Trying to get out the door with several children in tow should have been one of the labours of Heracles.  Whether you’re home educating, or sending your children to school, at some stage you need to be on time somewhere, and it’s not easy.  Not unusually, this week yet another friend expressed her frustration at how difficult it is to get her child ready and out the door on time to get to school.


It’s an upsetting situation.  I’ve been there.  There’s a lot to do to get three children (for you it may be more or less, but no matter) out of the house for a trip to school, or for a trip out for the day.  Sandwiches to pack, water bottles to fill, where’s your book bag, and HAVE YOU BRUSHED YOUR TEETH?  When my middle child was five, we’d get halfway to school and she’d say something like, “Oops, I forgot to put underpants on today.” Tempers are running high, the children seem mystified as to why I am so cross and frayed at the ends.  I end up losing my temper, we get to school, kiss goodbye and then… that’s it.  They’ve run through the door, and there’s no chance to make amends, kiss and make up or start over.  For the rest of the day I have to carry the weight of our unmadeup argument in the pit of my stomach.  I wonder, “how is she feeling? Why did I have to be like that?”

I know it’s a common problem from discussions with other mothers in the plaground.  But even at home ed group, which I attend with one of my children, parents turn up with that same hassled look, as though to say, “I just performed a miracle simply by being here!”

Some people use reward charts to motivate their children to get ready.  I don’t really have strong views about reward charts.  They’ve just never really worked for our family.  Over time I’ve come to see that getting ready on someone else’s timetable is developmentally quite difficult for a young child.

As in so many cases, the best parenting ‘tip’ I can give is to simply adjust your own expectations.  That’s not going to sell books, but in many ways, it is that answer to many parenting quandries.  A child under the age of ten cannot, in my view, manage her own time to the extent that she can think through the steps required to get ready in the morning, consider what time she needs to leave to arrive at her destination punctually, think backwards to decide when and what time she needs to start getting ready and take appropriate action.  Shouting, “we’ve got to leave in ten minutes!” is meaningless to a six year old.

Young children do not inhabit the world of time, yet.  And in a way, this is a beautiful and magical thing.  We adults are constantly getting hot under the collar about being on time or the consequences of being late.  It’s stressful.  Children don’t need this stress.

My eldest daughter (10) is a bit of a dreamer and a dawdler.  My seven year old is stubbornly autonomous, and doesn’t like to be told what to do.  For her, it’s a matter of control.  For my youngest, he likes to pick what he wears, regardless of the weather, and that can sometimes be a battleground.
It has helped me enormously to empathise with my child and consider why we are having this problem. Is it that she wants autonomy over the process?  Is it that she’s dreamy or just wants to play?  Does she dislike the clothes she has to wear?  Or am I expecting too much of my child?  There’s no one-size fits all solution, and different ideas have helped each of my children.Here are some ideas that we’ve tried:
  • I found that when my children were five, I often expected them to get dressed by themselves, and then would feel frustrated when they didn’t do it.  Sometimes getting down on hands and knees and physically dressing them myself did the trick.  It  might sound like yet another thing to do on an already-busy morning.  Or you might think, “Well I think he’s old enough to do it himself.”  But consider this: if you are about to spend the day apart from one another, isn’t the tactile experience of getting this little person dressed *just* the thing that you both need?  Maybe your child’s resistance to getting ready is simply a request for attention.
  • For the child who likes autonomy, a checklist can help: “These are the jobs you have to do before we leave, so you tick them off as you finish them.”  This has really helped my 7 year old.  We made a colourful one, laminated it and put it up in the kitchen.  It’s not a reward chart, just a list of what needs to be done.  The thing that can be tricky with this is that find myself nagging her.  Recently she said, “I don’t like it when you nag me to get my jobs done in the morning.”  I said, “But I’m worried that you’re running out of time.”  She said, “If you just tell me how much time I have left, I’ll do it.” So I promised not to nag, and she really surprised and pleased me because she now does her jobs without me having to nag.  I think this is completely developmental, and she could not have done when she was any younger.  It also works for her because she is methodical and really likes to play with white board markers, laminated sheets and tick little boxes!  It helps her because she enjoys the autonomy.
  • If your child has to wear a uniform, and prefers not to, it might help to find ones that have little embellishments or details she likes; or even pants, socks, tights, vests, hair clips, etc. that can make her feel unique.
  • My dreamer now needs to lay her clothes out the night before. She is at the age where she wants to get dressed alone, so getting up and doing it before anyone (i.e., her siblings) has realised that she is awake is really working for her.
  • Think about bedtimes, for you and for your child.  An earlier bedtime can help; maybe she’s tired in the morning, or maybe you are?  If you can cope with getting up just a little earlier (I am amazed at the effect of just 10 minutes) to get your jobs done, you may find that you have more time to give your child the concentrated attention s/he needs to get ready.
  • Consider the role of TV in the morning.  We don’t have one, but my friends say it can be a real time-suck.  On the other hand, you could use it as a distraction if your child is hating getting dressed, “How about if I dress you while you watch Timmy Time (or whatever)”?  Or, you could try singing a song together as you dress her.
  • It seems obvious, but plan to leave earlier.  Once my mother-in-law came to visit and she said, “If you always aim to leave at 8.55 but you run late, why not just leave at 8.45?” It wasn’t rocket science, but why hadn’t I thought of it earlier?
  • Let go of being on time.  This works for some, but not for others.  Personally, I like to be on time, but many people will understand if you’re late, especially if you’re pregnant, have a baby or other such circumstances.  Sometimes just asking yourself, “What’s the worst case scenario?” can bring fresh perspective.

It’s so easy to get taken away with getting out and being on time, and that becomes the focus, rather than our relationship with our children.  Only after the confrontation and stress, when we are finally there, do we feel the let down, the regret, the sadness that this seems to be the way things are nearly every day.  But it doesn’t have to be like this.  We can make connection the centre of our lives, the cornerstone upon which we build our days.  Some days will be better than others.  Some days we will be late.  Some days it will seem as though we are at loggerheads with our children.  But we can stop, breathe and recall that our children are only small, that we are only human and that compassion for them and for ourselves can transform a moment.

I’d love to hear about whether any of these ideas have resonated with you, or perhaps you have a particular story about what’s helped your family.  Leave a comment below (comments open for five days), and know that when you struggle to get out the door, you are not alone!

Photo credit: By mwheatl.Mwheatl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons



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Getting out the door with young children
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24 thoughts on “Getting out the door with young children

  • 07/03/2013 at 10:35 pm

    Lisa, I delayed going to bed to read this and you won’t be surprised to know it really resonates with me! I loathe mornings and having to hassle the boys out of the house when they are having fun playing together. The only reason I am ever on time is because I always aim to be out the door at 8.30, when actually 10mins later is fine. But all the other mums look calm and I feel frazzled. Will try the checklist on the nearly 5yo, but my current prob with the nearly 3yo is that if he doesn’t want to be dressed he will undress himself, fine if we ever have some warm weather, but at the moment not ideal! Right no more delays – off to bed. Thank you again x

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:28 pm

      Hi Hilary,

      It’s funny, both here and on Facebook, readers have commented that everyone else seems so calm. But I can say that this post proved very popular, so some people must be faking it! 🙂

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • 07/03/2013 at 10:48 pm

    Good to see you writing again! Anna and I have an arrangement when after she’s had breakfast she knows that at 8.00 am she has to get dressed, brush her hair and teeth and pack her bag in order to leave the house at 8.30. It seems to work for us but I only have one child at home to worry about! Jacob was an entiely different story! X

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:29 pm

      Hi Monica,
      So what was the story with Jacob? Your system with Anna seems so civilised!

      Thank you for commenting, and yes it’s been nice to get a chance to write again.

  • 07/03/2013 at 11:02 pm

    Having spent the past few days beginning to think of the logistics of getting two little ones out of the door by 07:50 ( or having read this 07:40) when I return to work in May this blog was just what I needed ; a reminder that on the mornings when things don’t go to plan that i’m not the only mum not getting things quite right and more importantly the following day is a chance to do things differently x

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Kailey,
      Thanks for your comments. Yes, it is heartening that there’s a chance to do things differently the following day. For me, it helps to see each day in isolation: just because we struggled today, doesn’t mean it has to be that way every day. It’s not ‘just the way things are with kids.’ Even if I’ve had a difficult hour in the morning, I guard against saying, “I’ve had a terrible morning/day” because there’s always a chance that things will turn around… especially with children. They forgive and forget so readily.

      I really appreciate that you took the time to read and comment on my writing.

  • 08/03/2013 at 12:02 am

    Thank you Lisa 🙂 I have just purchased a novelty egg timer on eBay, a friend’s suggestion to assist dreamy Gwen in gaining some perception of time – might work for me too!

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Annest,
      Let us know how it goes!

      Thank you for commenting,

  • 08/03/2013 at 12:27 am

    With 3 you really do get to run the gamut on styles, yes?! Only recently has my 4yo begun wearing dedicated pajamas. Up until that point, she’d pick out something to sleep in and then wear it for 24 hours. Most of her clothes are comfy knit pants and shirts; they can be slept in just fine. Do I care if she wears the same clothes for 24 hours? Nope. Do I care if my kids match? Nope. My kids have always picked out their own clothes. My self-worth is *not* connected to whether my kids match (either themselves or, my goodness, each other–I see siblings dressed all alike and think, “I would never have the energy to make that happen!”).

    I’ve also used reminders of what needs to be done, checklists and such, either with pictures (for pre-readers) or words or both. And when living with a toddler, I tried, whenever possible, to include “toddler time” into my planning–I would start putting on shoes a good 20 minutes before we needed to be buckled into the car. There is SO MUCH to look at between the front door and car!

    I will say that we had horrible, terrible mornings when my middle child was in school…but truly, there was more than just schedule resistance going on there, although there was some of that, too.

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:39 pm

      Hi Amy,
      Thank you for your insightful comments: yes with three you do get three very different personalities!

      What you shared about letting your children choose their own clothes is familiar to me. We do the same here, and people often comment on how ingeniously my children are dressed. I swear my middle child has much more style than I’ll ever have, and just instinctively seems to know how to put clothes together and make them look wonderful. I love it that she can show her independence through what she decides to wear.

      And what you say about ‘toddler time’– yes! It really helps to be aware of where your child is right now. Developmentally, a toddler is going to take ages to get dressed, needs lots of help, and cannot be rushed.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • 08/03/2013 at 6:31 am

    You’ve put into words what I so often feel. Slow down. They’re only babies for such a short time.

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Miranda,
      Aren’t they just?! It’s incredible how quickly it seems to happen. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to read,

  • 08/03/2013 at 6:32 am

    I like everything to be organised & calm in the mornings (!) – so do as much as I can the night before. Everyone has a pile with their coats/shoes/bags/lunches/whichever random item they need in the lounge.

    In our house, well fed people = happy people, hungry people = grumpy people. There is no point trying to prioritise anything other than breakfast. Eating first made a massive difference to our mornings.

    We also have 2 ‘But I MUST wear shorts’ – we have a thermometer on the window and the elder (nearly 5) checks the temperature and decides if its really shorts weather (below 10 is trousers!) – the younger (just 2) get to stand outside and decide if its warm enough for shorts (usually not!) – saves masses of time.

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:42 pm

      Hi Sarah,
      I am loving these ideas! A pile with everything that each person needs sounds organised, but calling it a ‘pile’ also makes it feel achievable. And the image of your children checking the temperature to see whether it’s shorts weather: adorable!

      Glad to see you here, and thanks for reading,

  • 08/03/2013 at 6:38 am

    Also (sorry, hit enter too soon, feel free to join them up!) – not doing ‘one more thing’ on the computer, but getting up & engaging with the kids (She says, doing one more thing..!)

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:44 pm

      Well said!

  • 08/03/2013 at 10:48 am

    Nice to read you again Lisa.
    For me breakfast is time consuming, they spend more than 30 minutes…in fact until we start to tell them that is already late… they just want to play, which is what a 5 and 2 y old are supposed to do. Unfortunately I forget about it when I think about GL’s teacher :O!

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:45 pm

      Hi Vale,
      As you say, playing is what they’re supposed to do. It’s so hard when you know there will be consequences that you’d like to avoid. I’ll be thinking of you in the morning.
      Thanks for commenting,

  • 08/03/2013 at 1:34 pm

    Another timely post Lisa 🙂 Yesterday’s school run had me in floods of tears and I did lots of soul searching as to why it is such a problem in our house. Of course it goes without saying that many of us struggle to get places on time with children yet I’ve found the school gates to be a place of smiles and ‘good morning’s’ rather than mothers like me who clearly look like their morning has NOT started well! I do find it particularly important to ensure that my 6yo gets to school on time – being late the odd time I find acceptable but not on a weekly basis. I questioned my own thoughts on this and realised that I feel that it’s a reflection on my mothering (or lack of) if I can’t get my children to school on time. Child late for school = bad mother. And yet when I see others being late, I don’t think that at all – I figure they’ve probably just had a bad morning.

    I’ve tried many things over the past 3 years – getting up earlier, getting dressed before breakfast/after breakfast but there doesn’t seem to be a magic recipe. Some work one day and fail miserably the next. I try to be flexible to their requests to do things differently if I can. I have a LOT of slack in the morning. Probably a good 30 minutes. We’re fortunate in that school opens at 8.45am and starts at 9am. We have a good 30 minute walk. Snow and rain always slow us down though 🙁

    At the moment, 6yo is really struggling to get ready on time and we’re only ‘just’ making it before the bell. She’s fine coming down to eat her breakfast but when it comes to cleaning her teeth – aggghhhh!! All she wants to do is read. And unfortunately she has also been having issues with one of her teachers. It did reach the point where I felt I had to go and see the head. She took my concerns very seriously and I only hope that things will continue to improve.
    I’ve tried the ‘no shouting’ mummy this week. We’ve all been happier but no earlier. Yesterday, I did shout – all very miserable and we weren’t any earlier.

    On the way home yesterday, we talked about why it’s important to get to school on time and how it wouldn’t really work very well if everyone turned up when they felt like it. I did this because I think I’d like my 6yo to understand why it’s important to work to a timetable sometimes and that we can’t always do things when we want to. But it’s a difficult lesson for a 6yo.

    The jury is out – time will tell if we can get over this particular hurdle in our morning’s school run.

    • 10/03/2013 at 12:56 pm

      Hi Louise,
      Thank you for sharing about your difficulties in the morning. You might have seen that someone else here commented that everyone else seems calm and all smiles too! I am intrigued by what you said: being late = bad mother… and wonder whether there’s a connection. Perhaps people also feel that being real about how hard it can be in the morning also equals bad mother? Or maybe they aren’t struggling, and it’s just you, me and the other people who commented on this post….. And the nearly 500 people who’ve read it since I posted it….Interesting.

      I really appreciate what you’ve shared, and how your experiences have added to the discussion. Thanks,

  • 10/03/2013 at 10:15 pm

    Lovely to read your post today.

    Well, we only live about one minute’s walk away from school. We are very often late, but I exonerate myself from any blame because it’s clearly the fact that we live so close that we’re late… 😉

    I have found that stories help us a lot. My daughter often asks for a story in the morning, so I think of one, and if she is procrastinating, then I pause the story and say it’ll speed up when she speeds up (pace of story = pace of my daughter). Thankfully she’s such a big fan of my stories (bless) that it’s a useful tool for us (though I’m completely sure it’s not for everyone!).

    …Also, I found this sentence that you wrote thought-provoking:

    ‘Shouting, “we’ve got to leave in ten minutes!” is meaningless to a six year old.’

    I agree that time is a very difficult concept for a six year old, and that perhaps it isn’t useful saying this. However, what’s behind it? A mother is trying to vocalise so much in those words: societal pressure about time keeping, perceived peer pressure from other mothers, worries about what the school think about lateness and of course, her own multi-faceted frustration, be they hormonal, emotional, work-related etc. As adults we understand her stress (perfectly encapsulated in that sentence), but the child does not.

    You went on to say:

    “that compassion for them and for ourselves can transform a moment.” I’d like to hear more about how you think mothers can be more compassionate to themselves, and perhaps how the ‘we’ve got to leave in ten minutes’ sentence can be more usefully rearranged so that the communication between the time-aware adult and time-unaware child is improved.

    Lastly, a big thanks to you for this post for another reason: you inspired me to try to finish off a poem that I started ages ago about this very issue.

    • 11/03/2013 at 9:45 am

      Hi Marija,
      Thank you for taking a minute to share your thoughts and experiences. I really loved the tip about telling a story to keep the pace of the morning going. Is it a story you make up, or one you know from memory? I’m not sure I’d have the mental resourcefulness after a bad night to make up a story off the top of my head! But perhaps you’re fresh as a daisy in the morning and full of ideas! 🙂 Lol

      I’m thinking about the points you raised about what is wrapped up in the shout of “We’ve got to leave in ten minutes!!” Yes, I agree with you. There is so much more to it than just wanting to be on time. You have probably already read the other comments on this post, but an interesting point that has come up is the feeling that BEING LATE = BAD MOTHER. Some of it is about what other people think, and perhaps what we think of ourselves. And then there’s the comparisons we draw (also in the other comments): other mothers at the school gates appear to be happy, organised, fine, not sweating and stressed. What impression does that give? Maybe: “she’s doing it better than me” or “what’s her secret?” or “why can’t my kids just behave and get ready when I tell them?” There’s a whole host of negative thoughts that come up in this scenario.

      You asked about how we could reframe that statement so that it involves more compassion with ourselves and our children. I hesitate to offer ‘advice’ in this blog. However, I am able to say what has helped *me*, which is simply to acknowledge what my child is doing now and share my feelings. I might say, “I can see you’re really enjoying that puzzle. I’m getting worried because we have to leave in a few minutes and you have yet to brush your teeth. Would you be willing to stop the puzzle and move on to your teeth now?” Or I might offer, “That book you’re reading is really interesting, isn’t it? My tummy is feeling tight because I’m anxious that we’re going to be late.” I can recall when I first started learning about communicating in this way, I thought it sounded so wet and wishy washy! And initially, my children ignored my feelings and just carried on with what they were doing… and then I’d end up feeling cross and resentful. Certainly, my three year old needs a slightly more cheerfully directive approach to getting ready. But over time my other children have come to feel listened to, and are willing to give that listening in return. They often reply with, “Yes, but I just want to finish this paragraph. Is that ok?” Or, “But I just want to finish this puzzle first?” Such communication opens up the possibility of compromise and mutual respect. It teaches compassion.

      I hasten to add that I an still practising: I don’t *always* do this! I’m stumbling along with it all too.

      One thing I loved about what Louise shared in her comment was that she chose a quiet, relaxed time to talk about the situation with her child. The highly-charged time of trying to get out the door might not be the most fruitful time to have this discussion, but later when everyone is more relaxed, we can calmly discussed each person’s needs.

      I am so glad you were inspired to finish your poem. 🙂
      And thank you for the thought-provoking comment,

      • 11/03/2013 at 6:02 pm

        Many thanks for your reply Lisa and thanks for sharing the phrases that work for you. I like the ‘my tummy is feeling tight…’ one especially. Yes, Louise’s suggestion was helpful too, although I admit I’ve tried this and only had varying success with it.

        As for the stories; they’re generally new ones I make up (or recycle old ones). No, I’m not as fresh as a daisy 😉 but I’ve had so much practice with stories that I can generally make one up on the spur of the moment (my daughter has been asking me for stories every day since she was 2, and that was almost 4 years ago). I think we hit a peak when she was about 3 when she asked for 10 a day.

        Trending in our house at the moment – humourous stories about TV characters with tendencies towards the scatalogical. If we really need to get a move on, sometimes throwing in a character from school life – or personal life – can help 😉

        • 11/03/2013 at 7:43 pm

          I love the phrase, “trending in our house at the moment”!!!
          Thank you thank you!

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