By the clock

On school mornings I wrest the covers off of my children one at a time. Then I go around and do it again because they all groan and pull them back on. (Except for Kiki. She gets up and gets herself ready.) Eventually I prod them down to breakfast. Then they meander their way toward being ready while I dash around the house shouting things like “Where are your shoes?” “You’re going to be late.” and “I sent you to get dressed 15 minutes ago, why are you playing with legos while wearing nothing but underwear?” By the time I drop them at school I feel frustrated and they feel harried. It is not how I want us to start the day, but often that is how it goes.

Children do not measure their lives by clocks or calendars. They rely on other things to give them a sense of where they are in time. On busy days when lunch gets skipped (usually replaced by an endless stream of they-helped-themselves snacks) the kids complain, not from hunger, but because they somehow arrived at dinner without knowing that the day was passing. When I need to describe an upcoming event, the kids are better able to comprehend if I describe it as being after a birthday or a holiday rather than naming the number of months or days.

I’ve known this for a long time. What I did not realize until a couple of months ago is that the kids do the same thing on school mornings. They pace themselves against the shrillness of my voice. I noticed that on the mornings when I am up early and focused, we get out the door early. I still have to cajole to get them moving. The only difference is that I increased the intensity of my cajoling earlier. On the mornings when I get distracted, they spend a longer time laying around or playing. On those mornings they are late.

The kids are very dependent upon having someone standing around saying that they are running out of time. Once I recognized it, I could see how it was not an ideal way to run the mornings, but I didn’t know how to change it. Ideally the kids should be watching the clocks for themselves rather than waiting for me to poke them. Heaven knows we have enough clocks in the house. I have tried applying consequences for being late. One morning I declared that anyone who was not ready when I declared “time to leave” would owe me an extra chore. It was a fairly good motivator, except for the fact that I then had to follow through and make them do the extra chores. Even so, it is a system that still has the kids depending upon me for their timing cues. Mostly we just muddled through. I figured I’d just have to keep scolding and wait for them to take responsibility the way that my oldest now does.

This morning another option clicked. Once I’d managed to herd all of the kids to the breakfast table, I made them look at the clocks and tell me what time it was. 7:12. I then asked them when we had to leave the house to get to school on time. They did not know. 7:45 I told them. I declared that at 7:40 I would shout “Time to go.” At that point the kids were to be ready to walk into the front room, collect their things, and get into the van. At 7:45 I would leave with whoever was ready. Anyone who was not ready would owe me an extra chore to make up for the extra trip to school. Since I’ve actually been requiring chores lately, the consequence loomed large for them.

It was a good start, but more important was the rest of the way I ran the morning. Instead of saying “You need to get moving.” I would say “check the time.” Instead of “go get your shoes” I’d say “when the clock says 7:35 you need to go get your shoes on.” The key was constantly making them look at the clock and measure how fast they need to go by the clock. This is one of those subtle but potentially powerful shifts in parenting technique. In theory enough practice at this will have them using the clock as a time management tool. It will probably take a lot of practice.

I should mention that this technique would not be effective on children who can’t tell time yet. In fact, I still had to help seven year old Patch stay on track much more than the older two. Even with him it was very helpful to have him and me working together against the time on the clock, rather than him having to dress to my commands. For one morning I was not the villain. Even better, everyone was on time for school today and I didn’t have to shout.