I Asked My Kids To Set Their Own Bedtimes. Here's What Happened
More than a political-patriotic display of unity or might, the Olympics, for me, are incredibly moving. Watch an Olympic athlete in the middle of a performance; the sheer beauty of their movement, the serenity in their focus, is astounding. These glorious, shimmering moments are products of lifetimes of sacrifice and discipline and grit. And athlete or no, don’t we all deserve a moment like that? Don’t we all deserve to be loyal to our passions, to feel that we are being who we really are in the best possible way?
As a mom, my goal for my own kiddos is the same goal I have for all of our Yellow Parachute students: I want each child to discover his or her own unique gifts, and figure out how to use those gifts to serve others. Our commitment to building kids’ confidence and autonomy in pursuit of a passionate life is what fuels our new Student Operating System (SOS) Curriculum.
SOS aims to set kids up for a lifetime of educational and professional success so, in the spirit of curiosity and authenticity, I tested out an SOS time-organization exercise on my own kiddos.
The Trial Run
On Sunday morning I told my two youngest (ages 7 and 10) that after dinner we were going to sit down together and plan out their upcoming weeks. I didn’t give them a choice, but I did give them a purpose by letting them know that they were helping not just me or themselves, but all the YP kids who could benefit from the SOS curriculum down the road.
At the appointed time, I gave them each a time-gridded-7-day calendar page and told them to start by writing down all the activities that had to be done on each day, working down to as much detail as possible (from hockey and dance practice to snack time and tooth-brushing) according to the time they started and ended and lines to indicate that “block” of time. We made a larger block to indicate the time they were in school.
Next, both kiddos chose morning goals. Carynne wanted time to get a ponytail & braid in her hair and Caden wanted time to practice hockey drills in the garage. I then asked them to decide for themselves what time they needed to get up (building that autonomy!) in order to do both what they wanted to do (hair and hockey) and what they needed to do (eat breakfast, brush teeth, dress, pack backpack, bundle up, etc.). Both Carynne and Caden figured out that they would need to wake up at 7 am to fit it all in. All this went on the calendar.
We repeated the same steps, scheduling nighttime want-to-dos (TV time!) in between nighttime must-dos (homework, dinner, chores, bedtime routines). Then together chose an ideal bedtime (reading time at 8, lights out no later than 9).
This exercise prompted fascinating and wonderful conversations. As they worked through this exercise on their own, each kiddo had to experience the time each activity would take, and translate that experience to numbers and lines on paper. Instead of my husband and I being walking, talking Time Lords —appearing in turns and at various volumes, to speed it up, slow it down, or take it away entirely—our kids now owned and were responsible for their own time.
The Outcome (Mind-Boggling Good!)
Okay, so, I wrote our new SOS Curriculum after years of studying and applying executive-function-specific learning strategies, as well as months of consulting with researchers in the field. I had the magic mix of hard data, experience, and intuition going for me, but I still couldn’t know for sure how the system would work until I tried out a little piece of it. And as much faith I had in the principles, the IMMEDIATE benefits still shocked and delighted me.
Once they started the exercise, my kids were excited to plan and make decisions for themselves. They discovered that what they LIKE to do matters as much as what they NEED to do—an early lesson in setting boundaries in the name of self-care (things that many a grownup, myself included, is still learning). And because my kids had organized their own time and had incentives to keep it organized (TV time! Braids! Hockey!), they’ve been cheerfully sticking to their schedule (I know, it’s only been three days, but that’s a major win in my three-kids-under-twelve book).
Better still, since I haven’t had to yell or nag just to get them to school on time each morning, my relationship with my kids over these days has been—more nuanced, more serene, more present. Again, three days, but boy will I take it.
[Bonus Round: My oldest, who at first declined to participate (“I like to keep my schedule more open-ended. I’m good, mom.”), changed his mind a few hours later and created his own schedule unprompted. What the what?!]
How Executive Function Awareness Improves Family Dynamics
The beauty of the SOS Curriculum is that it helps kids cultivate the self-awareness they’ll need to navigate their own minds. As we’ve said before, ADHD is a brain-based condition that shows up in behavior, but the same is true of all executive functioning (EF) weaknesses and strengths, whether we have a diagnosis of ADHD or not. In other words, all of us have varying degrees of EF abilities.
I know, for example, that I’m great with big ideas, long-term vision, perseverance, and passion (strong Planning/Prioritization and Goal-Directedness), but my feelings sometimes jump out from behind a bush and get in the way of what I want to do (less-strong Emotional Control and Response Inhibition). One great diagnostic questionnaire for adults comes from Peg Dawson, EdD and Richard Guare, Ph.D., authors of the excellent Smart But Scattered series. Dawson and Guare discuss practical implications of both mismatched and well-matched EF skills between parents and children. One notable tidbit: “If your son’s or daughter’s executive skill weaknesses drive you crazy, there’s a good chance that it’s because you’re strong in those executive skills.”
Once kids and parents alike know how their respective EF abilities clash with or complement each other, it turns conflicts into puzzles, rather than volcanoes. SOS ignites curiosity and starts conversations. It turns “WHY CAN’T YOU—” into “Oh, I see why that could be hard for you to...” or even “This is why it’s hard for me (as a parent) to ...” You start to understand the internal processes behind everyone’s behaviors, which helps families communicate, whether someone has a medically-diagnosed EF challenge or not. It’s important that families commit to taking this journey into deeper understanding together rather than simply collectively rolling their eyes at dad’s chronic lateness or a brother’s excited monologues. SOS teaches families partnership, relationship building, connection, problem-solving, appreciation for who each of us is in the wonderful chaos and unexpected harmonies of family life, and JOY.
I think the danger when we don’t have these conversations and get curious and communicate with one another, is we listen too much to our feelings. Feelings aren’t always truth and can create a whole lot of shame-and-blame-spiraling without a constructive look at the root of the feelings. We rush, we stress, we stuff, we explode, all without taking the time to find out why. Creating time together creates space. And space is how we can evaluate our relationships without judging in order to better understand each other.
P.S. Stay tuned for next week’s blog post to discover your parenting style and motivators, and learn how to integrate that into your family executive function ecosystem!
Got a kiddo with ADHD? Just want to improve your executive function awareness? Check out the Spring 2018 mindful parenting workshop, “Learn to Respond Rather Than React” led by our friend and colleague, Judy Bandy.