How to Create A Peaceful Evening Routine With Kids
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It used to drive me nuts — I would put so much intention into creating a nice day with my kids, and then the whole effort would feel wasted when we ended the day on a sour note. Instead of lovingly tucking my kids into bed and kissing their sleepy heads, I found myself begging my kids to eat their dinner, to stop splashing all the water out of the tub, to please brush their teeth, use the potty, get dressed, one more potty trip and NO, you cannot have any more hugs, and will you stay in bed for the love of Pete?
It was like an out-of-control train speeding down the tracks — the kids kept asking for more and more attention, we would get more and more frustrated, and they would just whine and beg more in response to our desperate attempts to put them to bed. Once the train had started moving, it felt impossible to turn things around.
Reframe negative behavior as a cry for help
One of the most powerful parenting mindsets you can adopt is to reframe attention-seeking behavior as a cry for help. Kids don’t ask for attention or act out because they enjoy seeing you squirm. Contrary to what you may think, kids don’t actually enjoy irritating the parents.
If kids act out, it’s because they NEED something. But since they are children and don’t fully understand their own big emotions or how to ask for what they actually need, it often looks like disobedience, tantrums, and attention-seeking behavior.
Often we, as adults, see these requests for attention as negative misbehavior. After all, our kids KNOW better — we know they are fully capable of brushing their teeth and putting on their pajamas. Why in the world are they begging for help with simple tasks?
This is why the tantrums, the poor listening, and the endless requests can be so infuriating as a rational adult, particularly after a long day with little ones.
It’s not a surprise that most adults respond to these requests for help with either threats (“Put your pajamas on or there’s no TV tomorrow!”), punishment (“That’s it, mister — no books tonight”), or abandonment (“No, you can’t have another hug, I’ve already given you five hugs. Stay in bed!”). The problem is, these responses don’t address the root cause of unwanted behavior. Often, threats, punishments, and abandonment just add fuel to the fire.
Picture bedtime from your child’s perspective
Imagine your child is a pressure cooker that has been slowly building up steam all day long. The pressure increases from frustrations over schoolwork, disappointments when you left for work, fights with siblings, sadness over losing a toy — all the hundred little (and not so little) struggles of childhood.
If your child is a pressure cooker that is bursting come bedtime, then you need to build release valves into your evening routine so that they don’t explode when it’s time to turn off the light.
Imagine that you’re three years old. You’ve had a big day, and you’re really tired. You went to the library and had to sit quietly on the mat during story time, you went to the park and had to take turns on the slide, and you even helped dad clear the table after dinner.
All day long, grown-ups told you where to go, what to wear, how to behave, and what you could do. It was a LOT of work trying to learn what they wanted you to do, and on top of things, you’re brain isn’t fully developed, you’re still not sure about this whole pooping-on-the-potty thing, and your hands don’t always do what you want them to.
You’re exhausted, and feeling a little cranky from all the hard work of playing and learning and trying to grow up. Mom and Dad yelled a lot at dinner because you spilled your milk, and you feel really bad about it — you didn’t mean to spill it, you were just trying to see how much broccoli you could fit inside the cup. Actually, they yelled a lot today but they cooed over your baby brother — maybe they love him more than you?
It’s time for bed, and you are feeling sad, cranky, and lonely. Instead of cuddling you, Mom and Dad are yelling again — this time to brush your teeth — and now you’re all alone in your bed. Maybe it’s true, they really do love baby more than me. I can’t help it, I just need to SHOUT because I’m so upset. And here comes mom, telling me to be quiet before I wake my brother.
Being little is really hard.
Going to bed away from a parent is unsettling
Children are designed to stay close to their parents for protection, reassurance, and to ensure their basic needs are met. Even older kids can have trouble identifying and expressing their needs — for example, a fight with a friend at school can manifest as endless requests for water at night.
Here’s a hot tip: they aren’t asking for water.
(At least, not most of the time.)
They’re asking for love. For reassurance. For connection.
They’re just too little to know how to ask for these things appropriately — and it’s our job to teach them.
How to “Fill Their Cup” before bed
Once you re-frame negative bedtime behavior as a cry for help, it’s easier to show patience and to respond with love.
But, as an adult, you also need a break. If you co-sleep, that’s awesome — keep doing what works for you. But I personally need to sleep in my own bed, without a child’s limb poking into my gut, or I will go crazy. I need that space in order to be a functioning, intentional parent the next day.
We finally cracked the code on bedtime battles by introducing a few slight tweaks in our evening routine. This primarily focused on introducing moments of connection into our evening routine so that when it was time to say goodnight, their cups were full. They had had their fill of love, reassurance, and connection, so falling asleep independently was no longer such a scary ordeal. We had released the pressures of the day.
To be clear — we still hear multiple requests for hugs and water and “just one more book.” It’s not perfect. But the actual bedtime routine now takes five or ten minutes (max).
More so, the evenings are calmer, more peaceful, and more fulfilling. I no longer leave their bedrooms feeling rotten to have ended the day with yells and threats.
Dare I say it, evenings with my kids are now my favorite time of day.
A peaceful evening routine starts in the afternoon
To create a peaceful evening routine, there needs to be a clear boundary between “work time” and “family time.” After “family time” starts, there are no more work emails or social media check-ins or major household chores. For the next two or three hours, you are focused on family.
If you have a baby or toddler who still naps, you need to make sure that the afternoon nap ends long enough before the desired bedtime.
I know that I want my kids in bed by 7 pm so that I have enough time to wind down before my own bedtime. That means that my baby has to wake up no later than 4 pm to ensure that she’s ready for bed on time. She’s usually already up by then, but if she’s not, then I go in and wake her.
If the baby is already up before 4 pm, then she plays in the playroom while I wrap up a few things for work. But at 4 pm, no matter what, I close my laptop for the day and move into the evening routine.
As you read through the following steps, you might notice that there is no TV in our evening routine. I find that screen-time battles just complicate our evenings and lead to fights over when it’s time to turn the screens off.
I also fully support the research stating how screens and the blue lights in most devices are overly stimulating to most children but particularly spirited or special-needs kids.
Yes, I know that screens can be really helpful while you’re trying to get dinner on the table. But if you’ve already prepped most of dinner ahead of time (see below), this is less of an issue. Besides, if screen time inevitably leads to a fight over turning it off and coming to the table, has it really helped you, or has it just created another headache that has to be managed?
If you’re a working parent or you have older children with afternoon activities, you’ll have to tweak this a bit. But the basic idea is to set a firm boundary on “work time” and “family time” so that you can be (mostly) focused on relieving the pressures of the day.
Step 1: Prep dinner early
After I get baby up from her nap, she eats a snack in her highchair will I do all the dinner prep. Chicken is thrown in the instant pot, veggies are roasted, the salad is made — I do as much as humanely possible to make sure dinner is ready to go.
Step 2: Get outside
By 4:30, I try to wrap up the dinner prep and we all head outside. I just don’t have a lot of time (or motivation) for proper exercise in this season of life, but I’ve found that my afternoon walks are really good for my soul.
My older daughter is usually pretty wiped out by 4:30 from an active afternoon playing with friends, and the quiet time in the double stroller, just the three of us, is really soothing.
We might stop at the park during our walk, or we might not — the point is to be outside, breathing fresh air, enjoying the sunshine, and taking a few moments to be quiet together.
Step 3: Eat dinner together
My husband usually arrives home around 5:15 or 5:30, and he will plate up dinner or finish up whatever needs to be done for that evening’s meal (which is easy for him to see, as I post the dinners on our fridge and keep the weekly meal plan available through my all-time favorite meal planning site, Plan to Eat — not an affiliate link, I just love them to pieces).
We sit down to eat as a family at 5:30. The kids get what we’re eating for dinner, but often in a simplified manner. My older daughter is quite picky, but I have learned not to stress about this overmuch. I love Ellyn Satter’s concept of division of responsibility at the dinner table — I decide what’s available, when to eat, and where we eat, and the kids decide whether they will eat and how much they will eat. In other words, I can provide an environment that is conducive to a pleasant meal, but after that, it’s up to them.
In practice, this might look a deconstructed Cobb salad — the kids get a hardboiled egg, a few carrot sticks, a lettuce leaf, some chicken, and some salad dressing for dipping. Or, if we’re having pasta, they might get plain noodles, some parmesan cheese, and a meatball separately on the plate. And I make sure there is at least ONE thing on her plate that I know she will eat — the rest is up to her.
When we decide to eat separately from the kids, dinner is much less peaceful. The kids don’t want to sit at the table, because they want to see what we’re doing over at the stove, or they wander over to pet the cat, etc. etc. One of us, preferably both, need to be sitting down with them while they eat. As I say in my post about creating peaceful morning routines, parents who are busy with other tasks during mealtimes are distracting and it’s no surprise that this leads to kids who can’t sit still at the table or finish their meals.
Eating with your kids is beneficial because it models good table manners and healthy eating habits. But if it’s too early for you to eat, try having just the salad portion of your dinner or even just glass of wine — whatever will help you sit and enjoy mealtime.
But some nights, things just aren’t clicking. The four-year-old won’t sit in her chair, the baby is fussing, the milk has spilled for the fourth time, and we’re all getting more and more cranky.
This is when I pull out my secret weapon — the family anthem. I turn on the bluetooth speaker and hit “play” on the family playlist I keep queued up on my phone. In addition to the AC/DC and Queen that my kids love in the morning, my older daughter is also really enjoying the sweet vibes of Cobi — she calls it her dinosaur song.
Jamming out to some tunes nearly always helps reset our meals.
Step 4: Get the kids involved in clean-up and daily tasks
Modeling how to tidy up at the end of the day is so important, even though it can feel like extra work when they’re little. But consistently requiring kids to help clear the table, tidy their toys, put their dirty clothes in the hamper, or pack their backpack for the next day will actually save you time when they’re older.
Toddlers can carry their plates to the sink and help put toys in the bin. Preschoolers can put silverware in the dishwasher and wipe down the table. Elementary kids can pack their lunches for the next day. Figure out at least one or two tasks for your child, based on their age and ability, and be consistent with it every day until it’s rock solid. Then, gradually introduce another task.
If your kids aren’t currently involved in the evening work, I encourage you to start small — just one task. In a few months, add a second task. And be sure to cloak these tasks with lots of praise about how helpful and responsible they are.
Right now, my four-year-old is responsible for:
- tidying up the toys in the play area
- clearing her plate
- putting her dirty clothes in the hamper
It took several months before these became rote, but now I rarely have to remind her.
Step 5: Corral kids in the bathroom
Right now, my husband finishes dinner clean-up while I bathe the kids. In our current home, our shower and bathtub are adjacent, so I’m able to hop in the shower while the kids are in the bathtub (they are in easy arms-reach and I can see them at all times). This works for me, because then I can get into my own pajamas, which is basically the moment I’m working towards all day long (#truth).
While we’re in the bathroom, I do every task possible before they are let loose — teeth are brushed, evening medication is given, hair is brushed. If it works with the layout of your house, hang up pajamas in the bathroom as well to check this task off before leaving the room.
It is a lot easier to control the evening routine when everyone is limited to a smaller space with fewer distractions, and when everyone is engaged in a similar task (like brushing teeth).
For those who have read my post on morning routines, you will notice that I have two sets of toothbrushes in the house for the kids — one set is down in the kitchen to make mornings easier, and the other set is up in the bathrooms for bedtime.
Step 6: The most important step of all
Once everyone is fully dressed and ready for bed, we have a few minutes of family playtime. Our upstairs landing that connects the bedrooms is currently our playroom, so we find ourselves congregating here for about ten minutes before it’s time to head to bed.
The kids can’t play until they are 100% ready for bed, so this incentivizes getting ready quickly.
There are no screens or other stimulating toys upstairs, just simple activities like blocks, Duplo, the wooden castle, and a few stacking and sorting toys for the baby.
We all sit together during this time — no screens, no distractions. The kids have 100% of our attention. It’s only ten minutes (twenty max), so it’s not THAT hard to keep our phones tucked away. (Bonus points if you have a glass of wine at hand by this point.)
It is a self-reinforcing activity because it’s so enjoyable for everyone. Best of all, it provides a few minutes of calm, connection, and peace, even if everything has been stressful up to this moment.
It only takes 10-20 minutes of play together, and the kids receive the attention and reassurance that they need from mom and dad at the end of a tiring or stressful day.
Step 7: Books and snuggles
Given the ages of our kids, we currently divide and conquer — my husband usually reads to and puts my older daughter to bed while I put the baby to bed.
Adjust this to suit your own family and the ages of your children.
Reading to your kids is the #1 best activity you can do to support learning and to build curious minds. By making reading a rock-solid part of our evening routine, I know we’ve checked this box even if the rest of the day was chaotic.
Reading before bed also builds an association between reading as a pleasurable, relaxing activity that is to be looked forwards to.
I urge you not to rush through this step. Allow for at least fifteen minutes of reading time each night. As with so many parts of parenting, consistency is key — it is the small daily habits that we do every day that come to shape our children.
Step 8: The magic clock
This particular clock, which we’ve been using for two years now, has a ton of features. You can program it for up to five different parts of the day, in addition to weekends vs. weekdays. When it hits a certain time, it changes color and starts to play a song. There are different cartridges you can put in to change the music, and they even have audiobooks you can use.
I love this clock because it’s no longer my job to say, “Okay, enough reading, time for bed.” Instead, the clock changes color and starts playing music at 7 pm, and that’s the signal that this is the last book and we’ll be saying goodnight now.
It’s not ME saying it’s time for bed — it’s the clock. I love delegating that little task out to a machine.
Step 9: The goodnight ritual
Hopefully by now, your child has had sufficient connection with the parent to separate more easily at bedtime. You had a family dinner full of good conversation (or you rocked out to your family anthem). Everyone is clean, fed, and sleepy. You’ve filled their cup with gentle playtime, reading, and snuggles, reassuring them of your love and the safety you provide.
It might not happen on the first night or even the first week. If bedtime has been a real struggle at your home, it might take a few weeks for the rhythm to take hold.
STICK WITH IT.
If you aren’t seeing some improvement in the bedtime chaos after a few weeks, by all means, make some tweaks. This routine should serve you and your family, and if something isn’t working, change it.
But in the meantime, give the routine a chance to take hold. As Laura Markham talks about on her site, Aha Parenting, sometimes kids are carrying really full “backpacks,” full of tough emotions. It can take awhile to unpack those backpacks, and through the process of unloading, kids have to actually engage with those negative emotions, which can look like even more tantrums and misbehavior for a short period.
In some ways, more bad behavior right after you start implementing these tips is actually a sign that you’re doing it right — you are creating a safe space for your children to connect and offload pent-up worries and frustrations.
In other words, don’t give up if you aren’t seeing results after just a few days. I urge you to give this a try for at least two or three weeks.
My hope (and my hunch) is that the improvements that you achieve will be so joyful that it won’t even be a struggle to maintain these habits — they will feel so good, that you won’t even think of going back to the way things were before.
Step 10: Prep for the next day
If you’re a parent, then you know the work doesn’t end at bedtime. But because my husband and I divide and conquer at bedtime, there’s rarely much left to do after the kids go to bed at 7 pm.
But let’s say that you both work outside the home, or you have an older child with an extracurricular that pushes right up to dinner time. Maybe your partner works late or travels frequently and you often have to do dinner and bedtime on your own.
No worries — you just add a twenty-minute power-prep immediately after you say goodnight. The important thing is to take care of a few key tasks BEFORE you sit down to relax. Once you sit down and turn on the TV, the dishes will never get done and the lunches won’t get made, and then you’ll be frantic in the morning.
You would be amazed by how much you can accomplish in just twenty minutes. I urge you to set a timer and cut yourself off when the timer is up — there’s no need to scrub your house from top to bottom, just take care of the most important tasks. And I find that it’s a lot easier to get started when I know there’s an end in sight.
Here are the tasks you should accomplish before relaxing for the night:
- dinner leftovers put away
- lunches packed for the next day
- water bottles filled
- juice or milk cups prepped and put in the fridge for the morning (if you have babies or toddlers)
- dishwasher loaded and turned on
- kitchen counters wiped down and any spills cleaned up
- backpacks packed and by the door — don’t forget ballet costumes, soccer cleats, or the show-and-tell object
- quickly check your calendar and to-do list for tomorrow, and make note of any special events (parent-teacher conference, spirit day at school, etc.)
- collect any items needed for errands tomorrow, like library books to return or clothes to return
- move any loads of laundry where they need to go
- do a super-quick tidy of any toys left out
- lay out your clothes for tomorrow, if that’s your style (since I only wear yoga pants, this is easy for me 😉)
I know this looks like a lot, but it goes super quickly and it will save you SO much time the next morning. It also makes it easier to relax and get a good night’s sleep, knowing you’ve taken care of the essentials.
Pulling it all together: our peaceful evening routine
There you have it — ten steps to a peaceful evening routine. Most nights, my husband and I are on the couch, a glass of wine in hand and pajamas on, by 7:30 pm at the latest.
Here is our evening routine in a nutshell:
- 4pm: I stop working for the day, get the baby up from her nap, and prep dinner
- 4:30 pm: Walk with the kids
- 5:15 pm: The kids help me tidy the living space
- 5:30 pm: Dinner as a family
- 6 pm: Bath time & teeth brushing (and I shower and get into my pajamas)
- 6:30 pm: Family playtime
- 6:45 pm: Books and cuddles in bed
- 7 pm: Finish up any tidying or prep for tomorrow
- 7:30 pm: Grown-up time (aka, Netflix & wine)
And, look, I’m not saying that our evenings are 100% peaceful. There are still cranky kids and tired parents involved. Food is still spilled on the floor, my kids still scream bloody murder every time we have to wash hair, and I still sometimes shout when thing get rough.
But we have a rhythm now that works for us. We have various points of the evening where we can re-set and reconnect.
Our pressure release valves are our evening walks, our family dinners, the family play-time, and the snuggles and books in bed. Each part of this practice releases just a little more steam so that everyone can go to bed relaxed and at peace.
In addition, this rhythm gives a framework to our nights so we don’t have to think so hard about what comes next. Kids thrive on routine and take comfort in the predictable rhythm.
If you feel like you can’t recreate some sort of similar rhythm in your household, think about what’s getting in the way.
Is there too much homework? Maybe you need to speak with the child’s teacher.
Is dinnertime frantic? Maybe you need some good slow cooker meals or freezer meals.
Do you not have enough time to sit down together due to your kid’s extracurriculars? Maybe it’s time to simplify.
Because here’s the heart of the matter — bedtime chaos isn’t something to be managed. Chaos of any sort is a symptom. Don’t treat the symptom (with bribes or threats) — treat the source.
The SOURCE of the misbehavior might be overwhelm, or too many activities, or not enough special time with parents, or sibling rivalry, or a stressful school environment, or (most likely), some combination of all of these.
Treat the source. Find the release valves in your evening. And remember: acting out is a cry for help. If your kids need more attention in the evenings, well, maybe they just really, truly NEED more attention in the evenings.
You got this, mama.
From the Web:
- Laura Markham “Your Preschooler and Bedtime”