I always love scrolling through my family’s glorious pictures on the first day of school—when the kids are well-dressed and smiling, backpacks slung on their shoulders, with nary a shred of evidence of rush or hassle.
I love the image because I know it will not last.
A lot of parents begin the new school year with bright-eyed plans for an optimized morning routine, only to find their families devolving back to the usual chaos by the end of Week 1. My old everyday morning schedule used to go something like this: Loudly imploring the children to get out of bed. Yelling at them to come have breakfast. Imposing a Scotland Yard-level inquiry as to whether they have all the necessary homework, instruments, sports equipment, and snacks. Noting, loudly, that they were already 15 minutes behind schedule. Reminding myself that the schedule didn’t matter that much (and that I should really take up meditation). Yelling again because I needed to get to work, and the longer the kids took to find their shoes or their favorite pen, the later I would be.
I’ve since found a way to manage this anarchy and set a smoother morning routine. It’s basically foolproof. Here’s the secret: I don’t manage our mornings anymore. It’s now up to my kids to pack their bags and get their stuff. By age 7, many kids can do this on their own. But they will only do it if you do not.
The technical term for this is moral hazard—the idea being that people with insurance against a bad outcome will behave differently, perhaps taking greater risks, than those without protection. Fire insurers are credited with coining the term in the 19th century, when fires were categorized as being caused either by natural hazards (short circuits; lightning) or moral hazards involving human actions (leaving a cigarette in the bin; arson). Moral hazards were preventable; lightning was not. Consider: if your doctor calls for 20 tests to see why you have a stomachache, and you do not have to pay, you go ahead and get the tests. If the tests aren’t free, you might try ginger tea first.
Economists eventually came to see the issue not as a question of morality, but of incentives: If people rack up medical bills with no penalty or cost-sharing, rack them up they will. Give them a deductible, however, and they will reconsider. As I wrote in a book about behavioral economics and marriage, “Without repercussions, without consequences, without the right incentives to behave responsibly—we’re all liable to take unwise risks.” Pack the bag for the kid, and the kid will never take the initiative to track down their textbooks themselves.
My system did not come about by magic, or even on purpose. I simply messed up managing my kids’ routine so epically that they finally just took over. My older daughter makes a list of what she needs to bring to school and puts it by the door because she knows I will probably forget whatever it is she needs. My 7-year-old packs her bag in the evening, instructing me to write in her reading record and leave it on her bag—not by it—so she doesn’t have to make me to find it in the morning. There are many reasons I am forever tempted to do stuff for them—because I am a scattered (ie, normal) working mom and want to show them I am on it; because I know I will do tasks faster; because I delude myself that I can do them better. But if I take care of everything for them in the morning, they will not do anything. It really is that simple.
Jessica Lahey, a middle-school teacher and author, writes in The Gift of Failure that we sometimes seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones. “We think, ‘I have plenty of time to teach them,’” Lahey writes. “And then they are 17.” Don’t rescue your kids, she advises. Play the long game—raising the competent kid—not the short one, attempting to fix every problem. If they own their mistakes, they are more likely to learn from them.
Probably the greatest irony about kids is that for all their chaos and unpredictability, they love routine. They do better with some order rather than less. And clear consequences are much easier for everyone than moving targets. So as you prepare for your kids’ new year in school, it’s time to design some morning routines that put them in charge. Let your kids help design the routine themselves—then monitor it, and manage the consequences.
Here are a few ideas to get you and your family started:
Set out clothes and books the night before
If your kids are new to this, help them think of a way to get organized. Make a list together of the stuff they need to remember every day: backpack, lunch, instrument, sports stuff. Let them write the list themselves, and then check it off every day. Get in the routine of leaving shoes where they need to be—by front door, by the bed, whatever works. Decide who is responsible when things can’t be found. (Hint—not you.)
Don’t overthink breakfast
That oh-so-important first meal is particularly stressful if you’re attempting to scramble some eggs while making kids lunch, and meanwhile someone has lost his socks and there’s a war in the bathroom over who’s used which hairbrushes. Find ways to simplify. Porridge or oatmeal with various toppings (honey, almonds, chia seeds, coconut, fruit) is a good everyday option. Hard-boiled eggs deliver protein and can be prepped ahead ahead of time and eaten in the car, or on the bus, if needed. Smoothies, in which you sneak in some of those pesky required fruits and vegetables, are useful too; you can buy pre-made ones if you don’t have time to deal with the mess and cleanup.
Settle, as a group, on the time when you have to leave the house
Talk with your kids in advance about a realistic time for getting out the door. If you leave at 8:15, can you actually get to school—one mile away—at 8:20?
Some kids will naturally care about being late; others, not so much. That’s when you explain the concept of the good of the group, and explain that missing the deadline will have consequences for everyone else—say, no screens that evening. There’s no fury involved; just consequences. And you’ve solved the collective action problem to boot.
Don’t correct your kids’ mistakes
Resist the impulse to deliver the homework or left-behind instrument at school. Lahey recalls finding her son’s homework on the table and deciding not to drop it off at his school, even though she was going there anyway. Rescuing him would make her feel like a good mom, but it would not help her son’s organizational issues. As it turned out, his teacher gave her son some extra work and offered tips on how to remember his homework in the future, which helped.
Adapt to the needs of your family
One pair of parents I admire let their kids watch iPads—one per kid, with headphones—over breakfast. The dad has to leave early, and the mom just can’t cope with mornings. Each kid gets their show of choice; she gets her coffee in peace and quiet. But not before they lay out all their stuff by the door, including shoes. After the food and TV, it’s out the door.
That doesn’t work for my family, as breakfast is one of the few times we are actually all together. When our kids were small, we read them books at the table to get through meals. Now we listen to the news or music; the kids put on pop; we change to classical. If we are dragging, we put on a family playlist (George Ezra is a welcome wakeup call). Sometimes we play “Sad/Mad/Glad,” recalling something that made us feel those emotions the day before. Sometimes we ask the kids to tell us about a kind act they performed. Often, my husband and I tell stories about stuff we’ve messed up in our own lives (the kids are young enough still that they think this is actually incredible).
As kids grow, routines will inevitably change. But that’s no reason not to try one.