The Power of Routines for Kids (and Parents!)

Every parent knows routines are important. Parents rely on them to help keep the peace and instill a bit of sanity. Routines are good for kids, but parents also thrive with them. What is it that makes routines so powerful?


Routines and Young Children


Routines are good for kids because they provide predictability. When kids know what to expect, and what is expected of them, they are better equipped to shift from one activity to another. They feel empowered by knowing what comes next, and build initiative as they start to move themselves through those routines. When your child is deep in play, how does she respond if you suddenly tell her it’s time to clean up her toys? Now, imagine what it’s like to tell her it’s time to pick up when you’ve already given her notice and picking up toys is not only part of her everyday routine, but she gets rewards for it? How smooth are each of these different transitions? Being surprised is anxiety-provoking. When a child feels like she has no control over what comes next it can cause unnecessary behavioral challenges like meltdowns, tantrums and defiance. But, routines allow kids to plan for the next thing, providing a sense of security and control, usually undercutting such behavioral issues.


As part of a safe, predictable environment, routines also help kids practice growth-promoting tasks which facilitate the development of a their core executive skills: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Routines require kids to transition from one activity to the next over and over. Transitioning from one chore to another (or from play to chore) smoothly, and responding to parents’ feedback by adjusting their work are ways routines support your child’s mental flexibility. Working memory comes in as they build their skills around the house, holding new information in mind as they’re using it, like learning to hold a dust-pan then sweeping into it. Scaffolded by the foundational security inherent in a routine, kids are better equipped to stick with stuff they dislike, developing self control, even when cleaning their room is really boring! Building rewards into the routine creates motivation to work even more at boosting these core executive functions.


The Importance Routines for Older Kids


Routines can actually provide a respite from all the changes and pressures that tweens and teens are dealing with. Chores have a way of bringing a kid into their body in the present moment, and getting their mind off the social woes at school. They can also build a kid’s sense of personal accountability, as well as give them a source of pride in their accomplishments – especially when you praise them for a job well done. But don’t tell them that!


Chore routines support more nuanced executive functioning in older kids in some very important ways, too. As kids take on more responsibility around the house it often means self-directing their routines, which provides them the opportunity to master task initiation. Kids need to practice this stuff thousands of times before they master it. As tweens and teens take ownership of real responsibilities around the house their routines include multi-step chores where they practice the essential executive skills of prioritizing and planning. Perhaps they’re not so happy about participating in a chore routine. Perfect! This allows them the opportunity to flex their emotional regulation by containing their anger, or whatever other big emotions they might be having and get down to clearing the table before loading the dishwasher!


Adults Thrive on Routines Too


Adults really rely on routines, be it morning, bedtime, naptime, mealtime, homework time, etc. Ever wonder why they’re so essential in keeping stress down? The same reasons routines are powerful for kids are true for adults as well. People relish in their predictability, especially as the world around us appears to grow increasingly more complex. Knowing what task comes next actually does provide a sense of security, as opposed to a disorganized mess of to-do’s occupying precious brain space. We take solace in their rhythms; they ground us after stressful days. Routines help keep the squabbling down between parents and kids, since everybody knows what’s expected and when; contributing to a positive family environment. When we are routinely attending to household work that means it doesn’t pile up. Routines train our brains, making it easier for us to keep healthy habits. They provide us a sense of mastery and accomplishment, just like they do for our kids. And, they also require us to flex our executive skills. As we continue to develop throughout the lifespan we can always become better planners, learn new skills, and be more flexible.


Routines reduce everyone’s stress while supporting executive function and life skills that children need to thrive in school and later on in their relationships and careers. Getting good at them is win-win for parents and kids. Remember to serve everyone’s best functioning by staying flexible, the routine that works for your neighbor’s family might not work for yours, and that’s just how it should be.


Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over 10 years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland.

Photo credit: Lon Fong Photography-off more than on these days.. via / CC BY-NC-SA

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