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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