Good Enough Parent
Help! I Can’t Get My Kids Out The Door In The Morning Without Losing It
Do not fall victim to the lie that there is some version of reality where if you were just good enough, mornings would be easy.
The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.
The new school year is coming up sooner than I can believe, and I find myself absolutely dreading it. I’m happy to have my kids back in school, but I am not at all looking forward to getting back into the morning rush. I have three kids — 12, 8, and 4 — and getting all of them dressed, fed, and out the door without everyone, including me, losing it, is totally overwhelming. How can I make mornings easier this year — or at least feel a little better about the chaos?
If it was up to me, breakfasts would come in Jetsons-style meal-pill vending machines, school would start at 10 a.m., and when it was your time to leave the house, a pillowy cloud would drift in, scoop you up, and cozily transport you to your destination for the day. But the universe insists on keeping parents humble, and so, no matter how glorious your summer was, it will subject us again to the inescapable vortex of stress that is the weekday morning.
My youngest starts kindergarten in a few weeks, and though I’m thrilled to cash in on the “all your kids at one free school within walking distance” lifestyle, I am dreading the early start time. I have never been a morning person. My mother, an otherwise gentle woman, used to flick my lights on and off and sing a wake-up song to the tune of “Reveille” every morning to encourage me to rise. My husband sits me down every few months or so to request that I actually get out of bed when my alarm goes off (there is nothing in life more delicious than pressing snooze).
It would be comical how disoriented and incompetent I am before 9 a.m. if it wasn't so wildly unhelpful. And the hardest part is, my kids inherited my night-owl temperament and grumpy-Gus morning vibes. Many days, I leave the house, my kids trailing behind me in a tornado of water bottles and frozen waffles and resentment, and it can take me an hour after coming back from drop-offs to return my system to baseline.
So I am with you, friend, on loathing mornings.
When the getting-ready-for-school scene in my home starts to get particularly ugly, I usually whine a lot or try to blame it on my husband.
First and foremost, remember that, especially for younger children or those with neurodivergence, getting places on time either isn’t a priority or isn’t easy to wrap their heads around. What’s it to a toddler that you need to present to your team at 9? You might as well be talking gibberish. This leads me to one of my favorite phrases, from Dr. Ross Greene, “Kids do well if they can.” If it was easy for your kids to be happy and efficient and quiet in the mornings, they probably would be. But it’s not easy. Or it’s not very interesting. It doesn’t mean that they’re assholes trying to destroy you. But it is objectively annoying.
Once we’ve accepted the above, we can get down to business. When the getting-ready-for-school scene in my home starts to get particularly ugly, I usually whine a lot or try to blame it on my husband. But after I’m done with that, I return to what I consider to be the two muses of parenting: grease and grace.
The grease is all the stuff you have to do to make things hopefully go a bit more smoothly. What changes in habits, systems, or approaches could make this situation more tolerable? This often takes planning and persistence, two things I try my best to avoid in life, but it also requires creativity, which can be a bit more interesting.
Parents grease the wheels of the morning in lots of ways. Many parents find it helpful to wake up before their children (obviously this is a hard pass for me), even just 10 minutes, to get dressed, feed themselves, soak in a few moments of stillness, or watch an SNL sketch about SoulCycle — whatever it is that makes you feel a bit more human.
Doing as much as you can ahead of time can also leave less to do in the mornings. Making lunches and prepping breakfasts at night helps. So does trying to get kids to bed earlier, if it’s appropriate and at all possible, so they’re less draggy in the morning.
My mother introduced “tomorrow clothes,” a concept many families seem to embrace, wherein kids skip pajamas and just dress in their clothes, or underclothes, at night. If that doesn’t work for you (one of my kids is a convert, the other refuses), just having your kids, especially the ones who belabor decisions, pick out their clothes the night before can cut out a step the next day. We help our 5-year-old lay hers next to her bed in a process we call “making a floor girl.” Recently, she commandeered a leftover basket, once filled with gourmet Spanish snacks, and likes to put her tomorrow clothes in there.
Another way to grease the morning wheels is to make the “active work” time of the mornings more engaging or structured. Before you do this, it may help to identify, using the “kids do well if they can” maxim, what your kids don’t seem to be able to do, versus what they actually do very well, but just require reminders or encouragements for.
For example, if getting dressed is the part of the morning that sucks the most life out of you, see if you can teach your children how to do it more independently. Find a leisurely morning, or another time altogether, and really walk through it like you’re showing an alien how to properly eat lobster. Remember the other morning-adjacent skills that aren’t always explicitly taught but that truly mystify many children: how to pack your bag, how to move from one end of the apartment to the other without forgetting the thing you were going to do, how to check that you have everything. And finally, don’t forget to practice newly-learned skills. Experts say it takes children between 1,000 and 5 million repetitions to integrate a new habit!
With all of this, make sure the environment is set up to support said teaching. Having clothes and shoes that kids can get on themselves (if their bodies allow for it), school supplies in clearly marked places or that live by the door, etc., will make it much easier for them to learn independence. My friend Erin, a mother of four, wears a bathrobe with giant pockets stocked with morning essentials like hair and tooth care supplies. This makes it easy for her kids to grab what they need from her pockets instead of running all over the house.
The best thing about visuals and checklists is that they reduce the amount of time spent verbally nagging your children in the morning, which doesn’t ruin them for life, but is a hell of a way to start the day.
I am also among the legions that swear by visual schedules and checklists, one of the many strategies I picked up as a special education teacher that are actually helpful for literally everyone. Depending on the age, motor skills, and neurotype of your child, these can be as simple as a sticky note on the door that says “Lunch? Backpack? Water? Books?” or as elaborate as a laminated poster with pictures of the child completing each step of their morning routine. For older kids, you might have a weekly checklist that lists the materials they need each day, depending on classes and after-school activities. Children who are excited about independence might be proud to check off each step with a dry-erase marker on paper you laminated or simply covered in clear packing tape (another teacher hack!). Some sort of family meeting (I’m a fan of Dr. Greene’s “Plan B” format) is a great time to collaborate with your kids on what they think are morning essentials and create a visual reminder that jives with them.
The best thing about visuals and checklists, even if you neglect them for long stretches or they are not perfectly followed, is that they reduce the amount of time spent verbally nagging your children in the morning, which doesn’t ruin them for life, but is a hell of a way to start the day. If you are going to prompt them, try not to let it make you crazy. One parent friend, in a pinch, sings his getting-ready directions to his child. Another friend used to keep her young children’s shoes on a “magic carpet” that didn’t let you get off it again until it was time to go. I have made a sacred pact with my 7-year-old to make requests once and give him time to complete them before I harass him again.
I believe there are few products that truly make parenting easier, other than a bot that is programmed to call senators and demand greater child care tax credits, but if my home was on fire, I would run back in for this visual timer. Time is a mystery to children (and many adults!). Telling kids that they have two minutes till you have to go might be meaningless. More importantly, for many kids, the memory of a time warning, like the memory of you saying “get your shoes on,” disappears as soon as you’ve said it. But a visual timer, showing the time left in red as it slowly decreases and beeping when said time is up, lingers. When I am trying to grease things up, I tell my kids that when the timer beeps, it’s time to put on shoes and get their personal effects and get out the door. Does it work? Sometimes!
Ask yourself, what can you let go of, lean in to, or think about differently to make this situation more tolerable?
The second parenting muse, grace, is less about external conditions and more about internal ones. It’s an important addition, and sometimes alternative, to grease. Maybe you don’t want to be a mobile medicine cabinet, or stay up till midnight designing a visual schedule. Regardless, ask yourself, what can you let go of, lean in to, or think about differently to make this situation more tolerable?
For some of us, getting in touch with our inner dawdler or letting our kids be late if there aren’t real consequences provides permission to move a bit more slowly or care a little less. It’s not about nihilism (though I certainly cycle through that at times) but more about intentionally trying on a new way to frame mornings that is less harried and more curious.
As Angela Garbes wrote for this site in 2022, “There is no hero’s journey in this particular labor of mothering — or maybe there is, but you are definitely not the protagonist. Our society values production, novelty, progress, hustle (and side hustles), and, once we’ve offloaded our children to other people, weary and numb, we are then expected to get to work.” Thinking of mornings as a chance to rebel against that hustle, even in small ways, can add some delight to them.
My family sometimes eats breakfast and then gets back into bed. I happily carry shoes to the car and let the kids go barefoot. Some people ask their children to get all ready, and then they are free to spend whatever time is left watching shows while they eat breakfast (many parents I spoke to do screens in the morning). My friend Leigh, mother to four children ages 7 to 16, likes to let her kids sleep in and just wake them up when it’s go-time. “As long as it's on purpose,” Leigh explains, “it doesn't feel chaotic to me."
Grace can also be about acknowledging the ways mornings are hard, and for whom, and finding a more structural way to release people from the responsibilities they hate most. What are the major morning pain points for the members of your family?
I abhor making lunches every day, and cannot tell you the difference that signing up for school lunch (which is now free in California!) made in our lives. Our state even provides breakfast for kids, so we don’t worry so much if they miss it (we also do a lot of “car waffles” and “bike bars” on the go). Since most of the students eat school lunch and breakfast, my kid, who is not super flexible about food, is into it. If you have a pickier eater, some parents agree to pack lunch one or two days a week when they know it’s a meal their child doesn’t like, or teach their child to make something simple as an alternative. When you’re making a school choice for your kids, consider the impact that the school start time, meal program (and cultural norms around it), and commute will have on your mornings. Probably your kid will be better off with happier parents than they would be with the arts enrichment program that is across town, starts promptly at 8 a.m., and is full of kids who bring impeccable homemade lunches every day.
For those who have a co-parent, divvying up responsibilities to play to each of your strengths and frustrations can be a lifesaver. When I asked Leigh how she does mornings, she told me that she doesn’t. “My trick is that mornings are my husband’s responsibility,” she explains. At some point, Leigh and her husband realized that she made mornings worse with her stress, and her husband did the same in the evenings. So he gets the kids ready and takes them to school, and she puts them to bed. Another friend is an early riser, so she does the morning prep every day. Then her husband takes the kids to school, so that she can get herself ready in a quiet house, which is important for her sanity. If it’s just you, maybe there’s another parent out there who wants to carpool, or a retired neighbor who can walk a kid to school. Perhaps you rely a little more on screens, and remind yourself that plenty of well-adjusted adults grew up watching Sesame Street every morning. Or, like my friend Emily, you could give your kids a single Hi-Chew if they can make it out the door on time. “I’m not proud of it,” Emily says, “but it works.” But Emily, be proud of it because it works! That’s both grease and grace.
Finally, do not fall victim to the lie that there is some version of reality where if you were just good enough, mornings would be easy.
For a time, when I was in elementary school, my mother resorted to paying my older brother a dollar a day not to pick fights with me in the morning. She figured it would take a month to break him of this habit, and guess what? It did! She said it was the best 30 bucks she ever spent. You would never hear a suggestion like that on today's parenting blogs. But you know what, it helped everyone have a better time, and didn’t make either of us completely reliant on rewards or what have you. Now I’m an adult who cares so little about money that I decided to be a writer. And my brother is one of my favorite people on the planet.
Applying creativity or compassion to your parenting life is not an isolated event. Even if things go well for a time, you will need more of it at some point, when new systems lose their charm, old habits return, or outside factors impede. I constantly go in and out of cycles of some aspect of parenting being great, then bearable, then insufferable, then OK again. Sometimes it’s bad, but you don’t do anything about it until you have some extra time, or you go on new meds and feel a burst of energy, or it gets so bad that you have no other choice. And then, after a while, you have to run through the cycle all over again.
That’s OK. That’s how it works. You can always reinvent. You can always give yourself a little more room, or just say, “You know what, I’m gonna let this suck until I have the bandwidth to unsuck it.”
Finally, do not fall victim to the lie that there is some version of reality where if you were just good enough, mornings would be easy. Sure, some days, your kid gets up with a spring in her step, sets the breakfast table, writes little name cards with hearts on them for each family member, and then does a five-minute stand-up routine while you eat (true story). Those days are golden, and should not be forgotten just because our brains are trained to pay more attention to the bad ones.
But all families struggle with mornings, and anything you can do to make them even a teensy-weensy bit easier is impressive.
Sometimes the grease is $30 and the grace is the courage to do something that would make Janet Lansbury shudder. Now get in there and make some magic happen! Or just stay in bed.
Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.