their own lunches and learn to use cling wrap. We slowly stopped doing things for them and guided them in learning how to do them for themselves.
Third, we need to have a sense of volition, or autonomy. This means a feeling that “I’m choosing this” rather than a feeling of being forced to do something. Just because they are competent at fixing their breakfast doesn’t mean they’ll do it gladly. We are far more motivated to act when we are acting for ourselves rather than being acted upon by others.
The checklist and the menu became our secret weapons. They gave the children a sense that they were in control. (Autonomy and volition; check.) They allowed the children to use their competence to make the foods of their choice. (Mastery; check.) And they provided the setting for relationships to be primarily positive in the mornings. (Relatedness; check.)
How does it work?
Rule #1: The morning begins the night before.
After dinner, the kids fill in their menus for the next day. They select their preferred breakfast. Don’t feel like cooking scrambled eggs? That’s fine. Grab some yogurt. Then they complete their lunch menu. They go to bed on time (and without devices in their rooms). And Kylie and I ensure we’ve got the right food in the fridge. Mornings without milk and bread don’t work, so shopping is one of our responsibilities.
We live in Australia, where school uniforms are compulsory. We make sure every night that uniforms are ironed, shoes and socks are in their place, hats are sorted, and everything is set out for the next day, including school bags and lunchboxes. We don’t want to be searching the house for anything in the morning rush, so it’s all organized before bed.
Rule #2: Create a morning checklist
If you’re constantly telling the kids what to do in the mornings, save your energy by creating a simple checklist for them to follow. Stick it on their wall. Use pictures if they’re too young to read.
And no rewards. Just a check-box if they want to tick that they’ve done it.
Rule #3: Wake up 10 minutes early
Start the day off by getting up earlier than you need to — and by getting the kids up earlier than they need to. But do it gently and kindly. Sit on your kids’ beds and scratch their backs. Spend a few minutes talking to them about their day and what they’re looking forward to. Then let them know it’s time to get moving and you’re there to help if they need it.
Rule #4: Do as little as possible
This is the best bit. Watch your kids do their stuff. They’ll leave their room dressed for school because guess what? Their clothes were laid out the night before.
They’ll walk into the kitchen, grab their menu, and organize things themselves, because again, it was laid out the night before.
If they get stuck, you can help them to scramble the eggs or whatever is beyond them. But if cereal or yogurt is on the menu, even the 4-year-old can handle it herself.
They’ll grab their lunch menu and organize their fruit, their veggies, their snack and their drink. They might ask for a bit of help with a sandwich if they’re small. Maybe cling wrap is tricky. You can give them a hand. But they can do most of it on their own, and it’s easy because they did the thinking last night.
Now and then they’ll look a little lost. You get to say, “What’s next on your list?” Or you might ask, “Is there something you need a hand with?”
But most of the time, your job is to sit, smile and help out where needed. This means we do some tidying at the sink, offer help, and we’re able to cater to the occasional emergency when a task feels too great or someone is too tired and can’t walk because “my legs are hurting.”
When it doesn’t work
Now and then we still have one of those mornings where nothing works. But this tends to be the result of a late night, a lack of preparation the night before, or our failure to be sure that there are basic food preferences in the fridge. (We’re not indulgent here. Fruit, veggies, milk, bread and eggs are the basics for breakfast, and some standard lunch meats, salads and snacks are all we need for lunch. Once the kids are in a routine they tend to stick with what they know. Two trips each week to the grocery store are enough for us to keep up with demand.
Other issues arise from time to time. A child who had a fight with a friend one day may not want to go to school the next morning. There may be some sibling rivalry over who gets to use the toaster first. A parent who is not rushed is better able to respond to the emotional crises that occur in a family of six girls. But so long as we’re on top of the things we can control, no one fights over the last yogurt cup.
It’s true that this process requires time and attention in the evenings, which is tough if both parents work late. And it’s true that some of these tasks are a challenge for kids under 5 — but you can adapt the method and delegate tasks that your child is up to. Maybe a preschooler wants to butter her own toast or slice a banana. And before you know it your family really can have magic mornings.