How to make mornings with your kids not suck holy hell

I was working with a client this week who is going back to work after a year-long maternity leave (oh, Canada!), and, of course, her biggest concern was how the hell she was going to get herself and her two small children up and out the door by 7:15am without losing her ever-loving shit—every single morning.

This particular client works really well with well-laid-out strategies, so she was looking for a clear-cut action plan she could implement that would have her mornings run like a well-oiled machine.

What we came up with applies across the board for many moms, working or not.

First and foremost, when creating these kinds of plans, I always recommend involving your children as much as possible. When we involve our kids in organizing our morning routines, we give them agency, which they desperately want, but we also teach them valuable life-skills, particularly in the area of executive function.

To that end, the first thing I recommended with this client was to engage her kids in setting up the mornings the night before.

Here’s how:

  • Look at the weather app with the children the night before. Talk about temperature and how cold it might be the next day. (Remember, this client lives in Canada, but the concept can be applied anywhere.)
  • Ask the kids how the temperature might inform what they might need to keep them warm the next day, and then ask them to get each item and lay it out. Give each child a designated spot for their stuff so they don’t get mixed up and confused. (Even if this means that the living room or dining room becomes a nightly staging area for coats, hats, scarves, and boots, having these things laid out the night before will completely eliminate the last-minute rush of searching for all the necessities when trying to get out the door.)
  • Ask the kids what else they might need/want to bring to school the next day, and lay that out as well, including their clothes.

While it might be tempting to do all of this for your kids, playing the long game here is really important. If we start teaching our kids these valuable executive function skills at 3, 4 and 5, then when they’re 10, 11, 12, they’ll be doing this on their own. Without you having to nag. Imagine that.

One of the biggest complaints about millennials is that their parents did everything for them, and that they have almost no executive function skills to speak of. They were never taught to think (or act) for themselves. It’s a disservice to an entire generation that most of the moms I work with (myself included) are not too keen to perpetuate. So, while it might be harder on the front-end to include your kids in all the planning and organizing, the long-term benefits of this are exponential.

Initially, my client was concerned about the loss of her evening downtime. If she was including her kids in the evening prep, she wasn’t getting the breathing space she might otherwise have gotten if they were off playing and she was relaxing for a few precious moments.

One of the myths I often try to bust about motherhood is this idea that we can “have it all.” The truth is that sometimes we have to give up some things in order to gain others. I asked my client which was more important: having her evening downtime, or having her mornings set up like a well-oiled machine. Her answer would determine the plan, so it was important for her to carefully consider her bigger picture goal, and I was absolutely willing to work with either answer. Once we talked through the long game, it was clear that her overall commitment to a smooth morning with a clear-cut plan superseded her need for some evening relaxation, so we went with that.

Ironically, after the session she emailed me, "I actually realize that by engaging [my daughter] in the “next day prep”, I might actually get some of this evening time back! By not engaging her, I would have been laying out all her clothes, packing her backpack, etc AFTER she went to bed but now, if she helps me, I’ll have that time back after my kids are in bed. Win - Win!"

Once we’d covered the evening process, the next thing we had to tackle was the flow of the morning. My client decided to wake up an hour before she gets her kids up, which would allow her valuable time to shower, have coffee (which she sets up the night before), and breathe a bit before her day really begins. As much as getting up at 5am sounds like absolute suckage, when she breathed into the idea of an hour of alone time in the mornings to get herself focused and together, it became a no-brainer. The payoff was definitely worth the payout.

At the time of this conversation, my client had 11 days before going back to work, which meant that we had 11 days get move her oldest daughter’s wakeup time back by almost an hour. It was tempting, especially with a couple of weekends until D-day, to just let it go till the last minute. I mean, it’s the last 11 days of rest and relaxation before the onslaught begins, why not just let her daughter (and everyone else) get as much sleep as possible?

But letting it go till the last minute would have set her kids and herself up for stress and, ultimately, failure in the initial goal of having her back-to-work mornings flow with ease. It takes a child’s body some time to adjust to a new schedule, and not giving it that time and attention will just make everyone cranky and tantrum-y, and that just simply sucks for everyone.

So I recommended instead that she use the next 11 days to incrementally push her daughter’s wakeup time back by 15 minutes every 3-4 days. Yes, this means that over the weekends, she’s going to have to wake her daughter up at 6:30am when she might have slept until 7 or later, but it also means that her daughter’s body will begin to adjust over time to an earlier wake-up time, and thus an earlier bedtime. Ideally, I’d want to see this process take a bit longer to implement, because it often takes the body longer to adjust to the earlier bedtime than the earlier wakeup time, but 15 minutes every 3-4 days is doable.

Some other recommendations I made to help with morning flow:

  • Using timers to help kids learn the concept of the passage of time. Most kids don’t understand this, and that’s developmentally normal, but we can help them by setting a timer for 20 minutes to eat breakfast, or 2 minutes to brush teeth, for example, and encouraging them to watch it count down. In this way, their bodies and brains get a feel for the passage of time from an early age.
  • Make a game wherever possible: “Let’s see who can get dressed the fastest!” “Oh my gosh, we have only 2 minutes to brush our teeth!” (Younger kids in particular respond to this kind of game play whereas my 11-year-old would roll his eyes.)
  • Using morning checklists and chore-charts with a reward system attached.

By the end of our session, the plan we had laid out was very clear. My client would work with the kids to have everything set up the night before. She would wake up at 5am and have just over an hour to get showered, caffeinated and prepare breakfast for the family. At 6:15am, she’d wake the kids and immediately shuffle them to the table for breakfast, where they’d eat as a family. After breakfast, the kids would get themselves dressed, teeth brushed, and into their outerwear in time to head out the door by 7:15am. (Note: this particular client’s children get lunch at school, but in other cases I recommend making lunches the night before, and, if your patience allows, including the kids in this ritual as well. Remember—do this now and they could be making their own lunches in a few years!)

While having a clear-cut plan like this may seem over-the-top and impossible to follow every day, it is a great backbone to have in place. When things go awry (and they will), you now have a great opportunity to talk to your kids about what went wrong and why: “Gosh, when we don’t set up our stuff the night before, it really makes us more rushed and grumpy in the morning, doesn’t it?” and “I know you don’t want to set out your clothes for the morning tonight, but remember last week when we didn’t and then we were so rushed and mommy lost her temper? Setting up our clothes the night before really helps us avoid that.”

ParentingKate Anthony