Parenting for the perplexed | Morning drill becomes exercise in frustration

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via

Our generally sweet and cooperative 4-year-old girl takes forever to get ready in the morning. Getting dressed is the hardest. She loves lingering in her PJs — she’d stay in them until noon every day. PJs finally off, she spends 15 minutes picking an outfit and constantly gets distracted, “forgetting” how to do things she’s mastered a year ago.

Things quickly deteriorate into my constantly hurrying my daughter along and both of us getting frustrated. Recently she’s started yelling “Go away!” at me. I don’t approve of this language, but I’m so frustrated I’ve yelled back: “I am going away!” and left her to stew (and cry…).

It all started in September when her 2-year-old brother began attending her preschool, though she was very excited about it. Getting two of them ready just threw a monkey wrench in our routine. Things improved some in late fall and winter vacation. But now that they’ve been back to school for a few weeks, mornings are chaos!

I have tried more special time and cuddling with her on the one hand; being stricter and “giving consequences” on the other. I confess I’ve also tried bribes and threats… Nothing is working! — Fuming & Frustrated in Petaluma

Dear Fuming & Frustrated: How can something be so frustrating and yet so common? You are in the same boat with the majority of parents who have to get their kids dressed, fed, bundled and in the car before 8:30 a.m.

I suspect it started in September not only because of the “double duty” but also because, proud of being big sister aside, your daughter was jealous sharing “her” school. I’ll bet her brother’s awfully cute, too, and steals some of the limelight. And I’m not surprised the problem came back with a vengeance after the winter vacation — it’s one of the un-joys of the season.

The key here is changing the behavior patterns that now rule your morning with simple, clear directions and rewards for cooperation. Here’s how:

Start by waking up early and getting yourself ready before the children wake up. This will reduce the stress of trying to juggle your needs with theirs.

Make the morning routine as simple as possible. Move what you can to the night before: preparing lunches (with your kids), putting jackets on hooks by the door, etc.

Make a poster, with your kids’ help, with a box by each task: dressing, eating breakfast, brushing teeth/hair, getting jacket on and lunch box in hand, and buckling into car seat (goal is 30 minutes total, with no more than six steps).

Explain the poster and say that from now on you want them to follow the order each morning, nicely.

Help your daughter move through tasks by using a timer or songs and marking when she must complete each task. After she’s completed all the steps and is ready for school, let her use the time left (10 minutes is optimal) for a favorite activity, something that’s not too hard to stop, and help your son finish his tasks. He’ll probably want to be on the same “program.” Great! It will help him learn to get ready more independently.

Create a sticker chart (or penny jar) explaining: “When you get ready for school like I ask, you’ll get a sticker. For five stickers in a row you get a small reward, for 10 a bigger one.”

At first, rewards should come often, but then encourage working for bigger ones. That develops the capacity for delayed gratification — a key tool for building a civilization.

Have her pick her outfit the night before. The best time for this is when she is motivated to finish; for instance, before story time or a favorite TV show, if that is part of your routine.

Tell her PJs are for the weekend and let her stay in them as long as she likes, even if she goes back to bed in them at night. Join her in a “PJ weekend” on special occasions.

Turn her “Go away!” into a question: “Do you want me to go away?” Say in a neutral tone (only if it’s safe for you to leave): “OK, I’ll leave now. Call me when you’re ready.”

On day one of this program, start everything 10 minutes earlier than normal. Announce that when two weeks have gone smoothly, you’ll have a party, special treat or family activity.

Hope it’s party time soon!

Rachel Biale