No child wakes up in the morning thinking, “Today’s the day I’m going to make life awful for my parents.” However, now and then we might be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what is going through their mind.
We find ourselves pleading with them (or yelling at them) to “Get out of bed! You’re going to be late!” before wrestling with them (and their blankets) after they refuse over and over again. Then we find them wandering aimlessly around the house in their pyjamas, refusing to eat a nutritious breakfast, or getting upset because they can’t find their bag, their shoes, or their favorite shirt.
My wife and I are the parents of six daughters ages 4-18, and we have given a lot of thought to developing and refining a morning routine that allows space and time for caring interactions, patient responses to challenges, and nurturing positive involvement. We’ve found, like most families, that yelling doesn’t work. Bribes and reward charts are ineffective and lead to more troubles than they’re worth and doing everything for them was unsustainable.
After years of new systems and routines, we finally hit upon a process that has made all the difference. And it aligns perfectly with some of the most exciting psychological science around: Self Determination Theory—the brain-child of Professors Ed Deci and Rich Ryan at the University of Rochester.
SDT argues that for kids (or anyone for that matter) to feel motivated and have high levels of well-being, they need to have three basic psychological needs met.
The first is relatedness. High positive relatedness is motivating. Low, negative relatedness is demoralizing. But think about your typical morning at home. Do the kids wake up with you sitting on the bed scratching their back, smiling, and welcoming them to a new day? Or do they hear you yelling down the hall or up the stairs, “Hurry up! You’ll be late!”? Even when things are not going to plan, calm and kind interactions elevate relatedness and improve mornings.
The second basic psychological need is competence. Our children have an inbuilt desire to master their environment, but we often thwart it by demanding too much of them, or by doing everything for them. We’ve done some hard work to teach our children, from a young age, how to be self-sufficient in the mornings. From preparing clothing (iron burns anyone?), to cooking eggs for breakfast, organizing a lunch, and using cling wrap, our job is to help them feel competent enough to be able to complete the tasks required of them each morning in a developmentally-appropriate way.
Third, autonomy and a sense of control or volition are key to well-being and motivation—and to making mornings magic. This meant we had to make mornings feel like a series of welcome choices rather than a checklist that allowed for limited flexibility.
Our ‘magic’ process incorporates strategies to maximize our children’s satisfaction of these three basic psychological needs. I teach parents the following ideas:
1. Your morning starts the night before.
A few things can make everything smoother the next day. First, get kids to hand in all devices at dinner time. They can have them back tomorrow. If older children “need” devices for schoolwork that is not completed, negotiate a reasonable time and stick to it. Second, once dinner is done, there are three things to take care of. The first two things are menus: a breakfast menu and a lunch menu.
What? Menus? What is this, a hotel?
We have found that if food decisions can be made the night before, things work smoothly during the morning. Therefore, our kids get a breakfast menu just like in the hotels. It has cereals, yogurts, toast, and muffins, eggs however you want, juices—the works! They tick the boxes to choose their breakfast before they go to bed. It’s the same with their lunch menu. Leftovers, sandwiches, wraps, fruit, salads, vegetables, and more. These menus have become our secret weapon. (We just have to make sure we have the food available in the fridge the next day.)
The third thing is clothing. All of tomorrow’s clothing, bags, and bits and pieces have to be organized, ironed, and prepared before bed. We don’t want a panic five minutes before departure time because someone can’t find their shoe.
2. Create a checklist
On each child’s wall, I recommend a checklist. Kids do well with visual or written prompts. If you find them wandering aimlessly, just ask, “What’s next on your checklist?” No rewards, no bribes; just a bit of gentle and clear direction.
3. Wake them up early
I know this sounds cruel but hear me out. If your son needs to be up at 6:50, wake him up at 6:40. But do it gently. Sit on the bed and watch him. Rub his shoulders. Invite him to chat quietly about his day and what he’s excited about. Ask if he needs your help with anything. Then, get him up and moving.
4. Use music
Let your kids choose some music to wake up to. It provides a sense of energy (or calm) to the morning and can improve relationships (dancing in the kitchen anyone?) and autonomy (kids’ choice boosts mood and motivation).
5. Connect rather than correct
The best part of the morning is that you no longer have to do everything. Now’s your chance to work on your relationship with your kids while they choose how their morning goes (autonomy), and exhibit or develop mastery. You might offer to help to scramble your four-year-old daughter’s eggs. You might listen as your 14-year-old explains how hard his science project is. You get to offer support and emotion-coaching when your eight-year-old complains that “my legs are hurting” because she’s tired. A parent who is neither rushed nor stressed can respond far more effectively to her children than one who is yelling while ‘doing it all’ and watching the clock.
This process will take a while to get going. The children need to develop skills and understand the system. We, as parents, need to retrain ourselves and stop doing it all (and learn to stay calm). And we need to learn how to get our evenings working well so mornings can go smoothly. So long as we stay on top of our stuff—and the groceries are done so no one is fighting over the last snack—we can set our family up for success.
There will still be ‘those’ days when kids are upset and refusing to work or go to school or summer camp. There’ll be those mornings when we have to leave early for work or an appointment. But with a system like this, and adapted to your family’s needs, you’ll find more mornings with your kids are times of music, fun, connection, and nurture.