Starting a Family Evening Routine

Laura Markham's picture

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It's August, and the start of school isn't far away. This is the perfect time to start getting everyone in your family into a good evening routine that will make mornings a pleasant, unrushed experience (Yes, it is possible!), whether your kids are in school yet or not.

Bedtimes are a great place to introduce routines because they include real rewards for your kids -- the 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 child every night.

How do you create an evening routine? 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. If 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, at least until you get used to it.

Your schedule might look something like this:

7:30pm -- Bedtime stories and snuggle time with little one.
Older child has bath and brushes teeth.

8pm -- Little one's lights out.
Older child has an hour to read in bed.
If he hasn't had "special time" with at least one parent, it's important to spend 15 minutes lying on his bed with him before lights out, or after lights out (because sometimes kids talk more then), chatting and listening.

9pm -- Older child goes to sleep.

This routine is set up to give your older child ten hours of sleep if he gets up at 7am, which is what pediatricians say he needs. It only gives little ones 11 hours, because I'm assuming they still nap. In any case, obviously, you'll need to modify this for your own family's needs, number of children, and number of available adults.

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 older kids an opportunity to raise difficult issues and feel heard, particularly if you add more children to your family.

  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 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. 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 weeks, and then you can tackle mornings so everyone gets out the door peacefully. You'll be amazed at how much more smoothly everything runs.

Extensive research shows that anxiety dramatically increases pain. That means that if a child is less anxious during a medical procedure, he will perceive it as less painful and will be less traumatized afterwards.