Save Your Sanity – and Your Kid’s – By Building Systems

6 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

 The original title of this post was “How to Hack Your Kids,” but that seemed a tad sensational – even for me.

Still, it *was* accurate. So often, we look at our kids and their challenges, and once one is overcome, we wipe our brows, whisper, “whew!” and pray that’s the last time THAT comes up. So often, though, that's not the case – and sometimes, big challenges require big responses.

I’m the parent of one of *those* kids. You know the kids I mean. The kid who bit *your* kid. The one the teachers commiserate about, and then feel like they need to schedule special meetings with me to discuss “the situation”.

Like every mother, I think my kid is perfect, so it had to be my method of parenting that was the problem. I found myself reading the first chapter of “Positive Discipline” and nodding so much at the challenging behavior described therein that I nearly cramped my neck. I felt like I was getting nowhere as a parent – that I was strong-arming my kid into “behaving” – and everyone, including my daughter, was unhappy.

The savior of my sanity came from an unlikely source.

I’ve been a self-described geek for years – one of those people who get all the sci-fi jokes and read computer manuals and business development books for fun. For me, one of the best parts of learning programming and playing for years with computers was the hacking – the everyday brain-twisting trial-and-error of reaching a particular goal. And I’m not really sure when it happened, but one day, I just decided to apply that methodology to my kid.

Imagine my surprise when it worked.

After family debates and meetings with teachers, we’d decided that we’d all respond to a particular type of behavior by sequestering the kid and working on some “sensory therapy” that had received rave reviews for altering the behavior in question. Except my kid hated it, and I hated doing it. So one day, I just stopped. I tried something else. And it worked. No screaming. No yelling. No kicking. End of behavior.

So, my family decided to try a couple of other things differently. And those worked, too. Ultimately, I came to recognize that what we were doing was creating systems for things – including my responses to my daughter’s behavior – and the whole tone of our home changed as a result.

A simple way to describe it might be to call it a routine, but it’s more than that. A routine is a series of task performed the same way every day. That’s not necessarily what we’re going for here. What I did was find a simple routine and then *expanded* on it. And I found that I could save time, effort and sanity by creating a system for my kid, and then hacking on it *with* her.

Here’s an example. The squirrely 4-year-old likes to invert at the dinner table. What the heck is that, you say? Well, randomly, in the middle of a meal – and regardless of who might be present – she’ll just flip upside down in her chair so people see nothing but her feet. Believe it or not, however, this behavior is an improvement, and isn’t entirely unwelcome.

First, we worked on getting her to use regular silverware and glasses instead of the requisite kid-proof utensils. (Come on, there are African toddlers using machetes. My kid can learn to drink milk from a glass instead of a sippy cup.)  

Once we accomplished that, we moved on to her staying in her seat until the meal was over, wiping her face politely with her napkin, and then asking to be excused. So now, instead of leaving the table, she’ll just flip upside-down. (Yup, we're still working on that one.) The next step, of course, is getting her to sit upright in her chair consistently, and the step after that is to try a little of everything that’s served.

Still, we’re a far cry from the days of her running half-naked around the table waving a half-eaten sandwich and screaming “no!” at the top of her lungs.

And the point is that we’re applying these systems to a number of different scenarios, and it’s a hack for all of us.

What I’m hacking on myself is my speech. The goal at the moment is to never raise my voice and not to repeat myself. Yes, I have to remind myself not to yell across the house when my daughter is several rooms away. I must remember to demonstrate the behavior I want to see in her. It’s a process, but it’s working.

Here are a few other systems that have worked:

  • Getting ready for school in the morning used to take 40 minutes. On a good day, now, pajamas to fully dressed, teeth brushed and hair combed takes less than 15 minutes. We did this by clearly establishing with her what order tasks come in, picking clothes in advance, and getting everything done in the bathroom instead of in different rooms around the house.
  • The trail of stuff leading from the front door to her room disappeared once we had a plan for hanging up coat and umbrella and backpack the moment she walks in the house. Eighty percent of the time, her shoes actually make it to the drawer where they belong – without my having to say a word.
  • Bedtime used to take two hours. We’re down to about 30 minutes on average – and that includes brushing teeth,  storytime and a set amount of time for cuddling.

And here are a few strategies that have yielded some great results:

  • Asking for input. Guess what – I discovered that my kid had a few ideas of her own about how things should work. Sure, some of them involved candy for breakfast and hours of television and game play, and were totally out of the question, but by showing that I was at least willing to listen, and by considering an occasional compromise or two, I got more buy-in from my kid when I needed to lay down the law.
  • A 2-to-5 minute warning before we change tasks or location. When I pick her up from school, she’s got five more minutes to play with her friends. If she’s playing a game, she’s got a few minutes left before dinnertime. By giving her a heads-up, she’s much more likely to positively participate in clean-up, and to transition more easily to the new thing.
  • Being very clear about my expectations – and being willing to throw a system out the window if it’s not working for either of us.

Frankly, hacking my kid can be fun. Kids are delightful, ever-changing, rapidly moving creatures. They're also sponges who soak up everything we parents do. I've given my kid the gift of trial-and-error and that system will take her far. But truth be told, it’s not all sunshine and kittens. My kid is always going to take longer to do some things than I think she will or should, but at least we both know the plan, and we both know what to expect from each other.


Always do your best so you can hold your head up while you walk through the world. Someone is already proud of you.

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