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How raising kids within routines boosts social and emotional health

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 7:30 p.m. MDT

Stein said routines they didn't measure are also likely to be important as long as there's active communication. Passively watching TV together does not count.

That they didn't include some routines, such as bedtime, does not diminish those routines' importance, Stein said.

"Any kind of routine is important for children. It imparts a sense of predictability, of the world, of family life," she said. "It gives children a sense of security — and some communication is going on during the time of that routine."

The researchers intend to investigate further whether social-emotional health or routines predict a child's later outcomes.

"A lot of parents question how much influence they have over children's developmental trajectory," Stein said. "This study suggests they do and that the quality of time they spend with children is important. I think parents struggle with that. ... The fact they ask for the same book over and over is reflective of the fact children need that security and familiarity."

Teens and toddlers alike

There's an unexpected symmetry to the need for routine among younger and older children. Both toddlers and teenagers need rules and repetition to feel safe and to know what's expected of them, said Melanie English of Child Custody Evaluations and Family Mediation Services in Lake Forest Park, Wash. Kids ages 9 to 11 are more easygoing and adaptable, she noted: "They have less on their plate."

Routines can be "hard" or "soft," English said. Set appointments or the time a child is dropped off at day care are "hard." Nap times and when homework gets done are "soft" as they can be moved a bit as needed.

"I remember running around for hours outside and getting my homework done," English said. "We all need to break routine and unwind."

The love of — and need for — routine spans ages.

"Adults like routines: The alarm goes off, going to the gym, lunch break," English said. "You also have to find a balance when it gets to be too much and is making kids neurotic because they are stretched so much more than they used to be."

She said teens can be given more autonomy in developing their own routines. They crave privacy and personal space, so a place that's just theirs to study in may work.

Having shared routines is invaluable for kids if their parents divorce. English said children do much better when routines are common to both households.

Personalization required

Fitzpatrick wrote a book on moving, titled "Home Sweet Homes: How Bundt Cakes, Bubble Wrap and My Accent Helped Me Survive Nine Moves." She laughs at the suggestion that by moving to New Jersey (south and north), Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, Florida, Ohio and California, the family probably learned to travel light.

"Yeah, you'd think we'd scale back and be ready to go, but that's the other way we compensated for the kids," Fitzpatrick said. "We let them have things — collections, like the piles of rocks they found, the stick collection they gathered when we lived near woods and rivers. We hauled them."

Personal treasures were part of the moving routine.

Fitzpatrick, a self-proclaimed "scheduling freak," said she loves routines and charts, strategies and tools. Just saying "clean when things get dirty" wouldn't do it for her. An after-school routine is important, she said, so "they don't discover they missed something that needed (to be) done and have to hurry to do it. I hate that."

Not all routines are winners for a family. Fitzpatrick tried to throw certain chores into the day's prep, tied to allowance. The trouble was she didn't want to police it on her way out the door.

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