Some of the biggest sources of family stress are routine tasks and behaviours. Bedtime, getting dressed, leaving the house. Most of them are connected to time. For parents, it can be the biggest frustration because we understand the consequences of time passing. Exams deadlines, turning up late for meetings or dates, adrenalin-fuelled sprints through airports to catch that last flight. We’ve learnt about time the hard way, and still don’t always get it right.

Time’s a funny thing. The days go slow but the years move fast. The little toddler with the pot belly and limitless desire for cuddles fast turn into a child who’s more interested in their own things than you. Family routines are a daily thing. If they turn you into an angry dad, hundreds of times a year, year in, year out, chances are that’s going to be a big part of how your children see you. Something no one wants. Routines can be great, so how do you make them work?

Routines can be great

As with everything, time and consequences are things they have to learn, which is what routines are, in part, for. Routines though give your kids a lot more.

Safety and belonging

An organised and predictable home helps children and teenagers feel safe, secure and looked after. It gives them confidence that their needs will be met, something so important it can’t be understated. Knowing you’re there for them gives them confidence and resilience as they grow. “When you are happy and secure, you are much more able to learn and interact in healthy ways,” said Dr. Claire McCarthy, a paediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. Especially important when they’re going through difficult stages of development, like building friendships, comparing themselves to others and of course puberty.

Skills, responsibility and self-esteem

Knowing what’s expected of them gives them a route to develop independence because they can fulfil these expectations independently. This gives them a sense of pride and achievement of doing things on their own. This goes for every stage of life. The sense of satisfaction of getting themselves dressed is equally as huge as that of an adult closing the deal they’ve worked for months on. For kids expectations that come in the form of routines give them the chance to get that feeling again and again.

But you need to know one thing to make them great

While routines are great at every stage of a child’s life, if you don’t understand your child’s stage of development, they can create a lot of pain. Most routines tend to be connected to time — bedtime, school time. If you expect your children to get dressed in 15 minutes, but they don’t understand what 15 minutes is, or how fast time passes, or how to read a clock, then it’s sheer luck as to whether they fulfil the expectations. And it won’t be their fault if they don’t.

Here’s how your child understands time

3 years old

The near future and past become clearer and they can understand the difference between before and after e.g. ‘we’ll go outside after you’ve got your coat on.’ So don’t get angry at them if they haven’t done what you’ve asked for in the 10 minutes you’ve given them. Chances are they’ve just learnt to count to 10, let alone what a minute is.

4–5 years old

They get a better understanding and start using words like before, after, day, night, morning, yesterday more easily and with more comprehension. Then school hits and they learn faster. They start to learn about reading clocks and therefore begin to have a mental framework to understand an hour, days, months etc. But they have only really just got to grips with numbers, the idea of 60 seconds in one minute, 60 minutes in one hour and 24 hours in a day, is still new. And be honest, not as exciting as being a pirate.

6–8 years old

They get a more fluid and practical understanding of time, mainly through repeated exposure and use of the concept and the tools associated with it — clocks, school break times, lunchtimes and lessons. But they are also just learning about how the world works, and much of the time would rather it didn’t work quite as it does. After all, it’s much more fun to be doing what you want, rather than what others want.

In the end though it all comes down to learning

Underpinning routines and an understanding of developmental stages is the idea of investing in building foundations of knowledge and relationships.

To fulfil time-constrained tasks well, they have to understand time.

To understand time, they have to understand numbers.

To understand numbers, you have to help them. For you to help them, you have to make the time and have the patience to continually work with them — repetition. You have to keep finding new ways to introduce numbers and counting to their lives — new ways to practice. You have to be patient.

Repetition, new ways to practice and patience though are some of the fundamentals of learning anything. They can be applied to any area of life for humans of any age. Even old folk like us parents. Especially old folks like us.

I’m exploring what it means to be a dad so I can be the best dad I can be. Get weekly insights from my work to help you be a better dad by email.


  • David Willans

    Founder of Being Dads, exploring what it means to be a great dad

    David Willans is dad to two boys (7 & 9). In 2014 he set up Being Dads to scratch his own itch. One day he caught himself being an angry dad. This set him off on an adventure to work out how to be a great dad. Being Dads shares all the stories and insights he's picking up along the way.