Parents love routines. Don't believe me? Try this simple experiment: Identify a family in your neighborhood who has one or two children under the age of three. Get to know this family and stealthily find out when their children go down for a nap each day. Then go over to this family's house and try to ring the doorbell during naptime. Assuming you can even get past the protective layer of index cards taped over the doorbell and actually make contact with it, see what happens after you have rung the doorbell. Or, as I call it "Doorbell-zebub." You may have used a perfectly healthy, flexible finger to press that doorbell, but you will be taking a bloody nub home. Why is this? Because you took the one portion of that parent's day he or she thought was totally under control and turned it into a spiral of chaos. And this is why parents love routines, because they they hate spirals of chaos. Truth is, any given moment during the day can turn into a spiral of chaos. Playing with toys, meals, sitting for a family portrait, riding in the car, going to a movie. These all seem like perfectly normal daily activities until you hand the ingredients to your little alchemist. Toys become the Gaza Strip; meals become abstract art; family portraits become a Jim Carrey movie marathon; riding in the car makes the bladder shrink exponentially with every foot you drive; going to the movie becomes a game of cat and mouse through the rows of seats. Our reaction to this impending spiral of chaos is establishing the scientific intervention known as routines.

Parents believe that if they can be consistent and establish routines, then it will make certain times during the day more predictable. So we work to establish bedtime routines, mealtime routines, clean-up routines, car-riding routines and bath routines. The key is to stick with it long enough that eventually you won't have to think about it so much and certain activities will become automatic. You can just tell the child it's time for bed and he suddenly gets drowsy. Tell her it's time for a bath, and POOF, she's next to the tub waiting for you to show up. Parental effort directed at establishing routines will typically fall within one of three patterns:

  • Victory: the child learns the routine and cooperates with it
  • Regression: the child cooperates at first then loses interest over time
  • Anarchy: the child develops a routine that the parent neither established nor approves of

I have collected some data on different routines and graphed the following results:

There is so much about parenting that is bittersweet. The bitter side of it is that it goes so fast. Many of the cute things our children say and do seem to fade away without us even noticing. You just realize that one day they don't say or do that cute thing anymore. Out of nowhere, they begin to use forks and adverbs and board games correctly, and you realize they aren't babies anymore. Routines are great - necessary even - but they have a way of lulling us into thinking that a day is just a set of predetermined steps. It's easy to miss the small gifts along the way. But if we don't keep our sanity from day to day, we might miss even more. Routines are helpful to that end.

Of course, the sweet part of routines is that they help us mold our children into healthy, well-adjusted human beings that will one day step through the front door and into the world. It is at this moment that you will look back on your parenting and all of the routines you implemented so diligently, and you will know you did the right thing. Then you will go take a nap. At 1:00 sharp. No exceptions.