Visualizing Whirled Peas: Embracing the Organized Chaos of Lower School Years

Do you remember where you were when you had that first “aha” parenting moment?  The exact moment you realized that, not only were those parenting books way off base, but there were some critical points missing from the table of contents?  That moment was like an epiphany: a brutal realization that you’d be figuring this parenting thing out for many years to come.  It wasn’t exactly what you were expecting; and the most troubling part of that wake-up call was finding out that the tactics and strategies that a friend may have used successfully with her kids wouldn’t quite cut it with your own.  It’s like calling on a lifeline who doesn’t know any of the answers!

One of the most startling realizations that parents of young children face is the fact that every child needs at least one organized grown-up.  Every little part of a child’s day is a major event, of sorts, requiring multiple layers of preparation on the adult level.  Even the simple act of getting to school each morning can rival the preparations for an opening on Broadway.  If your child is a slow-riser, a fair amount of coaxing and cajoling is needed to get all ten toes out of bed and on the floor each morning. After that “opening act”, getting dressed and ready can be a production in itself.  Some children have an innate sense of couture and require the extra time and care needed to create just the right ensemble for the day. Others are content to pull on absolutely anything, oblivious to their lack of fashion sense, and need to be gently guided back for another try.  Is the hair just right? What about these shoes?  Meanwhile, the clock tick tocks away, tempers rise, and you wonder… How can getting dressed be this complicated?  Take consolation in the fact that this is not a gender-specific issue.  Both boys and girls go through phases of “how do I look?” And yes: we did this when we were kids too. (But the clothes weren’t as cool and there wasn’t as much variety.)

Sometimes, the time and energy that it takes to get our children washed, dressed, fed, packed up and out of the door each morning feels like an endurance test.  It’s physically and emotionally draining for parents and can be equally exhausting for the child.  And the day is just beginning!  By the time we score the endorphin rush that follows the morning drop off, we have fully engaged the part of our brains that houses our executive function or organizational skills. God bless the pre-frontal cortex.  It remembers whether or not the homework folder came home; which snacks to pack; where the favorite sweater is; when the book report is due; and most importantly, where the car keys are.  It maps out the day and helps us to be the wranglers– the construction workers who build the scaffolding around the emerging skyscrapers who are our children.  It’s like a built in organizational system, that continuously upgrades its own database to make sure that we plan out not only what we have to do, but what our kids need in order to do what they have to do. It syncs their lives to our lives and plans accordingly for both.

But what can you do if you don’t have that built in organizer?  Or if it’s “offline” most of the time?  What if you’re not the organized grown-up?  The best route is the age-old advice of “fake it until you make it.” However, the faking is actually the creation of “artificial” organizational systems that substitute for a lack of strong executive functioning. This might involve setting up structures and routines for yourself to help ease your child through the day.  If the nighttime routine always looks the same, the process gets easier for both you and your child. He learns, and begins to rely on, the ritual: bath, story, snuggles, quiet music on, lights out, time for sleeping.  If the time between getting home and bedtime are chaotic, map it out—much as you would if you were about to drive through unchartered territory.  Create the routine and stick to it: get home, have a snack, take a break, do homework, eat dinner.  The trick is to keep to the routine, which eventually becomes less of an artificial organizational system and more of a successful strategy for structuring the day. 

Amazingly, the creation of daily routines can be applied to the mornings as well.  Granted, mornings can be the toughest of all because pre-caffeinated adults are faced with children who are not yet physically or emotionally alert.  Yet, morning routines can be put in place to help ease the drama and assure that everyone arrives at the breakfast table in a positive frame of mind.  If your child needs more time to select that perfect outfit each day, look for ways to make that selection happen in a timelier manner. Ask your child to assemble several possible outfits which can be laid out in advance.  Set the boundaries: “Put together 3 outfits tonight. Tomorrow morning, you can choose the one you want to wear. But you only get to choose from the 3 that you put together.  So, make your best choices.”  This gives your child two things that she truly desires: control and choices.  You only need to remember the trick: keep to the routine.  Repeat the process and stick to the structure.  The same holds true for the breakfast table. Instead of an open menu: “What would you like for breakfast?” embrace more of a prix fixe mindset: “This morning you can have waffles and fruit or Cheerios with a banana.”  The menu is set.  Your child only needs to make the choice.  If you know that you live with picky eaters, frontload the routine with prior planning: involve your child in writing the morning menu in advance.  Better yet, create a weekly menu with your child in advance.  It’s all about the choices and control; the organization and routine.

I’m sure you’re imagining my household as a well-oiled machine—minutes ticking sweetly by with harmony oozing out of every corner, as my family checks off each step in our daily routines.  We glide through our conflict-free days and sit down to a dinner where the children are appreciatively delighted to see more veggies on their plates than anything else.  I’m sorry to disappoint.  The true picture takes me back to my “aha” moment, when I realized that I was raising two boys with ADD (both packing sidecars of executive dysfunction).  What worked for one, didn’t work for the other.  One is rule-bound; the other knows the rules but can’t keep them.  One yearns for the grey area; the other is a concrete thinker: black and white.  One has to be tickled and tricked out of bed; the other sets his alarm clock, gets dressed and leaves his backpack in the car.  Both need organizational checklists for morning and evening routines—even after years of having the same routines; and I need checklists to remind me to monitor their checklists!  It’s organized chaos; but it’s our routine and it works.

At some point, we realize that living with young children is less about taking control and more about giving up control. The more I attempted to make things the way that I needed them to be for my children, the harder the days became.  It wasn’t until I accepted that each child has his own way of being and doing that I could see that I was working with a parenting system that worked for me, but not for my kids.  That was my “aha” moment.  After years of embracing the wash and wear mentality of lower school life, I was running a dry clean only household. 

The unpredictability of raising children demands our flexibility and our creativity.  We have to manage, supervise and wrangle ourselves and our children.  Somehow, we have to create the illusion of democracy, while setting clear boundaries and offering them choices and control.  Most of all, we have to remain mindful of our scaffold-building responsibilities, as we provide them with the security of structure and routine.  Children crave that organization; they need to know what happens next. They need to know that the scaffolding is strong.  That said, no home is exempt from the occasional upset.  A single disappointment or disruption can upset household peace much like shaking a snow globe can create chaos out of a tranquil scene.  That is part of the deal: the chapter in the parenting book that was written in invisible ink.  At times like these, we need to move beyond asking ourselves, How can raising kids be this complicated?  Just embrace the organized chaos.  Give up the dry clean only notion of world peace and visualize whirled peas instead.  It’s a wash and wear mindset that will help us enjoy the delightful and exhausting unpredictability of parenting.

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