How can I get my children to cooperate in the morning?

No one told me that once my children were old enough to take care of themselves in the morning it would be impossible to get them to cooperate!  They simply refuse to get dressed or do anything else in a timely fashion! I have a 5 year old and a 7 year old who finally go to the same school, so that helps. We have to be out the door by 8 a.m. and by the time it’s 7:45 I’m a wreck from nagging and threatening.  What can I do other than quit my job?

First, know that you are not alone!  The transition from home to work can be a struggle for many families, and sometimes it’s parents as well as children who have trouble getting out the door (have you ever misplaced your keys?).   It isn't made any easier when you have the added stress of getting children as well as yourself to their school/work on time. yourself to work, and perhaps, like many moms, feelings of guilt for needing to get your children up and out the door.  Quitting your job won’t help because parents who are at home during the day have difficulty getting their children dressed and out in the morning! It's not likely that your work is the primary reason for the struggle, although if you don’t like your job or feel ambivalent about whether you should be working, that can undermine your resolve.

Before we get strategies for making mornings go more smoothly, look at the most common cause of morning struggles: too late bedtimes. Sometimes children go to bed so late at night that they're sleepy and sluggish or just cranky in the morning.  A tired child is not a cooperative child!

The easiest way to tell if your child is getting enough rest is by paying attention to her natural waking-up time in the morning.  Do you have to wake her up on weekdays?  If you do, she isn't getting as much sleep as she needs.  One big challenge for working parents is getting through the evening tasks in time for an early bedtime. If you haven't seen your children as much as you would like during the day, it can be hard to be firm about bedtime.  It’s a trade off between spending time together in the evening and being annoyed and frustrated with each other in the morning.

Next, look at the overall sequence of your evening and morning routines.  Make a list, (written or mental, but written is usually better!) of all of the tasks that need to be accomplished. It doesn’t take long to do this, and the process will reveal a lot!   Then decide which responsibilities are parents alone, which can be left to your each of your children, and which ones you can do together.

Keep in mind that many tasks that are often part of a rushed morning routine can be done the night before.  For example, you can choose and set out clothes (this will only save time if you make a "no changing your mind in the morning" rule), make all or part oflunches, and put coats, shoes and backpacks by the front door.  In many families, more time is spent in the morning looking for lost shoes than on any other activity except maybe yelling!

After you have organized your evening routine, look at the morning routine.  Most children do best if they have to do the boring tasks before they get to the more pleasant ones.  As soon as the children are up, have them get dressed before they begin to play or have breakfast.  If television has become part of your morning don't turn it on until they are completely ready to go. (If you don’t use TV, great, but many very good parents use television to occupy children while the parent has a shower!)

Next, sit down with your children at a relaxed time and make a list together of what needs to be done each evening and morning.  Then, make a chart that lists the tasks in order.  Routine sequences are much easier for children to follow than directions given at the time, especially when it’s mom doing the directing. You can have the children draw pictures on the chart, or even put photos of them doing the tasks, but keep it simple.  Boxes where they check “done” are useful when you first start with a chart, because placing the mark reinforces the learning.

Even if your five year old can dress herself independently, she may not feel like being her most independent self early on a weekday morning. The change from pre-school to kindergarten is a big leap, and she may need a little extra nurturing before she goes off for the day.   Since you are already spending lots of time trying to get her to get dressed, why not offer to dress her yourself, or to do part of the dressing for her?  You can tell her, "I know that you know how to dress yourself, but if I help you it will go faster.  When we're home at night and on the weekends you can do it all."  Then she can act dependent with your permission and move towards more independence at an easier time for both of you. Often, once the struggle ends, a child will want to dress herself anyway!

A good incentive to keep children from dawdling is telling them that if they can get ready very fast you will have time together for something "extra".  Set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes.  As soon as either child is dressed she can havetime with you until the timer goes off.  The more quickly they get dressed, the more time they'll have for a story or some other activity they enjoy. It may seem as if you won’t have the time, but you may find that this method speeds up the tasks and you wind up with more time rather than less.  Another option would be to “bank” the time saved in the morning to trade in for evening time.

In some families the morning routine has grown into a repetitive struggle over who is going to be in charge of whom.  If a child's dawdling is her way of saying, "Now, what are you going to do to make me cooperate?" warnings, threats, and even punishments won't make much of a dent in the pattern.  In fact, many parents find that the angrier they get, the less effective they are.

If you sense that you are in a power struggle with either child, don't try to win it by being louder or more persistent.  Since your goal is a pleasant, cooperative morning, you won't be able to force your kids into anything more than grudging cooperation.  Instead, redefine the problem and the solutions as theirs, rather than yours. 

Last, there is one more solution to the morning getting dressed problem that is popular but rarely mentioned.  To avoid the morning battle, just have your children get dressed the night before.  They'll be a little rumpled, but you'll save on pajamas and you'll all be a lot more cheerful on the way to school!