Why Routines Work for Kids


Humans love routines. From the time we’re born, we crave structure and pattern in our days. In fact, the newborn period is known for being extremely challenging until everyone “settles into a routine” in order for life to move forward. But what, exactly, is a routine?

Simply stated, a routine is a habit of doing something in a particular order. Any process that can be done without focused thinking, such as taking a shower or eating a meal, is a routine. Routines are processes that are done so often in the same order that one can proceed through each step nearly automatically.

routines are everywhere!

Some may think of routines as a “drill-sergeant” approach to life. However, a routine doesn’t have to be tied to a strict schedule or rigid system. For example, you may have learned to take care of picking up your dry cleaning first thing in the morning because they’re open early. After that, you head to the grocery store that’s located nearby, bringing all your groceries home right away so they stay fresh. You save the trip to the nail salon for after this because you don’t want freshly-painted nails ruined by digging through the groceries as you put them away. This series of activities is a routine…a particular order of doing things that you created simply as a result of both logic and repetition.

Some may think of routines as a “drill-sergeant” approach to life. However, a routine doesn’t have to be tied to a strict schedule or rigid system.

We also have routines at work. Some routines are required, such as entering necessary information into a database as soon as a new client is acquired, then alerting the necessary individual to carry out the next steps in the sales process. Other routines are a person’s choice or preference. For example, a person may find they work better when they begin her day by cleaning up her email inbox, followed by making necessary phone calls, after which she can dive into a more intensive project. 


Why Build Routines?

Routines are an inescapable part of day-to-day living, and they serve a number of important purposes:

  • First, routines enable us to run on “autopilot,” getting basic things taken care of automatically so there’s more energy to focus on other things. Even multi-step tasks, such as driving home from work or tidying up the house, can become routines; they open up space in our minds to think about other things that require the use of our working memory.
  • Second, routines provide us with a perceived sense of control. While we look forward to the freedom they offer, vacations, holidays, and other unscheduled spans of time often turn into days filled with tantrums and drama. Why? Without routine, people tend to feel less “in-control,” which can be both frustrating and unsettling. This unwelcomed anxiety can be avoided by adding structure to these special days, giving everyone a better understanding of what to expect and look forward to.
  • Third, children who employ routines have increased ownership in their days and activities. Kids love being in charge of themselves; the feeling increases their sense of mastery and competence, leading to an increased sense of significance. Routines help children to take charge of their own activities. Over time, they learn to brush their teeth, pack their backpacks, etc. without constant reminders. A properly-developed routine is never forced or imposed; instead, it is negotiated in order to give children a true sense of ownership. It becomes their routine.


Understanding the ripple effects

When kids practice and embrace routines, their parents will likely experience the following positive ripple-effects:

Routines eliminate nagging power struggles between parents and children...
  • Children who feel more independent and in-charge of themselves have less need to rebel and oppose authority figures. When a child “owns” her routine, she won't resist doing important tasks out of anger, fear, or spite.

  • Routines free up both time and energy for parents. Initially, this may not be true. Starting routines can be tough, taking patience and careful training. After the training phase, however, the routines offer additional freedom because tasks are typically done more efficiently.

  • Best of all, routines eliminate nagging power struggles between parents and children. Everyone in the family understands that specific tasks are completed because they are part of the routine, not simply because mom or dad wants them done.

We tend to employ routines less and less as our children grow out of the baby years, but it's never too late to re-introduce them! Below are some suggestions for helping your child create and succeed with routines:

  • Have your children create the routines with you. This is a must, because it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility, which in turn increases their likelihood to follow through!
  • Keep routines short. 4 - 6 is the perfect number of tasks; this will set up your child for success and keep routines from seeming too daunting.
  • Fill in the gaps. If your child can only manage three of a list of five things on his or her routine, team up with him by taking over certain steps. You can always pass these tasks over to him later when he's ready for more.
  • If at first you don't succeed... keep on trying! As any adult will tell you, building a solid routine may or may not come easily the first time around. It takes persistence to get the ball rolling, but press on to see how routines will benefit your family!