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The secret to making mornings magic

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Little boy in pyjamas


Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia’s most respected and popular parenting authors and speakers. In this article he tackles an important issue for families - how to start the day well.

Mornings can be tricky. There’s not much time. There’s lots to do. We’re often tired and stressed (and the day has barely begun!). And the children… well, they can be ornery, non-compliant, and even oppositional.

As parents to six children, my wife Kylie and I have spent years experimenting with various systems to make mornings magic.

Here’s what we discovered:

  • Yelling didn’t work.
  • Bribes and reward charts didn’t work more than a day or two.
  • Doing everything for the children was nearly impossible.

What other options did we have?

Eventually, after years of trial and error - we came up with an approach that works for everyone. As I have spoken with thousands of families who have tried it, the response has been almost universal approval.

The idea is based on three psychology ideas that are designed to help children to be motivated and feel good:

  1. We aim to build our children’s capacity,
  2. Respect their autonomy and desire to be in charge of their own choices, and
  3. Maintain positive connections at all times.

By helping our children manage their mornings themselves, more gets done with less effort. Plus children experience a boost to their confidence and self-esteem, and it encourages them to develop their initiative and problem-solving skills.

The best thing about the strategy we have developed is that when we teach our children to do stuff themselves we, as their parents, get to sit back, relax, and marvel at their independence while enjoying a peaceful, easy morning. (Or at least, more peaceful and easy than they would otherwise be.)

Here’s how:

Your Morning Begins the Night Before

For this to work you’ll need three things: a breakfast menu, a lunch menu, and a personalised checklist.

For younger children you might want to use pictures rather than words. Or you could use a combination of both. Dedicate a little time to photograph your toddler or preschooler’s bag, hat, their bed made and tomorrow’s outfit laid on their bed (don’t forget the socks!). Keep the visual to five items or less, to keep it simple for your child.

Before bed, remind your child that it’s time to get organised for tomorrow. Take them to their room and, using the checklist, have them lay out their clothes, shoes, bag, and other items required for the next morning.

Next, go to the kitchen and pull out the breakfast menu (just like in a hotel!). Ideally you’ll create a picture menu for your child by taking photos of breakfast options for them to pick such as toast, yogurt, cereal - you name it! The same goes with their lunches. Now just sit with your toddler and teach them how to use the menu to choose what they’d like to eat for breakfast and lunch.

A parent who isn’t feeling rushed is better able to respond to a child in need of emotional support, and children value parents who have the space and time to connect with them.
Dr Justin Coulson

Keep it Simple

Believe it or not, no child expects their parent to be a gourmet chef. Unfortunately, those unrealistic expectations are self-created. There is really no need for breakfast or lunch menu items to be overly complicated. To make mornings drama-free, remember that simple is best.

It’s your job as parents to ensure you have the shopping done so the menu items are available. You can make things even easier for your small child by prepping items beforehand: cutting up veg sticks, bulk-cooking muffins to store in the freezer and making fruit accessible for them in the fridge.

As they grow older, your children can do this for themselves. Sandwiches can even be frozen. Then, when the morning comes around they can grab their menus and organise their food themselves. In no time at all they’ll be leading the way (with your help when needed) and in taking ownership their sense of mastery of experience and self-confidence will be boosted, too.

Wake Them up Gently

No one likes to be woken up with a fright, and this includes young children too. When it’s time for your children to get a wriggle-on gently open their curtains or blinds. Sit beside their bed and kindly stroke their face or arm and quietly and lovingly say good morning. By spending a few minutes gently coaxing them from their slumber, you’re more likely to have a child wake up who is willing and happier than if you did otherwise. A child who wakes up feeling loved and valued is going to be more willing to participate and contribute to the family in a positive way.

It’s also an idea to wake them up about 10-15 minutes earlier than they need to be awake. (This is often not a problem with young children… they’re bounding out of bed early!) A little extra breathing room takes a lot of pressure off and allows margin for an unexpected meltdown (which is increasingly unlikely when you follow this plan).

Traction Before Distraction

This one is for the adults of the family. To ensure mornings run as smoothly as possible we each need to take responsibility for being where our feet are. This isn’t possible when our faces are in our phones or devices. We need to be “on” for our children, making sure we're clear on our priorities, and not allow silly distractions pull us away from "first things” - no matter how tempting that may be.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Checking news sites or Facebook feeds is not the main thing when we wake up. We need boundaries for ourselves to gain traction and avoid distraction as our mornings get underway.

No TV or Screens

Can you imagine a morning where you didn’t have to plead with your children to turn the TV off in the morning, and get ready? What if I told you… you don’t have to. Just don’t turn it on. You’ve got way too much to do. And besides, time spent watching TV could be time spent together connecting and chatting before leaving home.

For this to work, a lot rests on us as parents. We need to:

  1. Set up the system with menus and checklists.
  2. Make sure we prepare our morning the night before.
  3. Spend time teaching our children. They’ll need a lot of help at the beginning.
  4. Maintain discipline so our distractions don’t take us away from our priorities.
  5. Recognise that some days it’s all going to fall apart. Our job is to make sure we don’t when it does.

Each family will have circumstances that make some of these ideas tricky. And it is true that toddlers or preschoolers still need a fair bit of assistance, which will require patience from you as parents as they learn to master new skills. But the pay-off is definitely worth it.

A parent who isn’t feeling rushed is better able to respond to a child in need of emotional support, and children value parents who have the space and time to connect with them - even on busy mornings before kindergarten or daycare. Children value choice. They feel capable. And we all feel connected. Your morning becomes… magic.