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Make Over Your Morning Routine for Kids

messy kitchen

Jenny Risher

Juliet, Brian, and 8-year-old Tate
Brooklyn, New York

Common Hurdles Extended early-morning chat and chew; last-minute scrambles for permission slips, umbrellas, homework, and cash for school sales or events. (Oh, and the dog needs to be walked.)

The Expert Erica Ecker, The Spacialist, a professional organizer and time-management advisor in New York City

Morning Story Juliette hates being the nag who has to break up the breakfast-table conversations between her live-in boyfriend, Brian, and her son, Tate: "They have the gift of gab, and there are always shenanigans," Juliette says affectionately. "They have lots of discussions about what outer space might be like, or inventions that need to be invented." When Tate finally does extract himself from the table, he has only a few minutes to get dressed, find socks, pick up money for the vending machine at school, and locate permission slips and get them signed. Their proper, sit-down breakfast -- complete with Tate's "tea" (milk, hot water, and honey) -- is one thing that Juliette refuses to give up, despite its propensity for making the family run late every morning.

Of that last-minute rush, Ecker asks, "Who needs that mood-souring after half an hour of family bliss?" Juliette figured out that they need to be up from the table at precisely 8:17 a.m. in order to leave the house by 8:25 a.m., so Ecker suggests setting a cell-phone alarm to go off at 8:14 a.m.: "Make it a fun sound, like a duck quacking. When Tate hears that, he knows he has three minutes to finish his toast and finish his story."

To avoid the mayhem between breakfast and the door, Ecker recommends tapping into Tate's love of storytelling the night before: Part of his and Juliette's bedtime routine will be his telling the story of tomorrow. Will there be a bake sale at school? Juliette will know to put some change in his back-pack. Is a permission slip due? She will sign it and put that in there too.

In order to expedite the last (and often most frantic) minutes before departure, Ecker tells Juliette to bulk-shop online. "If you know that you can never find the umbrella, order a bunch of cheap ones, and keep three by the door and the rest in your bedroom closet," she says. Buy a whole bunch of the same socks in bulk, so that even mismatched pairs still go together. If possible, keep a supply of single dollar bills on hand too and declare them off-limits for anything other than those school-related money requirements.

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messy kitchen

Jenny Risher

Sally, Gregg, 8-year-old Eddie, and 6-year-old Jane
Encino, California

Common Hurdles General dawdling. Multiple (and escalating) pleas to eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, put shoes on. An easily distractible 8-year-old and a rather stubborn 6-year-old.

The Expert Sharon Pieters, parenting coach in Los Angeles and Chicago and founder of ChildMinded.com

Morning Story No, the piano is not a logical next stop after eating breakfast and before brushing teeth, but it's not beyond Eddie to meander over to the bench, plunk down, and practice his lessons. Meanwhile, Jane insists on wearing a particular T-shirt with a particular skirt and will spend half an hour looking for them and then have a tantrum instead of opting for another outfit.

Since every morning is a short blitz of prodding and prompting and reminding, the idea of blowing her stack to get stuff done doesn't really appeal to Sally -- especially because she knows that as soon as she drops the kids off, she will return to her home office in a peaceful, stress-free house.

Pieters's first question to Sally: Is morning the only time she can't get her children under control? Sally's answer: predominantly, yes. That's good news, says Pieters. When your kids' recalcitrance extends to other places or times of the day, it means "they don't listen to you because they know there is no major consequence," she says. "When I go and help families, I am so strict and I turn the kids' lives upside-down," she says. "And they love it. They thrive on clear rules and boundaries."

Her recommendations might require some guts, but Pieters swears they work -- and immediately -- since their shock value shortens the learning curve. "If your kid doesn't want to get dressed, drop him off at school in his pajamas. I promise it will never happen again." She points out that this tactic also works with children who get sucked into the vortex of morning television or video games: "If they tell you they don't want to brush their teeth or get ready, just sit down with them and hang out," she suggests. Most likely, they'll be puzzled and will start prodding you to get moving. (Reverse psychology: 3,923,721; kids: zilch.) If not, though -- and obviously, only on a morning when your own schedule allows this -- "take them to school late and have them explain to the secretary that they're not on time because they wanted to watch TV," she says. "You certainly don't want to shame children, but there are specific instances when it actually helps for them to have to admit, 'I didn't listen to Mom and that's why this happened.' The point is to teach your child responsibility." If that tactic doesn't work for you, try instilling a rule that your child can only watch TV once she is dressed and her backpack is waiting by the door. "This alone proves to be an incentive; kids love having time to relax before school," says Pieters.

Beyond suggesting to Sally that she maintain more toughness each morning, Pieters also recommends that she observe her children with their teachers: "Why is it that a teacher can round up 20 students and get them moving?" You might see them responding to specific commands or discover that their teachers have special hand signals that get the kids to quiet down. These are things you can adopt and ritualize, since the reason it works for the teacher is because she does it all the time. When you see that kind of obedience in action at school, you know you can get a piece of it each morning at home.

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Margie, Flo, 7-year-old Max, 5-year-old Theo, and 3-year-old Owen
Cleveland, Ohio

Common Hurdles Waking three boys and getting them dressed. Packing lunches. Two kids go off to one school, the third goes to day care. Plus, Margie works a few days a week, so those mornings require leaving earlier.

The Expert Andrea Sharb, certified professional organizer and coach in Cleveland

Morning Story Never wake a sleeping baby. Margie has been taking this advice to heart for more than seven years -- which is why she doesn't like having to rouse her kids. "I resist it for whatever reasons -- I feel guilty or I'm a softy," she admits. Besides, the longer they sleep, the more uninterrupted time she has to prepare the boys' lunches -- a daily stressor, because she wants them to take along a healthy, home-prepared meal. Once the boys are up, she finds herself in nonstop-nag mode: "Max in particular needs constant reminders of what to do and also needs to be reminded of the time." He's also easily distractible and a chatterbox. "I feel bad when I have to cut him off and get us going," Margie says.

And yet, when Sharb asked Max what his mornings entailed, "he rattled off everything he needed to do -- he knew it all," Margie says incredulously. Sharb recommends skipping the endless reminders and instead posting a visual chart of each step in the process, then laminating it or hanging it in a plastic folder so Max can use a grease pencil to mark everything off as he's done it. "He'll feel less nagged and more in charge," Sharb says. Margie will make one for Theo too -- and believes that their brotherly rivalry will spur them to get out the door a lot faster than her pleas ever would. Since Theo and Max share a room and go to the same school, Margie plans to retire her chirpy-morning-dove duties and get them an alarm clock. Three-year-old Owen has his own room and wakes up on his own -- and his dad, Flo, shuttles him off to day care on his way to work.

As for those lunches that slow Margie down, Sharb recommends blocking out 15 minutes to make them the night before, after the boys are in bed. "We often underestimate how much time it takes to do some things," Sharb says, "and packing lunches is definitely one of them."

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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