Routine Charts: Banishing Breakfast Battles

Once upon a time, we were a well functioning team each morning. It was surprising, given that I was not and am still not a morning person. We had one child, and daddy delighted in helping our toddler kick off the day. We had a lovely routine chart that helped us move through getting dressed and brushing teeth. My part was to press snooze, imagining that somehow that extra seven minutes of sleep was going to make a difference. I was eternally grateful for my husband's willingness to take the lead in the morning so I could grumpily move from sleep to wakefulness and put on my happy face before joining them 15 minutes later. Our little one was free to choose what she wanted for breakfast when they arrived downstairs.

When our second was born, breakfast was still calm for a while. Little sister happily joined along in whatever we did. Her breakfast requests were easy: milk, milk and more milk. And then it all changed. Somewhere around age two, little sister woke up to the world and realized no big sister would rule over her breakfast! Nope. She had requests of her own. That's when the Breakfast Battle in Seattle began.

Some days little sister would say she wanted what big sister wanted. That was until she took a bite and realized that she didn't like it. Then she would want something else. Other days they wanted different things. Two kids, two working parents, and two different breakfasts? For those of you who read our post, A Parenting Recipe for Raising Healthy Eaters, you may remember that short order cooking was not an option in our house. Our system of how our kids were choosing breakfast in the morning had set us up for feeling like we were running a restaurant. Our first plan of attack was to tell the children they needed to agree on something they both wanted. It was a good first step, but you can imagine how quickly they were able to mutually agree. Particularly with hovering parents, eager to get breakfast on the table and everyone out the door. Next try was alternating days; one child picked one day, the other picked the next. This worked ok, but most of the time the child who didn't pick just didn't eat their breakfast. Not to mention the complicated mathematical formula needed to figure out how to deal with their being five weekdays and two children wanting to have the same number of days to choose breakfast. The alternating days didn't seem to work for any of us.

After weeks of frustrating mornings, it was time to come up with a new plan. We had just made some changes as a family to our morning routine chart and that's when it hit that this amazing concept of a routine chart could be used in other ways. Maybe even to solve our breakfast challenge!

The grownups in the house did some reflecting on what we were and were not willing to do in the mornings. We were willing to give them the opportunity to choose what they wanted for breakfast, as long as they could agree on what they wanted and the choices were made before we needed to make breakfast. The next step was to bring the kids in to the conversation.

We started out with a question, as that is much more likely to encourage their participation in the discussion. We simply asked how they felt the current system of alternating was working. They both admitted it was not working for them. We let them know that we see how important it is for them to have a say in what is for breakfast but that our system was not working for us either, and asked if they would like to try something different. Again, asking instead of telling helps get their buy in.

Knowing that routines and planning ahead worked very well for us, I shared my idea of creating a breakfast chart. The idea was that together we would make a chart where they could select from various weekday breakfast options. We brainstormed a list of all of the items that were ok for weekday breakfasts. When they suggested things that were not a good fit for weekdays, we put them on a separate list so we could be sure to include those on weekends. When we had our list, together we found clip art or made pictures of the different breakfast options. I made a very basic chart with the days of the week and a space for the breakfast choice for that day.

Making the chart was only the first step. The next was to come to some agreements around how we would use it. We let them know that we needed to have their decision before breakfast time each day and wondered how they thought they could accomplish that task. Kids are great problem solvers, and we got another reminder of how well they can do this when given the space to do so. Big sister suggested they fill in the breakfast chart for the week after family meetings on Sundays and this worked for little sister too. We let them know that we were confident they could handle this task all by themselves and so we wouldn't be bugging them about it. We would simply prepare what was on the chart for a given day. We also committed to having the weekday breakfast options on hand. The girls couldn't wait to wrap up our family meeting and get going on their new breakfast chart.

I must admit, as we finished making our chart and they were ready to fill in the week, I was sure an argument would ensue over what to do about that fifth day where they would have to decide together. I knew we had been clear that this was their job, so I stayed out of the room so I would not be tempted to get involved. Within minutes they had decided each day of the week together, made sure they had a variety of choices in there and had a blast doing so. Even though I know how well this kind of thing can work, sometimes I still am shocked at how quickly and easily change can happen. This was one of those moments.

On Monday morning, we all approached breakfast with excitement as our new system was ready to go. There was no need to discuss, nag, or lose patience. I swear they even ate more breakfast that first week! The first month sailed by like a smoothly oiled machine. One Sunday night in the second month, I noticed after bedtime that they had not changed the chart from the previous week. While in the past I may have tried to rescue them out of this by giving them time to fill it out in the morning, I reminded myself that we had been totally clear that we would prepare what was on the chart, so we went ahead and made what was on there. There were a few tears and groans, but I stayed calm, and within minutes they were over it. After school, they rushed to the chart to set it up for the rest of the week and we were back on track.

Over three years later, we don't have breakfast hassles anymore, and we rarely use the chart. I remember my husband being concerned that all of these charts would feel too rigid and be more time consuming then they are worth. Just last week he mentioned how amazing it is that the creation of the chart and relatively short-term use of them solves the problem for good. It's not the chart itself that creates all the change, but what the chart represents. For our family, it represents trust in each other that we can work together to solve problems, that mistakes are a wonderful opportunity to learn, and that respectful sharing of power with our children creates peace in the home while helping them feel connected and capable.

So, routine charts are not just for bedtime anymore. With some planning and teamwork, your family can use routine charts to solve many parenting challenges quite effectively. The keys to success are to make them with your child, get clear on what each person is responsible for and follow through with kindness and firmness when things get off track. The benefits are well worth the time spent making the chart. We give our children the chance to show us how capable they are, which increases their self-confidence and self-discipline. As for us parents, we get to stop nagging and just sit back and watch our kids shine.