routine and ritual

March 15th, 2012

String enough good days together, like a macaroni necklace, and you’ve made a priceless treasure out of what you already have on hand.

This is a transcript of a talk on parenting wisdom that I gave at the local library. We all live at such a distance from one other I thought I’d just put it all up here. It’s geared to parents of children under age three, but the lessons are forever. Please share.


Often we approach our job as parents like this:

“I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“I’m over my head!”
“I’m lost!”
“I’m ruining my kid.”

So we seek more information, come to workshops, and pick up new tips. We want to give our children a solid advantage and even a head start. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I take a different approach. I like to help you find the wisdom you already possess, help you find your own way, and help you feel more secure in your everyday life so that you can say:

“We made it through. We did OK. It was a good day.”

String enough good days together, like a macaroni necklace, and you’ve made a piece of art, a priceless treasure out of what you already have on hand.

They say that children don’t come with instructions, so I’m not going to give you any new instructions. I want to talk about two tools that you already have, but that you may not be using enough.

Routine and Ritual

These words might annoy you or even terrify you. You might say to yourself:

“I tried to get on a schedule, but my kids are just not like that.”
“My life’s not that organized.”
“We’re more creative and spontaneous.”
“I can’t fit it all in.”

So I want to simplify this for you. I want to make it seem easy. Because routine and ritual are the source of security, love and learning.

What do I mean by routine and ritual?

Routine means Time. And Ritual means Attention.

These are probably the very two things you think you don’t have: time and attention. Even though you might secretly realize that you should be giving more time and attention to your children, you can’t seem to find a way to do it without going crazy.

Let’s make it easy enough to do every day. Time and attention complement each other. You can’t be aware of time without attention. That’s when you realize that time and attention are really the same thing.


Time has much more meaning when you have children. First, you feel like you have none – at least nowhere near the time you had without children, when you were free to fritter away all your time! And the other thing you feel is how valuable, how very precious time is – and it’s going too fast. You feel as if you have no time to spare, no time on your hands, and no time to waste.

This is a feeling that doesn’t go away. Not for the rest of your life. And not for the rest of their lives. But you can find a way to cope with it.

Remember when you used to feel like you had time? I want you to feel like that again. To do that, you literally have to put time into your hands! You have to become the timekeeper. You have to keep time.

This is what I mean by routine. Routine is when you have a time that you do things:


You notice what I did was just put “time” after the activity? You are the one who gets to do that. You get to decide. And by making that decision, by setting the time and following through, you have created a routine.

Routines create structure, regularity and dependability out of chaos. They make you feel more confident and secure, and that makes your child feel more confident and secure. You can both relax because you know what’s coming next.

Routines are not inflexible. They are not punitive. Don’t think of your routine as a way to enforce your authority. Think of it as a way to let your life flow. Routines are liberating! They help us to grow! They are good for us, because they tell us what time it is!

Everything you do for your child you do for yourself. What helps them, helps you, because you are in this together.

That brings us to ritual.


When I talk about the routines of mealtime, playtime, bathtime and bedtime maybe you realize something. Just as time is attention, routine is ritual.

What is ritual? A ritual is a ceremony or a sacred act (and I don’t mean religious) performed with care and attention. You do it in a certain way at a certain time. You may not be very religious at all, but you perform many rituals each day.

Making coffee or tea
Fixing your hair
Brushing your teeth
Washing dishes
Doing laundry

What you are teaching your child as you do these things is, “This is the way we live.”

Rituals are often made ceremonial with a song. When my daughter was little we had songs for certain activities, like “The Bath Song” and “The Walking Song.” Heck, I made up a song for everything (and remember, what we do for our children we do for ourselves).

You’ll notice in preschools how songs are used to transition between activities. The kids learn a song: “Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share . . . “ and so on, which reminds me:

Everything you need to know as a parent you can learn in preschool.

Let’s focus on the two daily events that we most need to ritualize in our homes. Why? So they become a healthy routine. Those are mealtimes and bedtimes.

These are the events that cause parents the most frustration and fear. How do you get the kids to eat right? How do you get the kids to sleep right? In both cases, you get to decide. But that also means you have to make them routine, with a routine time, place and way.

In the evenings, at least, they really flow one into the other, especially with small children. Mealtime is followed by bathtime is followed by

Now, are they are ritualized? I don’t mean with incense and candles, but in other ways, by doing them the same way every time.

What’s so powerful about these activities is that they require you to give your time and attention to the very thing you love more than anything else in the world: your children. You have to participate. You have to come together with nothing else on your mind. You have to surrender yourself, your distractions and preferences, to being with your child during bathtime and bedtime, so:

Make it fun – not punishment
Make it special – just between you
Make it routine — the same way
and that makes it a ritual

No matter how young your child is, bedtime is a magical opportunity to introduce music and reading to the ritual.

Remember, what you do for your child, you do for yourself.

Every book you read aloud to your child is a book you are reading to yourself. The lesson it contains is for you. Every song you sing you sing to yourself. The love and reassurance in it are for you.

Ritual and routine are your own intuitive parenting wisdom, just waiting to be put to use. Through them, you will always return to balance, security, health and well being.

I’ve told you that routine and ritual are simply words for time and attention. And now I’ll tell you why that really matters. I know you love your children. You love them even when you don’t like them! You may tell them a thousand times a day, but that’s not enough. You have to show them.

Attention is the most concrete expression of love you can give.

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  1. As Lola would say, this is my favorite and best.

    I’m much better at structuring my children’s day than my own time. Applying this to my own work day today. Thanks, Karen.

    Comment by Deirdre — March 15, 2012 @ 8:56 am

  2. “The love and reassurance in it are for you.”: what an amazing insight. Thank you.

    Comment by Roos — March 15, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  3. You brought tears of relief and joy to my eyes. My daughter is 8 months and I relearn this lesson at least once a week. It’s so true that I forget it, trying to fix things by making them more complicated.

    Comment by Heather — March 15, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  4. Not being from a demonstrative family, having worried for nearly 2 decades that I haven’t “loved” my kiddos adequately, or properly, and today, relief, because I did have routine and ritual, I did provide attention, therefore I loved. I wish I could say “no more guilt,” that will take reading many more of your insightful blessings, but a huge chunk of burden lifted with this reading. As with the lesson of the bluejay “this I can do” is a beautiful mantra for routine and ritual.

    Comment by MJ — March 15, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  5. Parenting teens is just like parenting toddlers…I find that time, attention, rituals (we eat dinner as a family every night) are so crucial now to raising confident and secure teenagers. Thank you for the reminder that we already have what we need in our hearts (and parenting toolboxes). Your posts are such beautiful gifts.

    Comment by Pamela Gottfried — March 15, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  6. Thank you! So timely.

    Comment by Tonia — March 15, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  7. Hmmmm. I am confused. I thought Zen was more about this :

    And what do you feel about this….

    Not trying to be faecescious just trying to get a debate going! ( even if it’s just a private one in our own heads/hearts)


    Comment by Motherfunker — March 16, 2012 @ 12:43 am

  8. amazing.

    Comment by Marty — March 16, 2012 @ 5:22 am

  9. Wonderful Posting …… with not so many paragraphs you’ve woven the path for the days events. And you’re so right with using song and rhyme to accompany so many day events. It blesses the little ones as gentle companionship and humor can do with our older ones.
    It was a happy, rich time of my life:-) Thank you for helping me remember it!

    Comment by Mary P. — March 16, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

  10. Yes! Admittedly, I agree it is so easy to forget about the simplicity and ease ritual and routine can bring to life. What a helpful and beautiful way to weave life. Thank you Karen for your insight that what we bring to our children we bring to ourselves. We can so easily overlook this and then struggle, struggle, struggle.

    Comment by Mama Baba — March 18, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  11. Once again an incredibly insightful yet simple take on what constitutes effective parenting. Thank you Karen.

    Comment by Bobbi — March 19, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  12. Thank. You. For. This.

    Comment by Anonymous in Mpls — March 19, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  13. Thank you for this…can you follow up with some tips for making mealtime and bath time fun, not punishment (for any of us)? My kids eat well but they are always getting up from the table and running around, getting toys, playing. So then I get irritated! They also don’t have the best table manners so I try to teach them but end up getting frustrated. HOW can I make it fun? Bathtime and bedtime are the same: I want it to go a certain way and I end up getting frustrated with them and it just SUCKS. Can you share your magic for dealing with meal, bath and bed for a 6 and 4 year old?? THANK YOU!!!

    Comment by Shannon — October 2, 2014 @ 11:11 am

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