Some mornings, it feels impossible to get your kids out the door without hovering, asking four times if they have their snack, and repeatedly saying “Come on, let’s keep going!” in a tone you know sounds more agitated than you want it to. But you can’t help it. Jackets and backpacks are strewn everywhere, the bus is coming in four minutes, and you just noticed a kid has their pants on backwards.
Getting children out the door in the morning is an exercise in trial and error, emotional self-control (your own), and superhuman patience. Rushing them will only cause more stress, anxiety, power struggles, and anger—for everyone involved. Here’s how you can do less rushing and still get where you need to be on time.
Get on the same team
When you want something your child doesn’t care about (leaving the house in an efficient, timely manner), it’s easy to view them as your opponent—and vice versa. (Especially when they are physically resisting your best efforts.) Keep in mind that children have very little decision-making power and crave a sense of autonomy over their lives. Try shifting your mindset from an authoritative, power-based, “I’m in charge and they have to do what I say” to one of more collaborative guiding: “We’re on the same team, how can I help them?”
Start earlier and prepare the environment
Start earlier, you say? Well, sometimes that is just not possible! And sometimes, even if we do, one spill, tantrum, or emergency bathroom trip can bring us right back down to the wire.
I know; I really do. But I can’t deny the mornings we get downstairs a little sooner, or I get myself up and ready 10-15 minutes earlier, usually go more smoothly. Because I—and by extension, my kids—are more relaxed.
Make sure everything your kids need is easily accessible. If you can, create one area where everything they need is aggregated. Socks, shoes, coats, hats, gloves—all in containers and on shelves they can reach themselves. (It may help to designate a shelf or drawer for each child, so they don’t need to rifle through a box of everyone’s mittens to find their own.)
Post a visual
When one child was being particularly difficult and grouchy about getting ready for school, I made an announcement that things needed to change to avoid further hard mornings. After setting the expectation for positive change, I resisted my first inclination to quickly whip up a morning timeline myself and instead worked with him to devise a schedule. After asking him to list the morning “get ready” steps, I asked him to decide in what order he wanted to complete them. Once they were ranked first to last, I assigned each of them five-minute increments. We now have a customized morning schedule—that he designed—with assigned times for doing each task, posted on the refrigerator for easy reference.
Let your child decide what to do next (and give choices)
As a punctual person, when I’m crunched for time (and I see people around me reading Pokémon cards or pushing Pop Its instead of progressing to the finish line), my anxiety spikes. Which makes me kind of…barky. Got your water bottle? Get your mask. Come on, time to brush teeth. You don’t have your shoes on yet? You need your shoes. Now! As hard as it is to contain our own desire to run the whole process, kids will be more likely to cooperate if they feel like they have some control.
Phrases like, “OK, what’s next?” “What still needs to be done?” “I don’t see anything on your feet but you’re going outside” or “Would you like to put on your coat or shoes next?” can help them feel less bossed around. (If they answer “neither,” my trusty reply is, “Well, we need to do both. So either you can choose, or I’ll choose.”)
Parenting experts are divided on whether sticker charts should be used, but it’s always an available short-term tool. In our house, the allure of getting a recently rescinded Nintendo Switch back by following a morning routine with no fuss (that part’s important) worked quite well as an incentive. And it doesn’t have to be anything big. It could simply be the promise of reading a favorite book, or playing a short game if they are ready a few minutes early.
In my house of three kids, toys, books, and fidgets are constantly making their way into the main school staging area (the kitchen) without my knowledge or consent. There aren’t enough hours in the day to scrub the kitchen clean of all distraction—but removing the biggest offenders can work wonders for improved focus and concentration. The simple act of hiding my youngest’s stash of cars has saved me countless minutes refereeing squabbles, negotiations, and being a big meanie shutting down all play and fun because we have to go. Tuck away as many distractions as you can.
In my house, when emotions start to go sideways, we sometimes “press reset,” which consists of stopping, making eye contact, pressing our index fingers together, and taking a moment to stop the head-butting path we’re going down and start fresh. It serves as a tacit apology for ill-spoken words, a diffusion of tension, and a reminder to work together. (Sometimes, an outward verbal apology is necessary. It also helps to say, “I’m on your team. Do you need any help or can you do the next step on your own?”)
Keep it short (and quiet)
Instead of long explanations—“We need to put on gloves or your hands will be really cold! Remember what happened last time you went out without gloves?”—try using one-word instructions. “Gloves. Shoes. Coat.” It gives them less to process (and potentially argue with).
Whispering is another surprisingly effective way to get a child’s attention. It requires physical proximity and eye contact, two things that motivate children to cooperate.
Acknowledge their progress
Everyone wants to be acknowledged for a job well done, especially if it required a change in behavior, or the formation of a new habit. Things like, “Wow, you did that all by yourself,” an impressed, “You did that already? That was fast,” or “Oh my goodness, I didn’t even have to tell you!” helps little ones feel a sense of pride—which propels them to do it again.