Parenting Tips > Family

Structure: Why Kids Need Routines

Why do kids need routines and structure?

Photo: SoulfulBecause routines give them a sense of security and help them develop self-discipline.

Humans are afraid of many things, but "the unknown" edges out everything except death and public speaking for most people.   

Children’s fear of the unknown includes everything from a suspicious new vegetable to a major change in their life. Unfortunately, children are confronted with change daily.

The very definition of growing up is that their own bodies change on them constantly. Babies and toddlers give up pacifiers, bottles, breasts, cribs, their standing as the baby of the house.  New teachers and classmates come and go every year.  They tackle and learn new skills and information at an astonishing pace, from reading and crossing the street to soccer and riding a bike.  Few children live in the same house during their entire childhood; most move several times, often to new cities and certainly to new neighborhoods and schools.  

And few of these changes are within the child’s control.        

Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine.   A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives.  As this sense of mastery is strengthened, they can tackle larger changes:  walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at the store, going to sleepaway camp. 

Unpredictable changes – Mom called away on an unexpected business trip, a best friend moving, or more drastic, parents divorcing or a grandparent dying – erode this sense of safety and mastery and leave the child feeling anxious and less able to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

While helping children feel safe and ready to take on new challenges and developmental tasks would be reason enough to offer them structure, it has another important developmental role as well.  Structure and routines teach kids how to constructively control themselves and their environments. 

Kids who come from chaotic homes where belongings aren’t put away never learn that life can run more smoothly if things are organized a little.  In homes where there is no set time or space to do homework, kids never learn how to sit themselves down to accomplish an unpleasant task.  Kids who don’t develop basic self-care routines, from grooming to food, may find it hard to take care of themselves as young adults.  Structure allows us to internalize constructive habits.

Won’t too much structure dull our sense of spontaneity and creativity?
  Sure, if it's imposed without sensitivity.  There are times when rules are made to be broken, like staying up late to see an eclipse, or leaving the dinner dishes in the sink to play charades.  But even the most creative artists start by mastering the conventions of the past, and find the pinnacle of their expression in working within the confines of specific rules.

There's no reason structure has to be oppressive.  Think of it as your friend, offering the little routines and traditions that make life both easier and cozier.  Not only will your kids will soak up the security, they'll internalize the ability to structure their own lives.

Does this mean infants should be put on routines as early as possible?

NO! Infants tell us what they need.  We feed them when they're hungry, change them when they're wet.  Over time, they learn the first step of a routine:  We sleep at night.  But forcing an infant to accommodate to our routine is not responsive parenting.  As your infant moves into babyhood, she will establish her own routine, settling into a schedule of sorts.  Most babies settle into a fairly predictable pattern.  We can help them with this by structuring our day around their needs, so, for instance, we make sure conditions are appropriate for her nap at the time she usually sleeps.  Gradually, over time, we can respond to her natural schedule of eating and sleeping by developing a routine that works for her and for the whole family.

Six Benefits of Using Routines with Your Kids

1. Routines eliminate power struggles because you aren't bossing them around.  This activity (brushing teeth, napping, turning off the TV to come to dinner) is just what we do at this time of day.  The parent stops being the bad guy, and nagging is greatly reduced.

2. Routines help kids cooperate by reducing stress and anxiety for everyone.  We all know what comes next, we get fair warning for transitions, and no one feels pushed around, or like parents are being arbitrary.

3.  Routines help kids learn to take charge of their own activities.  Over time, kids learn to brush their teeth, pack their backpacks, etc., without constant reminders.  Kids love being in charge of themselves. This feeling increases their sense of mastery and competence.  Kids who feel more independent and in charge of themselves have less need to rebel and be oppositional.

4. Kids learn the concept of "looking forward" to things they enjoy, which is an important part of making a happy accommodation with the demands of a schedule.  He may want to go to the playground now, but he can learn that we always go to the playground in the afternoon, and he can look forward to it then.

5. Regular routines help kids get on a schedule, so that they fall asleep more easily at night.

6. Routines help parents build in those precious connection moments. We all know we need to connect with our children every day, but when our focus is on moving kids through the schedule to get them to bed, we miss out on opportunities to connect. If we build little connection rituals into our routine, they become habit. Try a snuggle with each child when you first see them in the morning, or a "recognition" ritual when you're first reunited: "I see you with those beautiful gray eyes that I love so much!" or a naming ritual as you dry him after the bath: "Let's dry your toes...your calf...your knee...your thigh....your penis....your belly ..."  Rituals like these slow you down and connect you on a visceral level with your child, and if you do them as just "part of the routine" they build security as well as connection and cooperation.

7. Schedules help parents maintain consistency in expectations. If everything is a fight, parents end up settling: more TV, skip brushing teeth for tonight, etc.  With a routine, parents are more likely to stick to healthy expectations for everyone in the family, because that's just the way we do things in our household.  The result: a family with healthy habits, where everything runs more smoothly!

For more inspiration on how to structure a routine that works for your family:

Building an evening routine for kids of different ages

Starting a routine

Routines & Structure that Toddlers Can Understand

Getting Your Child Out the Door in the Morning