Can first-graders manage their own morning routines?
ParentingPerspective By Meghan Leahy
Q: What are reasonable expectations for first-graders to manage their own morning routines? I’m finding myself getting really frustrated at the thousandth “put your shoes and jacket on.” I also give reminders to get dressed and brush teeth, but it feels as if they’re getting old enough to be more self-starting. We leave a reasonable amount of time to get ready, but I need to get to work, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room. How do I set all of us up for success? Should I use chore charts, rewards or punishments, or should I let it go, because they’re not ready to manage more on their own yet? Natural consequences are limited, because I can’t send them to school in pajamas and with no shoes. I’m also the only one who cares about being late. (There’s no bus to miss, because I drop them off.) There’s also a pre-K kid in the mix. They need more hands-on direction, but I’m open to being told that my expectations are uncalibrated there, too.
A: What a great question! Determining what’s developmentally appropriate for your child is a mixture of science and intuition, trial and error. You can read every book and article out there, but at the end of the day, all that matters is what is happening in your house, during your morning hustle. Let’s first accept a universal parenting truth: Whenever you are facing a hard deadline (getting to work), you are going to have a harder time. We keep thinking: “I can’t be late for work, I can’t be late for work.” This stress quickly complicates even the best-laid plans, so know this: Any plan you make cannot be done in moments of stress. I love that you “leave a reasonable amount of time to get ready,” because that is a must, no matter the plan. I also love that you want to set your child up for success, because your intentions matter as much as the plan you create. To figure out what’s appropriate for your child, we can first look at developmental norms. A typical first-grader has a wide array of skills available to them. These skills are different for each child, and they are based on temperament, developmental issues and more. A first-grader can usually be logical, patient, considerate, funny and acutely aware of fairness and friendship issues. Their ability to communicate has increased, but there can be quick slides into meltdowns and clinginess. (After all, they are giving their best at school every day.) As for routines, some first-graders love order, and they get everything done without a problem. Other first-graders cannot seem to make it from A to B without distractions and diversions, and they don’t seem to care about their teeth or clothing. We also need to take into account your part in the resistance. In my book, “Parenting Outside the Lines,” I refer to what I call “drive-by parenting,” which is when parents yell commands and demands while walking by their children, from one room to another or from one floor to another. These requests — “put your shoes and jacket on” — not only don’t work, but they also create power struggles, selective deafness or both. Pause and consider how many times you repeat yourself, and think about what your child’s reaction is. Simply switching from nagging to getting on your child’s level while you speak could make a huge difference. Your child could need one good redirect rather than 12 passive reminders. When planning, start small and go from there. Call a meeting with your child and say: “I have noticed your shoes and jacket are tough to locate in the morning. Tell me what you think is going on.” Then listen carefully. Maybe your child says, “I can never find them” (an organizational issue), “I want to play more” or “I don’t like waiting in the cafeteria in the morning, because it’s too loud.” The closer you get to what is standing in the way, the better your plan can be. It may be that your child is distracted. You may need to streamline your morning, because too much choice can lead to boredom and chaos. In any case, frame (and reframe) your plan with your child to be as cooperative as possible. Yes, children don’t have our same priorities (that’s not their job), and raising children is an exercise in patience, but if you keep a sense of humor and stay on your child’s side, you will find the right path. Mostly. Good luck.