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The path to independence

Enforce routines to raise independent children

Enforce routines to raise independent children

The first day of school is enlightening for kindergarten teacher at Presidential Park Elementary in Middletown, Deena Tulino. "It's apparent in the first five minutes which kids have had structure and routines in their lives," she says. "I can tell based on who can sit on the floor and gather their attention when asked. These are children who pick up on cues and know what's coming next."

The key here is "know what's coming next." For children, the unknown is around every corner, from that weird-looking vegetable to losing teeth to big life transitions such as new siblings or starting school. Changes happen for kids at a dizzying pace, and none of it is under their control.

Routines provide security
"Knowing what's going to happen, and when, is huge for kids," says Dr. Danielle Cigliano, DO, FAAP, a pediatrician with Caremount Medical who practices in Kingston and Rhinebeck. "It really creates a sense of security. When children feel like their life is chaotic, they develop increased anxiety and their behavior reflects that."

To give children that security, it is vital to create and stick to routines early. Toddlers have the motor skills to put toys away as young as 15-18 months old. "You'll have to do some of it yourself," says Dr. Cigliano, who is also the mother of three young daughters, "but keep in mind that even at this age, children instinctively want to help out." You can also talk to your toddler about the routine of the day, narrate as you go and offer previews of what's coming up. She says, "Find a way to make it easy and fun, and be consistent so they know what's expected of them."

READ MORE: Optimize your morning routine

Independence at school
At school, routines enable children to thrive. "Before any learning happens, kids need to feel safe and handle day-to-day activities on their own and quickly," says Tulino. "By the time they begin kindergarten, children should be able to use the bathroom and clean themselves. What I often see is that a child has the ability, but is simply used to being taken care of. They also need to be able to open and eat their lunch without help, because teachers will likely not be with them at that time, and take care of their personal belongings."

If your child struggles with routines, work with her teacher to figure out some helpful tools. Tulino uses checklists, workboards, and visual aids with students who may be differently-wired or just need extra guidance. "Parent-teacher communication is so vital because kids may not be able to articulate things," she says. "Let your child's teacher know what works for, triggers or hinders your child."

Individualism blooms
When a child can do something for themselves, they take ownership and pride in that thing. Their self-confidence, independence and individualism blooms. When change or the unexpected does happen, they're better equipped to cope because they already have their routines as a foundation. Routines also greatly reduce power struggles, encourage cooperation, teach the concept of "looking forward" to things we enjoy and help parents build-in valuable moments of connection.

READ MORE: #1 advantage of preschool

Time is the enemy

So then why do many parents resist creating and keeping routines? Lack of time is the enemy here. It's simply quicker and more efficient to do certain things for our children, especially when everyone's rushing out the door or trying to enjoy some quality evening hours as a family.

We modern adults used to multi-tasking and doing it all often find it hard to give up control. "An extra challenge for working parents is finding a caregiver who will mirror the routines you've set up," adds Dr. Cigliano. However, if we remind ourselves that time and energy spent now is an investment in our children's future, the pros far outweigh the short-term cons.

Maintain flexibility
Parents may also worry that too much structure will cramp everyone's sense of spontaneity and creativity. That's why flexibility is important. There are times when rules are made to be broken, like staying up late to watch fireworks or skipping dinner clean-up for an ice cream outing.

Departures from routine create a sense of excitement, keep things special, and help make memories - as long as they're not the norm. When we think of routines as a framework that helps make life easier and less stressful, our kids will thrive on that security and be able to create their own structure when ready.

Jennifer Castle is a freelancer and author of books for kids and teens, including the Butterfly Wishes book series from Bloomsbury USA. She lives in New Paltz with her husband and two young daughters.