Last week I wrote an article for Role Reboot about the problems created when one parent is the expert and the other is uninvolved or left in the position of being “the help.” The solution that I proposed there is that parents come up with aligned lists, where the expertise is shared and where they are working not only from a shared vision, but also off the same literal, physical list.
There are four kinds of lists that my husband and I found invaluable: the first are lists of standard supplies, and the second is a set of lists of rituals, how everyday things like getting ready for bed are done. The third is a master calendar and the fourth is a list of family rules. Before I begin, however, I need to issue this disclaimer. My husband in previewing this post said, “It makes us sound like we had our shit together. We were crazy, hanging on by our nails all the time.” He is right. This is what worked for us most of the time. But life with kids was still an insane and joyful ride.
Let me start with the easiest first: standard supplies. The obvious one is a pantry list: the list of standard food items and supplies that we needed to keep on hand at all times. We agreed on five “standard” meals that both of us could make and that both of our children liked and a list of snacks that both parents found easy and nutritious. The ingredients for those meals and snacks were on the list along with our standards like paper towels and toilet paper. We went so far as to list the brand names of certain items so that there was never a “But that is the kind of goldfish Mommy buys.” A pantry list allows either parent to pick up the absolute necessities. This may sound like a small thing, but it is frustrating and disempowering to be the parent who always makes the list or the parent who stands helplessly in a grocery aisle unsure of what your spouse meant by an item on the list.
One more important lists for making both parents look and feel like experts was the “Kid-Bag” list. Each parent carried with him or her a bag containing an emergency snack rations, water bottles, baby-wipes, stain stick, Band-aids, Neosporine, safety pins, and some sort of back-up entertainment toy or book. The list for the Kid-Bag changed as the children aged, so we regularly revisited the list and made a habit of refilling/restocking our bags at the same time so we were equally prepared. Another kind of bag, the Emergency Bag, which had a complete change of clothing, a blanket and duplicates of things in the Kid-Bag and each parent kept an Emergency Bag in the trunk of his or her car.
We also had lists of standard supplies for the diaper bags when our foster-daughter was a baby, and for the older children’s back-packs (on the back of the backpack list was a list of contraband items.) We had a list for the supplies needed for each extracurricular activity such as swim-class. We also had lists for visits to the beach or theme park, a car-trip, weekends with grandparents or non-custodial parents. We laminated these lists and put them inside the bags.
The second kind of lists that we made described the procedures for every-day activities like getting ready for school. My husband has a military background and these became known as SOP lists (standard operating procedures). The great part of SOP lists is that they not only make sure both parents are on the same page, they allow even young children to become part of the process.
There were four standard things that we had SOP lists for: getting up (these are the things that are done every morning even on summer vacation), leaving the house, coming home, and bedtime. The morning list included washing a child’s face, eating breakfast, putting on clothes, putting away pajamas, brushing teeth, brushing hair and so forth. The list for leaving the house included things like putting on shoes and cold-weather gear, grabbing the back-pack, lunch and so forth. The list for coming home included what to do with back-packs, with lunch-boxes where to put coats and shoes. And the bed-time list included all the standard things like brushing teeth, and putting on pajamas as well as things like picking out stuffed animal companions and putting dirty clothes in the hamper.
When we started using these lists our kids were too young to read. So we used pictures. We bought clear envelopes with grommets at the office supply store and hung the lists in places where they were most used. Not only did this make sure that my husband and I were on the same page, it allowed our children to participate and have a sense of control over their lives.The kids loved using the picture lists. They would point to the item as they went off to do it, and then received a bunch of praise when it was done.
We used the lists for our infant foster-daughter. I would caution that some parents might feel demeaned by having a list for how to get a baby ready for the day. But even I, the expert, found these lists helpful. You would not believe how many times I forgot the obvious and was reminded by a list. On top of that, it allowed my husband and I to agree on what was really necessary. “Brush hair into adorable whale-spout and secure with matching ribbon” is not truly necessary. However, “check crib to make sure none of the bedding is wet” is an important morning ritual that I often forgot. Nothing is worse than being about to place a sleeping baby in her crib when you realize that it smells like the inside of a diaper pail.
Another kind of list that saved our sanity was a chore procedure list: it allows everyone to know what “doing the dishes” actually means. Does it mean simply washing dirty dishes, or does it also include wiping down the table and the countertops? You can solve the problem of where things go by taking pictures of things put in their proper places and posting the picture on the inside of cabinet doors. More than anything, the list of nightly chores allowed us to both have ownership over the nightly rituals of child-care and the chores of household management. It changes the dynamic in an undefinable way when what has to be done is on the list not in anyone’s head. It gives both parents ownership and the ability to self-direct. My husband wasn’t “helping me out.” He was pulling with me, working towards a goal we had agreed on.
One area where parental alignment can get a bit tough is in dressing a child. Parents can have very different senses of styles, and I have often heard mothers complain that they simply cannot let their children walk out of the house if they have been dressed by their fathers. The best way I know of handling this when children are young is to agree on outfits and then store them as bundles – folding socks inside of pants inside of a shirt. The entire bundle goes through the washer and dryer together and is rebundled before being put back into a drawer. If you discover that the parent who is folding clothes has difficulty remembering the components of an outfit, digital pictures in the laundry room are a quick and easy way of keeping things together.
Even if outfit-bundles didn’t help with aligned parenting, I would recommend them because they dramatically simplify the laundry process. The trick is that outfit bundles have to be created with the simplified laundry process in mind. That means that red coveralls and a white shirt may be a poor choice. Sweaters and other delicates that require handwashing have to be reserved for the most special of occasions because they can mire a laundry process.
As children enter their pre-school and early grade-school years, bundled outfits are particularly helpful. The children can be a part of the original creation of an outfit, and then children can pick between outfits rather than tearing through entire closets or chests of drawers to find one particular pair of pants that matches a favorite shirt.
The family calendar was the most helpful thing of all in allowing me to share the mental burden of parenting to my husband. On it I listed even the things that only I did, such as take the kids to swim practice. The importance of this, was that it allowed him to put together a nightly list of chores that had to be done in preparation for the next day. If he saw “swim practice” on the calendar, then “put together swim bags” would go on the list for that night and “empty swim bag and wash suits” would go on the next night’s list. If he saw on the calendar that the kids were due for a teeth cleaning that month, he could call and schedule the appointments. The List was transferred from my head, to paper, and eventually to his brain as well.
The last set of lists, the family rules, are perhaps the most difficult to create and to be consistent with. I don’t have any practical trick. What I do have is one piece advice: decide together what outcome you want. If one parent wants a compliant child and the other wants to raise a free-thinker, no list of rules or procedures will help. After you decide what you want, consult the experts and other parents to come up with a number of options for achieving that result.
Bed-times, for example, are one of the most hotly contested parenting ground. If you decide that you want to teach your child to respect parents’ needs for sleep and quiet time, and you want the child to learn to self-soothe, then you will work towards getting your child to sleep in his or her own bed. But you will need a wide variety of approaches to getting a child to sleep independently. No one parenting technique will work for all kids, and parents have varying levels of comfort with different techniques. So you want a number of options that both parents agree can be employed.