How to Change a Little Kid’s Well Established Routine

Dr. Harvey Karp explains the collaborative process of helping a child shift their routine

Some parents come to view their child’s routine as static and maybe even sacred. But routines are constantly evolving–just at varied rates. And sometimes a routine needs to evolve rapidly to ensure that dad can get to work or talk to grandma or sleep. That’s not such a terrible thing, according to Happiest Toddler on the Block author pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, who insists the kid will survive. He simply suggests doing so with the understanding that routines are not merely collections of habit.

“Routines are the way your young child tells time. That’s what breaks up the day for them,” he explains. “So routines become kind of like safe islands of understanding. When kids have them, they’re as smart as anyone at the table.”

That said, kids often do struggle to keep up because life isn’t very predictable. In the best circumstances, families have long and weird days. In the worst circumstances, doubly so. So the key to thinking about routine isn’t protecting it, but altering it, as Karp puts it, “respectfully and thoughtfully.”

At the end of the day—well, throughout the day, really—children are, despite understanding time through a routine, pretty malleable. They accept change. They often embrace it. They just don’t like to be victimized or wrongfooted. It’s all about agency, transparency, and speed. That means that parents should be “working with” their kids. For instance, if a bedtime routine needs to be shortened, a conversation should take place earlier in the day. During that conversation, it can help to enter into a negotiation. This gives the child agency and a sense that they have a say in the way their world is formed.

Think about it as a work thing. No one just tosses meetings onto other people’s schedules. Well, no one who isn’t awful to work with anyway.

That said, it’s not all about working together. Karp notes that the negotiations shouldn’t feel easy for the kid. He suggests, in fact, that parents think of it more like aggressive haggling. “You have to put up a little bit of a fight and play act it,” he explains. “Because then your young child feels like they won something, like they extracted a victory, and it has more value and meaning.”

What’s important is that the kid feels like they’ve been part of the process, in a partnership with their parent. If done successfully, a change in a routine is more a gentle temporal shift for the kid and not a jarring change that leads to problem behaviors and tears. And once the agreement has been made, Karp suggests giving the child some sort of recognition that they’ve really done well in the transition.

“What your doing is your teaching how to be respectful to other people,” he says. ”It’s an opportunity to grow in learning how to work with someone on a problem.”