Fall is just around the corner, and I'm helping the families I see in family counseling set up some structure and a game plan for family life for the busy school year ahead. Summer is a time to loosen up the family structure and stay up later, do more outside, take time to vacation and rest up. In September, it's time for the family architects (the parents) to get back on track and communicate with the whole family about how they can help and work together collaboratively.
Too many families have too little structure, and end up being chaotic, messy, and angrier than necessary. If you have school-age children, here is a check-list of things to consider to avoid family chaos and crankiness:
1. Bedtimes- I don't like to see teens up until 2AM then trying to get up for school. Even though most teens stay up late during the summer, I encourage you to talk with your teen ASAP about beginning the shift to an earlier wind-down. Teens actually need more sleep than adults or some younger children. Turning off electronics an hour before bed helps brains cool down and prepare for sleep.
Younger children need bedtimes, too. They need a consistent bedtime routine (think bath time, stories/reading, tucking in/quiet, gentle talking with a parent, then lights out).
Parents also need some relaxing, adult time before bed, which is impossible if you all go to bed at midnight.
2. Get Everyone Sleeping in Their Own Rooms- With the exception of tiny babies, I much prefer we get parents sleeping in their bedroom and the children sleeping in their rooms. This helps everyone get a better night's sleep, helps us maintain appropriate parent/child boundaries, and helps children develop their ability to self comfort. Get started early on this project, because it's much more difficult to clean up this problem when the children are older. If you have an anxious child, go spend time in their room for a while, but don't sleep in their room, and don't have them sleep in yours. This is even more important for single parents. Don't make your child your companion. Adults need some grown up time after children are in bed. Set clear guidelines and enforce them with consistency.
3. Chores- The start of the fall season is a great natural time to set up a simple new chore system. If your kids missed that because they had a nanny when they were younger or you got used to handling everything, start today. Make a list of age appropriate chores, and have all children age 4 and up pick a few, possibly 2 or 3 things they promise to help with that month. Rotate tasks and choose again each month so nobody gets stuck with the trash cans, or some other unappealing task, all the time. Have the children help make a reminder list to post on the fridge which specifies who will do what and when. Have the kids help you set up consequences in advance for any family member who flakes on their chore. Being a family isn't just about receiving, but also about contributing. I recommend that even adult children who live at home while going to college, or after college, get some chores, too. Each person picking up after themselves, making their bed and straightening up the basics in their bedroom and bathroom should definitely be included in this.
4. Allowance- If you don't have a system set up, the fall is a great time to start one up. I like some small amount of money even for little ones as young as 5 or 6. It's a great teaching tool, where you can have them save some, give some to charity, and have some to spend. For older kids, it's a great way not to get nickeled and dimed at stores by the children. They need to plan, bring their own money, and learn to evaluate whether a purchase is really worth it. They can also learn to exercise the self-control to save for an important goal. Some parents link chores to allowance, while others prefer to keep the two as distinct.
5. Morning and Evening Routines- These are the two most high-conflict times for families. Talk with your partner, and then with the children about creating a smooth new morning routine, and ask them each to make a list for themselves of what they need to do. I prefer everyone gets up a few minutes earlier to make that busy time less hectic. Try to get the children to agree to shower, prep their backpack, pack a lunch, and select school clothes the night before if at all possible. Many girls can really lose time in the morning selecting an outfit. Consider eliminating the third parent, the television set, at these busy times by keeping it off. Start as early as you can to have the children wake up to their own alarm rather than depending on you. It's cute when they are little, but aggravating if you lose the window of opportunity on this task and your high school senior is mad that you didn't keep trying to wake them up after multiple attempts.
6. Family Meetings- I recommend them as a great tool for communicating and working more effectively as a family. Often Sunday night at dinner works best. Parents plan the agenda. Limit it to 10 to 20 minutes, depending on children's attention spans. I always recommend meetings occur at a mealtime. Put a sheet of paper on the fridge so the children and teens can add agenda items. Have each family member, adults and kids, bring a specific compliment to share with every person there. Keep a journal of plans and decisions made so you can follow up next time you meet. If you pay allowance, this is a good time to distribute it.
7. Family Fun Nights- Too many families don't really enjoy each other that much. It's so important to play together regularly. Ask your children if they would like to create a fun family tradition; perhaps you could initiate a weekly board game and pizza night, or a hike or outdoor activity together on Sunday afternoons. Most children I ask about this are thrilled at the prospect of more family fun. Remember: no cell phones or electronics allowed.
8. Date Night- You are also creating a blueprint for your children about how marriage works. Healthy partnerships take a few hours out of the week to spend doing something enjoyable together, preferably out of the house. If you set up Saturday date nights, you plan one, then ask your partner to plan the next, and keep alternating. Nobody likes to be taken for granted, and I find both partners like to be courted. It's also fun to get to plan some activities you think would be fun to do with your partner. Two rules: 1) Do not discuss the children (it's too easy to hide there) and 2) Try to do something where you can chat some, so a movie is not ideal unless you add getting an iced tea after to discuss the film.
These eight suggestions can give your family just the structure you need to feel successful in your life as a couple and a family. Go for it! Daily life is so much more fun if we are all paddling the canoe in the same direction.