MD Mama

Why Kids Need to Be Pushed Out of Their Comfort Zones

alarm clock.jpgThe other morning, my son got a bad start to his day because of me--and although I didn't mean to do it, it was good that it happened.

My youngest, Liam, is a creature of habit. He likes things to be the same, and he likes the predictability of regular schedules. He is used to being woken up at a certain time, and having a certain amount of time to eat his breakfast and get dressed and get ready for school. He especially likes to be able to take his time; he does not like to be rushed. And he hates to be late (that part he gets from me).

So when I got busy and failed to realize that he had fallen back to sleep (my husband was out taking my daughter to school), it was a problem. He had to get ready in 20 minutes. Which was actually plenty of time to throw on clothes, eat a bowl of oatmeal and brush his hair and teeth, but he cried his way through it. He cried his way through the ride to school, too, even though he wasn't late at all.

All of us have our habits and our quirks, our ways that we like things to happen and be done. Our kids are no different. But as parents, too often we are so accommodating of the habits and quirks that our children lose the ability to be flexible. And being flexible is a key life skill.

Now, I should say up front that some children simply cannot be flexible, for emotional or other reasons. They need predictability in order to cope with daily life. If you have one of those children, ignore the rest of what I'm going to say. And if you haven't already talked with your doctor about how to support your child and your family, please do.

But for most children, getting pushed out of their comfort zone here and there is a remarkably good thing.

We cater to our children for all the best reasons. We want them to be happy. We want our day to go smoothly, and happy children make that more likely. And mostly, it's fine. But life doesn't always work out perfectly. Sometimes the favorite shirt is too dirty to be worn, the favorite toy is missing, the iPad needs charging, or the friends you are visiting don't have the foods your child likes to eat.

Or you let them sleep late by accident.

More importantly, though, life throws us curveballs all the time. Trains are late, flights are canceled (as we've all experienced this winter), we don't always like the food we're served, we don't always get the school acceptance or job we wanted, work deadlines get pushed up, we get sick or injured (usually at the worst possible moment), relationships end.

Our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, readjust course and continue on, and be happy depends so much on our ability to keep perspective, think creatively, and be able to make lemonade with the latest set of life lemons. We do that best when we've had some practice--starting in childhood.

Which isn't to say that you should change up your child's routine every day, randomly give them food they hate, or hide their favorite toys. Kids do need routines to give them stability, and it's totally fine to love chicken fingers or like to sleep with a particular teddy bear. But here and there, it's a good idea to do things in a different order, put different foods on the plate, visit new places and people, put away the iPad or video games, and otherwise shake things up. It may mess up that particular day, but the truth is, the more you do it, the easier life gets--because you don't always have to be a slave to your routines, and when the curveballs come, you all handle them better.

I didn't mean to let Liam sleep late that day--I wasn't trying to teach him about curveballs, and I apologized plenty. But watching his reaction made me realize that we'd let him get a bit too rigid about his morning routine, and that mixing it up sooner would have been good. Now if something happens that cuts his morning prep time in half, he'll be better able to handle it. He might never be happy about rushing, but he knows he can do it, and that the day can still turn out okay.

Which is a pretty good lesson to learn.

Photo credit: 2010 Evan, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

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