The Important Developmental Benefits of Sticking to a Schedule and the Surprisingly Compelling Reasons to Not!

“Routines are good for children!” This statement is so ubiquitous, so unchallenged, and yet so vague that most parents when they hear it nod in agreement but internally scratch their heads al little bit. Mostly, especially for small children, the idea of routine means going to bed at the same time each day, eating meals at the same times, etc.

For older children, this means studying and doing well at school, participating in an extra curricular activity, etc. But fast forward to adulthood and you hear things like “Routine is the death of creativity,” which is also recognized as common knowledge.

What happens in between to cause such a drastic shift? What’s the purpose behind building routines anyway? Which ones are beneficial for children and which are beneficial for adults raising children (bedtime- we’re looking at you), and which ones are beneficial for society but may or may not be individually? Always evaluate these types of qualitative statements with your needs and the needs of your family first and foremost in your mind! In general though, the shift happens over decades of practice and sometimes a misconception of what/who our routines originate from, and what/who they serve. Getting clear on how to set routines that form great habits without being rigid, and when to step off the “bandwagon” in favor of some spontaneity is the best way to go! 

One thing scientists know for sure is that children thrive on a baseline of stability that not only includes basic health, food/water access, clean clothing, and a generally clean and safe environment but also includes consistent caregiving. These can provide clues on how to use routine: to establish and reinforce this baseline of stability (especially in the midst of a change to any one of those baselines, such as a move out of state or country) and to be particularly cognizant of the importance of consistent caregiving. 


“The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” – John C. Maxwell 

That’s powerful. And could just as easily read “your children’s success”. This is the wisdom behind setting routines: setting your children up for success! This is a beautiful sentiment, and yet equally as vague as the opening statement. So what does success mean? For your youngest, it doesn’t mean anything. In other words, they learn what success means from you (and society, especially at school in formative years). You probably have expectations for yourself and your child(ren), which form a fantastic basis for defining success. Expectations are actually really healthy from even very young (starting around age 1) ages, and general expectations will be met with great success. This can include things like tonal awareness and can be practiced with toddlers. When your toddler approaches you with a question or statement in a whiny voice (keep in mind they do not yet care much about the inappropriateness of whining), practice bringing awareness by saying, “Hmmm, I noticed you asked a question. But I can’t quite understand in that voice. Is this what you meant?” And repeat the question or statement in the tone. In terms of forming routine, keeping the general idea of a bedtime routine is great when you can focus on your expectation. Is your expectation that your child(ren) go to sleep at 7:30PM every night? Or is your expectation that bedtime is a relaxing experience that allows your whole family to get the sleep and energy they need? The former is a socially based expectation while the latter is more science based.  

Once expectations are adjusted in a way that makes sense for you and your family, the routines and habits you establish have a great foundation! This is called responsive parenting. The benefits of more clearly defined routines are most notably: increased confidence and focus and stronger/more nuanced emotional development. This can be so great, in fact, that responsive parents (or caretakers) can actually neutralize what are called negative developmental trajectories. These are seen in high risk children (e.g. low income or very premature babies), but again, can be corrected simply by being more responsive (aware of) to the child(ren)’s needs. 

Keep in mind when setting your expectations both the age and individual personality/tendencies of the child(ren)! Certain standards may say that toddlers should sleep at 7:30PM but if yours is fighting you each and every night, maybe your expectation becomes keeping an eye on getting enough sleep. If your toddler wakes up at 8AM and has a two hour nap during the day, he/she will do just find going to sleep between 8-9PM. The overall idea is to get enough sleep. Same thing with other expectations and routines, such as setting screen time limits. If screen time is a battle for you, consider if your expectation is matching up with the circumstances and child’s readiness for screen time. Maybe you’ll find success in setting an appropriate limit by using a show or movie’s end as a marker rather than a particular time. 

The other thing to remember is that routines can be used to build, too! These are very useful if your expectations include not just maintaining baseline health but improving well-being. They also give you a chance to model your own ideas of success. An example of an appropriate expectation for toddlers in building-types of routines is saying “thank you” when given dinner. You can build on this and add a few words of gratitude for the amazing food you prepared or are about to share together, or a prayer of thanks if this is in line with your beliefs. These types of routines are simple and understandable, but also offer little ones a way of understanding and interacting with the world in positive ways on a regular basis. They find it very easy to apply the same words and thoughts when, for instance, you go to a friend’s house for dinner.  

When to Shake it Up (and Why)  

So with all these cool benefits of routine, what is the benefit of throwing in the occasional curveball or deviating even momentarily? In terms of brain development the answer is simple: creativity. Doing the same things in the same ways at the same times without any variation stifles the brain’s creative mechanisms by preventing new neural pathways from forming. The good news? These pathways easily ignite when given something or someone new with which to interact! A great example is taking different ways to get to a place you and your little one(s) frequent, such as the park. As long as your child(ren) are with a primary caregiver, they will be able to take in and be inspired by the new settings. This prompts all sorts of new conversation, new experiences and sights/sounds, and the brain engages with its surroundings in new ways- all contributing to an increased awareness and creative potential in the mind. 

Life is full of changes, many that we can’t control, so part of being well-adjusted is knowing how to work with change. When changes are more or less part of every day reality for children, they learn how to be both more independent and more social (e.g. in continuation of the park theme, asking for help when climbing a new structure, and then taking a slide down even though it is “new” because they recognize the height is generally the same as the one they are already familiar with). Your basis of routines also offers a good structure for the times you may have a major change. You can distinctly discuss and show your child(ren) what is going to be different. If you are for instance, having a new baby, you can install new baby’s car seat and have your toddler help or wait while you “buckle in” a practice baby. The routine itself is changing, but in a way that is very easily accessible. In this way you can also demonstrate (more with actions than words) that change is good! In times of change it is always a good idea to keep expectations more open until you are confident on what the updated expectations are. Otherwise confusing messages can occur! 

Whether you’re building a routine or changing something up, children are very resilient and receptive! This is a great delight and happens relatively quickly. The most challenging (yes, bedtime again) routines take about 6-8 weeks. That may seem an eternity if sleep deprivation plays a role, but overall, this is an extremely short time to be learning, adapting to, and incorporating new life skills! As your child progresses past toddler age, the routines they have can be more nuanced (such as having meditation or prayer time, developing a practice of a beloved instrument or sport, etc.) and increasingly pointed toward their unique vision of their own success. In the meantime, keep it simple, keep it accessible and enjoy the ride. Remember to notice progress and be just as proud of yourself as you are of your little ones! The learning curve of routines is a steep one, not for the faint of heart, and you’re doing great.