Sleep and food are among the most basic essentials of life. Yet why does it seem that bedtime and mealtime are the most hectic time of the day with kids? This year, you probably made some kind of resolution to eat more home-cooked meals or read to your kid more or maybe just get more organized in all aspects of life. Well, it all starts with establishing—and sticking with-routines.
Establishing basic routines, including spiritual customs, play a role in helping family members feel calm, peaceful, and secure. Think of your home as an oasis against stress: no matter what is going on in the outside world, our most personal and intimate space (the home) can be a safe haven.
Routines come in many different forms and will vary for each family, based on factors like family size, geographic location, religious observance, etc. That said, there are some specific activities that every family does every day. Drawing from my book, The Joys and Oys of Parenting, let’s take a look at two of the most common of these, mealtime and bedtime, and ways to help them be more a source of joy, than of oy.
Now that the holidays have passed and all the big plans and parties that filled your schedule are no more, mealtime can finally be a priority again. These tips will help you establish a routine early in the year:
It’s that simple. Your meals don’t have to be fancy, or pretty, or even all that peaceful. But the act of spending set time together can have a big impact on our children. Sit around the table and share some thoughts, such as a highlight of each person’s day. Try the game, "Roses and Thorns," where each person takes a turn describing a good thing that happened that day (their “rose”) and a low moment or tough problem they had to deal with (their “thorn”). It’s a fun, easy way to identify the oys and highlight the joys of life that happen every day.
Acknowledge the gifts of food and each other.
Offering a blessing or expression of thanks before and after eating can separate mealtime from the rest of our day as well as make us feel better. This works whether we are appreciating the skills of those who helped create the food, the Creator of all life, or both. It’s an especially useful practice after the holidays to practice sharing what the whole family is grateful for.
Create a spirit of cooperation around mealtime.
Mention how important it is for everyone to pitch in and help with the family routine. Then create an informal chart of basic tasks (like clearing the table) that clarifies responsibilities from day-to-day (based on your family’s preference). When kids see that their actions are recognized on a chart, accompanied by appreciative words, it’s often enough to reinforce these positive behaviors. Once the tasks are completed, make time for family fun if you can.
Don’t be too rushed.
This may be the greatest challenge of all. Many families are not used to taking time to talk at meals and put aside electronic devices. But kids strongly appreciate time to talk about their day and to be listened to carefully. Just don’t probe too deeply too soon. They will talk more as they feel more comfortable, which means parents not interrupting or “correcting” the way they feel. Patiently listen and empathize. Gradually, you will find your children will be more willing to open up about their feelings, particularly things that might be bothering them or that they feel excited about.
Bedtime can often be the most hectic time of day, and winding down the kids doesn’t always go as planned. But taking the time to make a ritual out of the experience can help your kids—and you—wind down and spend some quality time together.
There is something timeless and special about reading an actual book out loud to someone else, especially one of your children. Reading is an excellent way to connect and share something personal, the gift of imagination. And parents don’t have to be the only readers! Encouraging an older child to read to a younger child benefits both. If time is an issue, you can read short books or chapter books, because reading one chapter a night is a great way to continue a dialogue with our kids. It also gives them something to look forward to the next day. As with all routines, it’s wise to set limits in advance, so there are no surprises about when reading will end. The last thing your family needs is to end the day with conflict, or extended negotiations.
Ask your children to share with you three positive moments during the day, or perhaps their top moment of the day. Ask them why and how they felt during those moments. Wind up by sharing with your children what you are thankful for each day and encourage them to do the same. There is good science behind talking about what we appreciate in our lives (measurable positive effects on the body and brain). Being thankful together can also help family members feel closer to one-another.
Use a calming, meaningful meditation, poem, prayer, or saying.
Children (and parents) derive comfort from having a saying of some kind to end the day. It’s no coincidence that this is part of many religious traditions, but it need not be religious. Remember the old TV show, “The Walton’s”? The ending had everyone saying goodnight to everyone in the house. We know one household where that happens and also includes all the stuffed animals in the child’s room. It can be as simple as that.
There is no manual or perfect way to set schedules and implement routines in your home because every family is different. Do what fits for your family, do it as consistently as you can, and make adjustments when the routines are no longer working (which is inevitable as children age!). After all, the goal is to make your lives less hectic and to bring a bit more security, peace, and calm to your children and your household.
Maurice J. Elias is a Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University and the Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. He recently wrote a book, The Joys & Oys of Parenting, with colleagues Marilyn E. Gootman and Heather L. Schwartz. In this book, they draw on traditional wisdom to illustrate how, centuries ago, parenting matters were addressed in ways that are supported by child development research today.