The Backpack Blues: when good routines go bad

Do you have the backpack blues? Child barely makes it to the bus on time? Homework time’s your least favorite part of the day?

You may be suffering from a good routine gone bad.

Even the most organized families struggle to stay organized and get into solid routines that work. When you do get into a good flow, it’s hard to stay consistent and keep everyone on task. Last week, my son stumbled down the driveway to his bus, sneakers in his hand, arms overloaded with stuff falling all over the driveway; stuff that should have been tucked neatly inside his backpack the night before.  A few deep breaths later and a reminder to myself that natural consequences are a good thing (and that this display was not an indictment of my parenting) I was able to reflect on my family’s lack of efficiency and need to be more consistent.

Here we are, at the end of October and kids and parents have settled back into established school routines. Over the years, I’ve noticed this is about the point that those well thought out routines, established at the start of school, start to slide a bit. The novelty has worn off and suddenly the backpack that should be on that hook or next to the desk, is in the corner of the kitchen. The lunchbox that should be emptied out and placed near the sink sits moldering in the backpack. The answer to “how much homework do you have?” has gone from concise description to a shrug and a mumble, “Dunno. Some?”


Here’s how we get back on track

Guess what! The situation can be redeemed! Now is the time to review what isn’t working (and what is).  Here’s how to get started.

  • Make a list of the things that are really bugging you, but don’t get carried away. Try to focus on the things that started out working well this school year but have started to slip instead of longer-term issues.
  • Tell your family that you noticed some routines and good habits start to evaporate and you want to schedule a family meeting. The purpose will be to discuss ways to make things run more smoothly for everyone. This may sound obvious but have the meeting when everyone can attend and isn’t rushed, like between activities. Make sure everyone’s eaten. Things never go well when someone is hungry, so after a meal is a perfect time to meet! However, don’t have the meeting too close to bedtime; tired folks are not the most cooperative.
  • Have the meeting. Begin by asking everyone what they think has been working well and what hasn’t. Give everyone a chance to contribute, but don’t dive into discussion or problem solving just yet. You may want to go first and help set the tone by reinforcing what your children have been doing well. Remember, when someone appreciates and praises something we are doing, we typically want to continue to do it. Additionally, kids often complain that “my parents never notice all the good things that I do, they just point out the bad stuff.” Here is your chance to notice the good and notice it BIG. In fact, if you can, point out more positives than negatives.  For example, “I notice that you have been making an effort to turn off the bathroom light, since I mentioned it last week.” or “I love the healthy lunches you’ve been fixing for yourself.” or “You’ve been doing a great job getting your clothes together the night before school.” Next is your chance to bring up something you would like them to improve on. Don’t start rattling off everything on the list. Maybe choose one or two things to address and stick to that for this meeting. You might say something like, “Something that I would appreciate is you making more of an effort to put away your backpack when you come in from school.” Don’t let yourself slip into the (legitimate) parent diatribe about how inconsiderate they’re being and “how many times have I had to remind you,” etc…  Believe me, I know how tempting it is, but bite your tongue. Kids almost universally stop listening when we do this. A better tactic would be to find out why they stopped putting it in the designated area. “I know when you started school, we talked about you putting it next to your desk when you got in.  Is that plan not working for some reason?” Be curious and listen to their answers. If they are telling you that the original plan isn’t working, ask them for another solution. “So, I am hearing that you are tired from walking home from the bus stop and don’t want to go upstairs to put away your backpack right when you get in the door.  I really don’t like it in the middle of the kitchen because I am afraid that someone is going to trip on it or that the dog will get into it. What’s a solution that we both can agree on?”  If it is not an outrageous idea, agree to give it a try for a week and then talk about how it is working at your next meeting. Just like adults, kids are more likely to be willing to give something a try if they have a say in the idea. Parents, you need to be flexible here. It is normal to start out with rigid expectations, but if you are willing to bend on small things, kids are much more likely to listen when you need to set hard limits about more important things.
  • Ask for feedback about yourself and be willing to listen to what they say. Here is another opportunity for compromise.  For example, if they say, “I don’t like when you keep reminding me what time it is in the morning,” you might agree to limit it to a set number of reminders. A good compromise response would be, “I get worried that you are going to miss the bus and then I will have to drive you and end up being late for work.  I am willing to only give you 1 reminder when you have 15 minutes before the bus, but you have to do your part to be ready on time.” Remember, you are tweaking the systems to make it more efficient. If this doesn’t work, you can come up with another plan at the next meeting.
  • Take notes during the meeting. Write down what everyone agreed to and get verification that everyone is on the same page. You may want to alternate who the note taker is. At the next meeting, start out by checking in on the prior goals. This helps hold all family members accountable for what they agreed to.
  • Set regular meetings depending on what seems right for your family. You may start with weekly meetings and then as things are going more smoothly, go to every other week or once a month.


When to seek help from a counselor or coach


Parenting is a difficult task, especially when you are trying to get all the pieces of family life to line up and run smoothly.  It can easily feel overwhelming, like you can’t get all the parts to work together. Maybe you did a great job with logistics, getting everyone to their extra-curricular activities on time, but… those healthy meals you exquisitely planned turned into take-out again. If you are struggling, parent coaching can help you integrate individualized strategies tailored for your family and unique situation. Please reach out to us to set up a parent coaching session. Our providers have experience working with adults, children, and families, and can provide you with proven techniques.


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