A stage performer stands with six poles in front of him. At first, he goes from pole to pole, carefully placing a china plate on each, spinning each one to get it to balance on the pole. By the time he reaches the sixth pole, the first plate is beginning to wobble precariously, in danger of crashing to the floor. He rushes to spin it again, as another plate slows. His task never ends. Disaster (or at least a big mess) is only seconds away.
This vignette fairly portrays the scene that unfolded each morning as I tried to get out the door with my six children (four under the age of six) as we took the older two to school. I help one child tie her shoe, as another needs help in the bathroom. I remind a child to pack her homework while working frantically to run a brush through another’s hair, and then the baby fills her diaper.
Does this sound familiar? According to Adele Faber in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, parenting can be “maddening, uphill work. Part of the problem lies in the conflict of needs. The adult need is for some semblance of cleanliness, order, courtesy, and routine. The children couldn’t care less!”
What we need while in the throes of busy days are practical tips, so we can enjoy these days instead of wishing them away. Here are three things that helped us feel less frenetic while we managed life with a large family:
Routine is everything.
There are people who crave structure and those who are comfortable flying by the seat of their pants, but a consistent routine benefits everyone. It helped us to have as few things as possible to do in the morning as that was the most frenzied time. We laid out our clothes and packed lunches the night before; all we had to do in the morning was eat breakfast, get dressed, and load up the car. After school, we sang a song that named everything that needed to be done before the kids could play. With a basic routine in place, kids are more cooperative when they know what the expectations are.
Communicate expectations clearly.
We often think that children “should know better” when it comes to negative behavior. While they probably can conclude that hitting is hurtful, and therefore wrong, it is our job as parents to actually teach our children what is expected of them. While explanation isn’t always necessary, sometimes it can help a child understand why we have that expectation.
In my experience, it is most productive to communicate these expectations matter-of-factly and at a time when your child is able to receive what you are saying. Instead of exclaiming, “Why did you leave a wet towel on my bed?!” the moment you walk into your room, consider waiting to broach the subject later. Then, explain, “This morning I walked into my room and found a wet towel on my bed. It made my sheets wet. When you’re done with your towel, please hang it up in the bathroom.” You send your child the valuable message that he or she can handle the responsibility of meeting this expectation.
While parenting may be the most important undertaking, as parents we don’t have to be so serious. When my daughter was having trouble remembering to take her completed homework back to school, I asked her to think of a place she could put it that would help remind her. We brainstormed a few ideas and discovered that her existing morning routine included taking her packed lunch from the refrigerator and placing it in her backpack. I asked, “So why don’t you put your homework in the refrigerator next to your lunch?” My daughter’s face went from wide-eyed shock to a huge grin as she marched over to the refrigerator with her math papers. This lasted for about a week before she independently skipped this step and put them straight into her backpack. Humor for the win!
When we are in a good routine, communicate our expectations clearly and respectfully, and don’t take ourselves too seriously, life can go much more smoothly. Yes, our plates still get wobbly, and sometimes they fall. Things get crazy and our normal routine is thrown off. We lack sleep because of sickness, or our spouse is out of town and we are running on empty. That’s what paper plates are for. Have a picnic on the living room floor, laugh at yourself, and start again tomorrow.