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In a jam over the school run

The Times
It's nearly half-term and you still can't get the kids out of the house on time. What's going wrong, asks Helena Pozniak


Parents of children at primary schools fall into two camps. There are those who always arrive at the school gates on time. Then there are the ones who arrive late, generally purple with rage, partially dressed and dragging sullen children towards a bell that signals their terminal tardiness.

Pity these parents because they’ve been through their daily hour or two of hell. Their children won’t get up, won’t get dressed, insist on dressing themselves, won’t sit down for breakfast, develop mystery illnesses, lose their shoes, don’t like that cereal even though they had it yesterday, can’t find their library book, have forgotten their packed lunch, need the loo , just want to watch one last cartoon.

This is not an untypical scenario. Apparently, as a nation, we don’t have much fun in the mornings. Just 47 per cent of primary school children and only 22 per cent of teenagers eat breakfast regularly, according to a YouGov survey this year. When asked what would make their lives easier in the morning, almost all mothers wished their children were speedier, could decide more quickly what they wanted for breakfast and were more co-operative.

So why, when we do it every day, are we so bad at mornings? And how do some families sail effortlessly through the most harassed hours of the day (apart from bedtime)? Some experts in the field of child development and education agree that modern families have become shy of fixing boundaries and routines, which does no favours for children on a tight schedule. “We want everything to be lovely for our children; we’ve drifted into being too indulgent,” says Sue Palmer, a former head teacher and the author of Toxic Childhood (Orion, £12.99), who kick-started a heated debate recently about whether modern life was ruining children’s mental health.

“But you can be warm and authoritative. Negotiate a morning routine with your children if you like, but don’t be scared to stick to it. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘no, this is the way we do it in the morning’. Perpetual lateness could dent a child’s self-esteem. Your child might get a bad reputation and think of himself or herself as chaotic. It’s just not helpful at this stage of their lives. All the research shows that children need the security and stability of routines. In general, the fussier a child, the more he or she will benefit from a firm routine.”

Extensive research detailed in Paul Martin’s Making People Happy (HarperPerennial, £8.99) says that children of “authoritative” parents — those who are loving, but set clear boundaries — are better at understanding rules and emotions, and at making friends during childhood.

Claire Gribbin, a part-time consultant immunologist and mother of four boys, aged 7, 5, 4, and 3 months, credits her morning survival to a “military timetable”, the legacy of a former nanny. She has to do the school run every morning because her husband leaves for work as soon as the family gets up. She’s nearly always the first at the gates of their South Devon primary school, after which she heads to work.

“Mornings aren’t great fun, but they aren’t miserable,” she says. “I expect the boys to dress themselves, fetch and check their own bags. They each have their own peg at home. They know the system and it just happens. I shout and I still lose my keys. But I imagine school begins 15 minutes before it really does, so if anything bad happens, we don’t panic. About once a month, though, it goes pear-shaped.”

And a solid routine can carry you through the teenage years, says Susie Johns, an artist, freelance writer and single mother of three. Her girls are out of the house by 7.45am, after which she, as a home worker, can get herself ready.

“The girls (Lillie, 16, and Edith, 13) still come into bed for a cuddle in the morning. They dress while I cook and then we nearly always sit down and have a proper breakfast. It’s a lovely relaxing way to start the day. I’ve been doing this routine for seven years and never swayed from it. Once it was established, things tended to fall into place around it.”

Don’t confuse authoritative with authoritarian, says Palmer. Routines can be agreed by “committee”. Children can be involved in deciding how to get to school on time. Their bags can be prepared the night before, for example, which encourages them to co-operate.

Communication and good leadership is key to organisation, say Dennis Lee, a family psychotherapist within the NHS. Even if it sounds a little corporate, mornings are when the family must function as a group and children must suppress individual desires, which means not playing, or watching television, at inappropriate times for the common good.

Some children naturally want to please parents, others have their own priorities. Since pupils are rarely punished now for lateness the “fear factor” has gone from primary schools, so parents must teach personal accountability.

“They don’t possess an innate sense of responsibility, says Lee. “At around the age of 6 to 8 you’re on safe territory to start introducing the idea of responsibility. You might want to give them a dry run of being late and exposing them to the consequences.”

One working mother of two boys, aged 4 and 6, swears by her technique. If the boys are five minutes late for school, she picks them up five minutes late. “That’s made them hurry up,” she says. Ideally, as they make the transition to secondary school, children will assume responsibility and get themselves ready.

Many problems begin the night before and could be solved by a regular bed-time routine and going to bed earlier. “There’s an obvious correlation between how early children go to a peaceful sleep and their behaviour in the mornings,” says Mildred Masheder, a former teacher and author of Positive Childhood (Green Print, £9.99). Research suggests that infants who go to bed late have more behavioural problems and shorter concentration spans. “Most children go to sleep too late. Tellies in bedrooms keep them over-stimulated,” says Dr Sarah Nicholson, a Southampton-based child psychiatrist in the NHS.

And if children consistently fail to get the sleep they need, as Dr Alex Richardson, the author of They Are What You Feed Them, reports, their appetites suffer alongside their behaviour. “At the moment we tend to eat the minute we get up. But some children are still so deeply asleep, either because of the kind of person they are in the morning or they’ve gone to bed too late, they’re too groggy and their appetite hasn’t kicked in. Our body needs adrenalin to get it working. In that case, at least take a ham sandwich for them to eat on the way to school.”

Knowing when to step in and button that shirt or buckle that shoe is crucial. Often we don’t leave time for fledgling dressers to practise techniques. Teachers say that even older children are becoming less competent at dressing themselves for sports lessons. “Parents are in such a rush they don’t have time to watch a slow infant struggling into her pants, so children aren’t learning the basic skills, they’re being rushed,” Palmer says.

Beware, too, of asking too much of children at the wrong time, says Dr Nicholson. Newly learnt skills such as getting dressed, or using a knife and fork, may crumble under pressure. “There’s an assumption that there’s a right time your child should be doing something. That’s rubbish. Don’t try to teach new skills at 8.30am. You wouldn’t learn 25 French verbs before breakfast. That’s the same as pushing a four-year-old to put his shoes on in the morning.” So help your young child if he or she is struggling with fine motor skills, she advises. By the age of 6, they should be capable. “Trust your instincts. Know when to push on to the next stage and when your child is just bone idle,” she adds.

At a certain stage, a minority of children develop ritualistic ways. Socks must go on in a certain order, for instance. “So a child who may take for ever to dress thinks that he’s being compliant in his own way,” says Lee.

If prescriptive parenting advice makes you shudder, remember that there are a few golden morning rules that even hands-off advocates agree on (see panel left). Dr Nicholson says: “Life is indescribably easier if you prepare the night before. Eat breakfast.” And if you are shouting at your child because of a lost shoe, you probably should have got up earlier.

Home work for mums

How to get the kids to school on time with a smile on their faces (and yours)

Try not to get too stressed. The children will pick up on it and probably play up.

‘Mornings are better now’

Sam, a full-time mother, lives in Winchester with her husband Neil Gavins, and their three children

Harry, 6, Holly, 4, and Tom, 2. She walks with her children to school.

“Last term we were late for the bell 90 per cent of the time. I didn’t see anyone else for two weeks as we were late every day. I’m pregnant and had got too tired to do any preparation the night before.

“Although we get up at 7am, sometimes the mornings go wrong. The other week, for example, the children were all ready but wanted to play, all bouncing on the trampoline. It was lovely, but then we were late. I do let them watch telly, but only when they are dressed. Problems happen when they are unpoliced and running around playing. But my children are children, not little adults, so I don’t like to load them with responsibilities. I never shout but I’m constantly hassling and feel that I’m rushing all the time.

“I sometimes get frustrated at having to chivvy the kids along. I dread mornings when I run up and down the stairs trying to find things. I asked friends who seemed really organised how they did it.

“We had a family meeting and decided that Neil would put out breakfast and I’d make lunches the night before. He was sceptical, but it’s made a big difference. Neil still leaves at 8am, but he is helping a lot more. I don’t like rigid routines. I still let them watch telly when they are dressed — they drink their milk and I do Holly’s hair.

“I’ve tried not to get sidetracked by what I’m supposed to be doing after drop-off. I’ve brought the whole morning forward by ten minutes. It has really helped and we’ve been making the bell.

“One of the kids takes a micro-scooter, which speeds the whole thing up.

“Mornings have been much nicer not having to shout. We chat and do sums on the way to school instead.”

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