We hear a lot form "experts" in parenting and childcare that children thrive in a routine. "Bedtime" routines and "getting ready for school" routines. "Get baby into a routine otherwise you'll make a rod for your back" (Where are all these rods? If they really existed we could build something awesome).
I hear about routine all the time. My favourite one is at the end of the summer when every other parent I meet tells me they cannot wait to get back to school to get their kids back into their routine.
Why do humans hate routine but love rhythm?
Life, the universe and everything has a flow to it. The world turns, causing day and night and seasons changing. Cycles and rhythms can be seen naturally occurring throughout nature. There is a predictability to life that we all want and need to some degree but it's important to note that this isn't a rigid thing. The amount of daylight we have changes throughout the year, the seasons don't last exactly the same amount of time, the weather cycles are different each year. If this wasn't the case we would get really bored and start to hate life.
Five awesome ways to use rhythm with your children:
Children do like to feel in control of their lives (like all of us) and do therefore need some certainty and this comes from a sense of knowing what is coming next. Now you can tell them, which I would wager many parents forget to do all the time, and in fact I know some parents (like my husband) have a tendency to want to withhold information about what is coming next from older children to avoid "whinging" about shopping trips or outings to see people they aren't keen on. This never helps. Children understandably have a need to know. Imagine if you spent your days being taken everywhere and doing things and having no idea what was going to happen next. How would you feel?
Whether it is in each moment or throughout the day, week or month, making sure a child knows what is coming next can help them to feel generally more calm and respected. For example, if you are carrying your toddler on your hip, before you lower them to the floor, just let them know first. It seems simply but it makes so much difference. It takes about 3 seconds and saves about 3 minutes minimum of upset and discussion, not to mention that it avoids the horrible feelings. This is momentary but it works by communicating about the whole day, and for older children in the longer term.
Predictability is really the key to all of this because it is one of the 6 basic human psychological hungers. We need it.
You may not have ever considered it but every family has a culture; a "way that we do things round here", and your family rhythm is a big part of that culture. Children, even very small ones, will pick up on the kinds of things that you do as a family, the places that you go, when certain things happen and how they happen. For instance, my youngest has grown up going to Taekwondo a few times a week and hanging out by the side. From a young age (under two) she would know it was a Tuesday and would get herself a bag of toys to take later. Our children understand that we often eat together in our living room but if we are having Roast or Tacos, we eat at the table. It all follows a rhythm, and this is comforting.
When we talk about routines in terms of bedtime, what we are actually talking about is a ritual. What we are doing is setting up a series of events or activities that happen the same way each time to cue to a child that the next part is coming. We are using predictability to make difficult moments more comfortable. We are also using the concept from psychologists called behavioural conditioning to make strong and powerful associations. When you have always fallen asleep after some milk and a story, hearing a particular noise and smelling a particular smell, you will feel sleepy when those things happen together.
Most of the time, parents set the agenda, we decide what we do and when and what order we do things in. We decide when we are going to vary this and we expect our toddlers to co-operate. As mentioned above, this helps to make life work for everyone involved in the family. But if we remember that toddlers learn through modelling (watching our behaviour and copying it), we can see how important it is that we sometimes let them dictate the rhythm, the flow or the pace of life. This will help them learn independence, leadership, cooperation, compromise and many other very desirable qualities for their future.
I would highly recommend thinking often about whether you really need to rush, whether you need to go at adult pace during your day and if the answer is "not really", taking some time to let your toddler dictate the pace of an activity (even if it's going round the supermarket). Toddlers are very sensory beings and need a lot more time to process the world around them so allowing a slow pace will aid their learning and development as well as developing those qualities listed above.
In addition, take the time sometimes to purposefully let your toddler lead you completely. They decide the activity, they decide how long it takes (within what you can achieve) and they guide how it happens. My most recent adventure into toddler pace was a trip to IKEA. I was trying to kill time whilst my older children were at acting school so I decided to go to IKEA and let my 20 month old lead me round. I had the most enjoyable 2 and a half hours for ages. Sure, I looked at a lot of things I would never ever buy, we tried a lot of light switches and waiting for 20 minutes at the bottom of the travellator to just watch the people step off was pretty awkward but she was in heaven and it was super lovely to see her exploring. Furthermore she was much more cooperative for the rest of the day having had her fill of control over her life. I highly recommend it.
5. Limits and boundaries
Now I bet you think I am going to say to ensure you keep your limits and boundaries consistent. Well I am actually not exactly. Honestly, this is the same balance between routine and rhythm. When you, as a parent, set limits and boundaries, the temptation can be to make sure you are so consistent that you become inflexible, unwavering and does not reflect the changing nature of life. When children are very young we may have a limit that they cannot cross the road by themselves. When a child has just been sick, we may have a limit that they cannot drink a milkshake. We may have limits at grandma's house that we do not have at home, and we may set limits and boundaries that we change our minds about.
I am not saying that we don't need boundaries and limits, we definitely do. Without them, our children have no predictability or sense of understanding about how things work here (or in other places). This can make human beings feel very unsafe, anxious and actually can lead to them feeling a lack of respect. I know it sounds unlikely but when humans aren't clear of the boundaries around them, it removes their ability to advocate for themselves. When the other person in the relationship acts "permissive", we lose the connection and mutual respect of an equal relationship.