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Building an evening routine for kids of different ages

Hi Dr.Laura,
I find myself in a difficult situation, and have difficulty setting a routine with my two children they have a 7 year age difference and are of different sexes. how can I incorporate a routine that will work for everybody? I grew up without routine and am used to doing things as they come spur of the moment but I want to change this as I understand it builds self confidence in children. Help!
Veronica

Veronica,

Routines do indeed help kids feel more secure. They also have lots of other benefits, like helping kids cooperate and learn responsibility. Here's a whole article on why routines are terrific for kids.

Bedtimes are a great place to begin because they include real rewards for your kids -- time you spend with each of them. That means kids will be more accepting as you introduce the new routine. You can explain to them that you want to make sure you get "quality time" with each of them every night.

How? Decide what time you want each child in bed and count backwards, thinking about what each of them will be doing at each point in time. Because they're different ages, they will be doing different things, but your family as a whole can still have a routine. Then print your new schedule out and post a copy on the bathroom door near their bedrooms, and another copy on the refrigerator. Add photos of your kids doing each activity. Most kids like to be involved in talking about the schedule and gluing on the photos, which helps them "own" the routine and reduces power struggles.

Your schedule might look something like this.

6pm- Family Dinner

6:30pm- Everyone clears the table together so there can be five minutes of "roughhousing."  Any physical activity that gets kids giggling will reduce the level of stress hormones in their bloodstreams and make it easier to fall asleep. Laughing with you also helps them connect with you, so they're more cooperative. And laughing with each other helps siblings bond.

6:45pm- Bathtime for the three year old, followed by brushing teeth, pjs and story time.  During this time, you'll need to find something for your older child to do, and to check in frequently. This is usually a good wind-down time for your older child to play quietly in his room. It's best if homework is already completed before dinner, but if not, then this is the time to complete it. TV is a bad idea because screens (including phones) reduce melatonin in the bloodstream, which is important to help your child relax and move toward sleep. 

7:15pm- Ten year old showers, brushes teeth, pjs, reads in bed. 

8pm- Lights out for the three year old.  (This assumes your child gets up at 7am, and still naps, so 11 hours of sleep is about right. If you have to wake any child, though, then they aren't getting enough sleep.)  

Your ten year old, presuming he'll be getting up at 7am, still needs ten hours of sleep, so lights need to be off by 8:30pm to give him half and hour to fall asleep. Use the half hour between 8 and 8:30pm to connect with him. Read him a story -- Yes, even if he can read! It's bonding, good for his intellectual development, and more restful for him than reading to himself.  Lie on his bed with him and talk about his day. Snuggle, sing a song, say prayers if that's part of your tradition, and linger for a few minutes after lights out. As Rabbi Sandy Sasso says, that's when you see children's souls.

The great things about a bedtime routine like this:

1. You get special time to connect with each child alone, that your kids can count on. This remains important as kids get older, because it gives the ten year old an opportunity to raise difficult issues and feel heard.

2. Each child gets the security of a safe, predictable, routine at bedtime, which studies have shown is associated with better sleep for everyone in the family, as well as happier, more secure, kids.

3. As your kids get older, they learn self care: to bathe themselves and brush their own teeth, because you have helped them develop the habit.

4. Packing a backpack and setting out clothes makes kids more competent and independent by teaching them to think about the next day. This is invaluable, not just because it makes mornings calmer. It also allows them to suddenly remember things they have forgotten -- that tomorrow they need a change of clothes because the class is painting a mural, or that they forgot about a homework assignment. (Of course, if they remember these things at bedtime frequently, it's a sign that your after-school routine needs some attention!)

5. Having a routine with times attached keeps you from being the bad-guy bedtime cop. It's just the schedule.

6. Having a set bedtime as a youngster helps your kids, once they become teens, to think in terms of how much sleep they need to take good care of their bodies. They are more likely to stay well-rested.

7. You get to check in with each child separately, which really helps if you've been apart all day.  You have more chance of hearing what's bothering them.  And you get Special time with your older child, which keeps you connected at that difficult moment when he's heading into the tween years -- and peer issues can crowd out his relationship with you, even though he desperately needs to stay anchored to you.

8. Bedtime routines that center around baths and reading calm kids and allow them to fall asleep faster so they don't toss and turn. (Many kids say they aren't tired when they are actually overly wound-up.) A bedtime routine that allows a child to stay up longer because he is reading creates the habit of reading. If a computer is nearby, most kids won't read. But computers and TV suppress melatonin, the sleep hormone, so kids should definitely not use them in the hour before bed. Reading relaxes kids, allows melatonin to flood their bodies (make sure their lights are not too bright), and is the best way to raise kids' IQs and school grades.

Give your new routine a couple of months, and then you can tackle mornings so everyone gets out the door peacefully. You'll be amazed at how much more smoothly everything runs.
Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 06-May-2009 08:45 AM
I am at the point of needing structure for my 3yo and she is the only child. I found this very helpful and will use these pointers in my plans of providing structure for my little one.
Anonymous commented on 08-Sep-2009 01:16 AM
Hi Laura, It's always nice to know that you are at arms length.Your pointers are excellent as usual.They have been very effective for me in developing a routine for my child. Thanx
Josephine Day commented on 21-Mar-2010 07:57 PM
i think you should: 1:eat dinner 6:00-6:30 2:have the baby take bath and 10 yr old do homework 6:30-7:00 3:put baby to bed and let 10 yr old play 7:00-7:30 4:have 10 yr old take a shower 7:30-7:40 5:have 10 yr old have a snack and brush his teeth 7:40-8:00 6:put 10 yr old in bed and read to him or have him talk about his day or both 8:00-8:30 7: put 10 yr old to bed
Jennifer commented on 04-Jun-2011 02:15 AM
Boy, I'd love to get some insight on doing this as a single mom with 8 still at home. 15, 14, 13, 11, 10, 9, 6 and 4. (We're actually in the middle of birthdays, so these will be the ages by September.
Anonymous commented on 25-Apr-2012 01:36 PM
Dinner at 6?? What working Mom can manage that?! I am a pediatrician and I get home between 6 and 6:30 at best which I think is early for lots of working parents.

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