I hated the sound of my own voice in the mornings.
“If you’re not out of bed in the count of 1… 2…”
“Brush your teeth!”
You know the drill.
Trained as a yoga teacher, I wake up early every day to meditate, but the stress of the chaotic ensuing hour was undoing the benefits. No matter how hard I tried, my two sons still moved at the speed of molasses. Finally, earlier this spring, I decided no more. I would bite my tongue — and yes, there were actual bite marks — no matter how late my kids got to school. And it finally made a difference.
Among the failing strategies I tried with my sons, ages 6 and 8, before this moment of truth: Bribery. Taking away spending money. Taking away screen time. Taking away dessert. (I know, you shouldn’t do that.) Writing out a minute-by-minute morning routine. (Why can’t we ever stick to routines?) Waking them up earlier. Waking them up later so they’re not so tired. Going to bed earlier. (Why doesn’t that stick, either?) I pleaded for my husband to help. He found himself just as exasperated — and late for work, though his assistance sometimes allowed me to meet my trinity of personal morning goals: eating breakfast, showering, and using the toilet.
And so, I decided to stop and see what happened.
The rules of my no-nagging challenge were simple: I would not be a pain in the butt as the boys got ready in the mornings. If that meant we didn’t leave on time, they would experience the natural consequence of facing their teachers, understanding though they are. How much does being on time for kindergarten and second grade really matter anyway? Not as much as the damage that was being done to our relationship and my own self-respect.
I had two factors going for me that not all parents do: First, I am self-employed. Second, my kids actually want to get to school on time. My easily distractible older son is a stickler for punctuality, if not the process of being punctual. My little one is a slowpoke while eating breakfast, but he hates to miss the kindergarten’s “morning salutation.” One of my friends says if she didn’t nag her kids to get ready, they would miss school entirely.
Ever since my boys were born, I have been awful at getting us out of the apartment. When the final car seat buckles click, I feel like I deserve a medal. A part of me was actually relieved when the pandemic hit and we didn’t have to do the morning scramble anymore. After a year and a half of remote learning, I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to get out the door on time again.
Biting my tongue was not as hard as I thought it would be, except on days I was significantly sleep deprived. I took lots of deep breaths and did housework while the boys dragged their feet. I tried to keep them on track with gentle prods, such as this exchange when my 8-year-old was reading the dictionary 10 minutes after we should have left.
Me: “Hey, whatcha doing?” (Not: “What are you thinking?! Do you know what time it is?”)
Him: “Oh. Yeah. Right. I guess I should brush my teeth.”
For nearly two weeks, we arrived at school anywhere from five to 25 minutes late. It was not the end of the world. Then, two friends who saw the no-nagging dispatches in my Instagram Stories each made the same suggestion: What about timers? I floated the idea to the boys, and the older one took to it instantly. He set daily alarms on the iPad to sound every 10 minutes beginning an hour before we would ideally depart. He is in charge of turning them off, thus requiring him to keep tabs on the clock.
And guess what? It’s working. In the final two days of school before spring break, we were no more than three minutes late. I worried the new routine wouldn’t stick after the vacation week, but so far it mostly has. I’ve traded language like “Pick up your dirty pants and underwear!” for “I see clothes on the floor.” Remaining this mindful is far harder for me in the evenings when we’re all tired and toy cleanup is at issue. And I have yet to find a solution for a kid waking up grumpy and throwing a tantrum, or a child anxious about a playground squabble who doesn’t want to get out of the car.
But overall, it’s been a huge success. My older son is even turning into a drill sergeant if he thinks his brother or I is running behind. This is more effective than my own nagging: The little one cares more about pleasing his big brother than about pleasing me. One morning the boys even got five minutes of screens when they were running early. I was merely on time.
Sara Pam Neufeld, a writer and yoga teacher in Queens, is working on a memoir.Her Instagram is @sarapamneufeld