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Smart Secrets for Establishing Good Family Habits

Stress-Free Family Meals With Laurie David
Stress-Free Family Meals With Laurie David

In general, we know what's good for our kids. But sometimes we need to know how to master family habits. While it sounds simple to make sure your child gets X hours of sleep or watches less than Y hours of TV or eats Z amounts of vegetables, the demands of real life can derail these goals. But there's no need to throw in the towel. "With any routine you're finding hard to establish, you need to ask yourself what the obstacles are and deal with those first," says Claire Lerner, director of Parenting Resources at Zero to Three, in Washington, D.C. "And you have to be flexible and make adaptations, or you'll end up feeling like a jack of all trades and master of none."

We've rounded up lots of moms and experts with real-life perspective to explain not just which routines are important for kids but how to actually make them happen.

Why to Do It
family breakfast

Veer

Experts say that eating meals as a family improves kids' nutrition, communication skills, sense of belonging and stability, relationship with parents, and table manners. Maureen Frank, a mother of two and a veteran foster parent in Federal Way, Washington, says she saw the benefits very quickly, especially in the bonding department. "The kids talk at dinner," she says. "You can play with them all day, but when we're all sitting around the table, that's when they really spill about all their problems and the best parts of their day."

How to Do It

  • Don't think dinner's your only option. For some families, like the Hoseins, of San Jose, California, having both parents home for dinner is just not feasible. Instead, "we have family breakfast daily and pancake Sundays, where the kids cook with their dad," says mom Megana. Family mealtime is about making connections, which you can do over lunch or a snack. Turn off all distractions, so no TV, phone calls, e-mail, or text messaging during chow time.
  • Say yes to shortcuts. This lets you spend your time eating dinner with your kids rather than cooking it by yourself. Make meals that will last for a few days, order in, and freeze food. "You have to make compromises, so you might not be whipping up chicken cordon bleu every night," says Candace Lindemann, a mother of two in Miller Point, New York.
  • Keep it positive. Getting kids to clean their plates can be an ordeal. So if you want to digest your own food, try to steer clear of power struggles. "We put food out there, but my daughter doesn't have to eat, as long as she's had enough over the course of a couple of days," Lindemann says. And consider lowering your expectations for what a "sit-down" meal means; by the time you've finished serving (putting the food on the plate they had in mind, cutting everything up into bite-size pieces, and mopping up juice spills), the kids may well be done. Remember that it's a work in progress, and cut everyone -- yourself included -- plenty of slack.

Why to Do It

There have been plenty of headlines lately about how crucial sleep is for children's cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Will Wilkoff, MD, a pediatrician in Brunswick, Maine, and author of How to Say No to Your Toddler, says that well-rested kids are happier kids: "As they go through their day, everything they do will be done better." Powerful incentive. But what about all the obstacles to an early lights-out?

How to Do It

  • Commit, commit, commit. "Parents have to decide to make sleep a priority because if they don't, there aren't many children who will ask for a bedtime," says William Doherty, PhD, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and author of The Intentional Family. Once you decide that you're going to buckle down on bedtime, your first steps will be to figure out what's getting in the way and then to tackle the culprit.
  • Accept the trade-off. It can be tempting to push back bedtime for an extra half hour with the kids, but this can backfire: "Maybe you get more time with your child, but then he's cranky and wakes up early -- and everyone's cranky," Lerner says. Cutting your evening short to accommodate bedtime will make your nighttime routine and the next morning much more enjoyable.
  • Exploit the morning. If an early bedtime means losing time together, it's often an easy shift to make morning the special time with your child. Little ones are early risers, after all, and the a.m. is usually when their moods are sunniest. You may require extra coffee in the morning, but dealing with a well-rested child will definitely be worth it.

Why to Do It
cleaning up

Veer

Life would be much easier if kids cleaned up after themselves, but teaching little mess-makers to be tidy can be exhausting. Even though it's twice the work and takes more time, teaching kids to pick up after themselves is worth the effort. "It teaches them responsibility and the importance of taking care of one's things," says Lerner. "And it shows them they're capable, important contributors to the family, which builds self-esteem and teaches them the value of cooperation."

How to Do It

  • Limit clutter. Enforcing the standard rule of "We don't take out a new toy until we've put the last one away" is often easier if the toy selection is limited. "We keep most of the toys in the basement," says Heather Musil, a mother of two in Minneapolis, "and in the playroom we allow just three buckets of toys at a time." Make sure every toy has a designated place where it belongs, within the reach of little arms.
  • Make it fun. Singing one of those silly cleanup songs is surprisingly effective for motivation. If that isn't enough, try playing a game like "mailman" -- have your child load up a wagon or dump truck with stray toys and deliver them to the right destination.
  • Applaud effort. Remember to give A's for effort, even if it doesn't exactly get the job done. And if you encounter a lot of resistance, try not to dig in your heels; move on and try again later. "If you teach the kids to clean up in a way that's not onerous, they will copy your behavior," Dr. Wilkoff says.

Why to Do It

Kids and parents thrive when they get uninterrupted time together, but it can be tough in the chaos of daily living. Even though Frank stays at home with her kids, bonds during family dinner, and cuddles at bedtime, she still feels like she's not having enough spontaneous fun with them. Doherty believes this is an impossible burden of guilt: "Modern mothers feel they have to be early childhood educators 24/7," he says. "Children did perfectly well when their fathers were hunters and mothers were gatherers."

How to Do It

  • Lighten your load. Something's got to give, so let it go. "Cleaning is one thing I did instead of spending time with them," Musil says. "So now I have somebody clean my house once a month, and in between I accept that it won't be very clean." Even if you can't pay for help, you can delegate to more-or-less willing parties, like your husband.
  • Keep it simple. The most basic activities often mean the most to kids, so you can bond over a trip to the grocery store: Teach your baby about fruits, or pretend the freezer department is the North Pole with your preschooler. "Quality time is not about manufacturing a project that your kids may or may not want to be involved in," says Dr. Wilkoff. "It's about getting to know what your child likes to do and realizing it may change in five minutes."
  • Protect the time. Set aside an hour when you won't check e-mail or answer the phone. Hosein started a tradition of afternoon teatime with her kids (and VIP stuffed animals). "When you are a stay-at-home parent, there's a lot of 'Go entertain yourselves because I have to do the dishes,'" she says. "This builds playtime into the day for me."

Here's what moms have to say about how their big plans, prebaby, panned out in real life.

"I remember hearing children screaming in Wal-Mart and swearing I would never let my daughter get away with that type of behavior! I never realized just how hard it was to keep kids in line!"
-- Kristi Toms, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, mom to Marissa, 2

"I swore that my daughter would never taste sweets until she was old enough to get them herself. Wrong!"
-- April Vannoy, of St. Petersburg, Florida, mom to Celeste, 21 months

"I thought I would sit my child on the potty and we'd stay there until he went. Then he'd be trained. Boy, was I ever wrong!"
-- Christy Drymalski, of Crystal Lake, Illinois, mom to Brian, 5, and Alex, 2

"I allow more TV time than I ever thought I would. I use it to help entertain the kids while I'm doing dishes, as a transition to bathtime, and when I'm trying to get some work done."
-- Jenifer Michaels, of Republic, Ohio, mom to Shelby, 2, and Sydney, 3 weeks

"I never thought I'd co-sleep, but I found it made us a much more well-rested family until our daughter was sleeping through the night."
-- Bekah Jorgensen, of St. Paul, Minnesota, mom to Natali, 1

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.