I think one of the key points is that children really like regular and predictable activities where people are interactive with them. The more of that experience they have in their early years, the more they really learn about human interaction and adjusting to the emotional state of the people around them. That's a very important part of their long-term success. —Dr. Ruth E. K. Stein
Somewhere along the road that took Diane Laney Fitzpatrick's family to nine different homes, in places from New Jersey to San Francisco, she realized simple routines helped her children adjust to the changes.
So she made sure Michael, Jack and Caroline had constants in their lives while she taught them to be flexible and to love exploring the new towns they were lucky enough to land in as their dad, Tim, pursued his career. When they left soccer practices and music lessons behind in one town, they signed up for them again first thing in their new community.
They always had dinner as a family, although it was sometimes quite late when they sat down to eat because of busy schedules.
"I'm not proud of that, but I am proud to say that we did sit down and have dinner together," Fitzpatrick said.
Among other things, Megan Bearce established a routine to conquer a bothersome and common occurrence: Katherine and Austin, 6 and 5, were always searching for socks. She moved them to a basket by the door so they could easily grab a pair when they were going somewhere.
"I don't have to get worked up, they don't have to get worked up," said Bearce, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis who authored a book on commuting couples — yet another reason families need routines. While she doesn't worry about sticking to a tight schedule, she values consistency, she said, and tells clients that if they're picking a place to introduce routines, which are important, bedtime is a great choice.
Experts say routines give kids a sense of security and belonging by providing structure and stability. Research also points to ways routines help children feel competent and confident.
Socially, emotionally strong
A study just published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows that certain routines also enhance the social and emotional health of young children. Children who sing, play, read, tell stories and have dinner with their families are twice as likely to have good social-emotional health (SEH), and for every routine a parent and child do together, the social-emotional benefit grows.
The measure of SEH used by researchers from The Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is based on a child's ability to understand emotions, empathize, show self-control and form positive relationships, both with other kids and with adults.
The researchers found that kids with high SEH — clearly boosted by routines — adapt better to school, whereas children who begin school with low SEH "are at greater risk of developing difficulties in reasoning and problem solving, as well as having reduced attention spans and experiencing decreased social acceptance. This can impact their academic achievement and overall health and well-being through adulthood."
"I think one of the key points is that children really like regular and predictable activities where people are interactive with them," said Dr. Ruth E. K. Stein, study co-author and an attending physician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. "The more of that experience they have in their early years, the more they really learn about human interaction and adjusting to the emotional state of the people around them. That's a very important part of their long-term success."
Routines change as children grow, she noted. During storytelling and reading routines, for instance, older children can understand and tell more complicated stories.
The researchers chose not to focus on certain routines, such as helping a child with bathing.
"Children who need more help may get more help," Stein said. "We tried to look at things that were culturally neutral as much as possible and would not be so dependent on whether a child was progressing at a typical rate."
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.
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.
"The chores part was never really successful in the routine, so I ended up nagging and yelling," she said.
Kids are adaptable. Fitzpatrick said she has "terrible guilt" about the fact that all her kids had to move during high school — and her middle son, Jack, during his senior year. The kids developed empathy for new kids, and they all grew into nice adults. Her oldest, Michael, has lived in China and now lives in Russia.
"It makes them who they are, but there's a lot to be said for stability," she said.
"Routine" should not be synonymous with "inflexible."
"Sometimes people get too stuck in a routine, and that's not always helpful, either," said Janine Murphy-Neilson, a counselor in private practice in Fairfax, Va. Before her current job, she taught preschool.
Murphy-Neilson witnesses struggle around two extremes: parents who are so rigid that kids don't learn how to be flexible, and families that lack routines that would reduce stress and simplify family life. Her kids, ages 13 and 17, learned from family routines what to expect, saving "all sorts of power struggles, all kinds of tension," she said.
Walk into any preschool or grade school classroom and you will see a routine posted on a wall. It's the first thing children learn, she said.
"They go over it repeatedly, and very quickly they practically manage themselves," she said. "Most children like knowing what is expected of them, and it gives them a sense of mastery and control to have a routine."
Routine provides little kids with not only a sense of security but also a sense of mastery. In the preschool where Murphy-Neilson taught, the kids would retrieve carpet squares and sit on them for a weather lesson.
"They would know what was going to happen; it gave a sense of some control — sort of being the expert. If you can get kids to do that and feel good about it, it's a win-win," she said. "You're not running around trying to corral 20 children."
Among her own family's treasured routines are Sunday night dinner with her father, music lessons and the taekwondo lessons her children have taken together since the youngest was 5.
"There are times we've had to be flexible with those things, like when my daughter's in a play, but being able to come back and re-ground in those helps," she said.
"I just think it's common sense to know that not having routines for kids can create havoc and problems," English said.
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