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.
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."
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?
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."
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."
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