The Importance of a Flexible Routine
Back when I started having babies, I didn’t know there were two schools of thought about breastfeeding. I lived in a third world country and everyone breastfed. It was free, always available, didn’t need refrigeration or reheating, and everyone around me was “doing it.” You nursed a baby when the baby cried or was hungry or needed to sleep. That’s what I was told; that’s what I did. I didn’t know moms who put babies on a schedule.
Then we came to the states for two years and my friends told me that I should schedule feedings and not let the baby get the upper hand, that babies on schedules slept better and were happier. Except that my baby was happy and we slept together and it went well enough, it seemed to me. While I know plenty of moms and kids who have used a scheduling format and their children have grown up to be healthy, happy young adults, I have never regretted not being a scheduling mom.
Still, there are some moms who are adamant that demand-feeding nearly destroyed their well-being, making them feel like slaves to their children. I didn’t experience that and I’ve thought a lot about why. My conclusions mirror how I see the idea of “flexible routine” in the homeschool.
Schedules appeal because they are predictable. There’s comfort in knowing what comes next in the day, every day. We all need some structure (it’s why meals are morning, noon and evening, not just whenever you feel hungry).
So it isn’t structure per se, that is the enemy.
The question becomes: what kind of structure is most
nurturing to your personality, your kids’ needs, and your lifestyle?
In my home, breastfeeding followed a kind of intuitive pattern that matched each of the five babies (that also shifted and adapted to new routines and patterns as the baby became a nursing toddler and eventually weaned). I could predict with some degree of accuracy when that baby would want to nurse and I’d be able to organize the day knowing that there was the “first thing in the morning” feeding, followed by a mid-morning feeding, followed by the post lunch feed, followed by nursing around dinner time, and so on.
It wasn’t so much that I wrote it all out and checked the clock. It’s that over time, I could see a pattern emerge. When it was between the usual times and the baby was fussy, I didn’t necessarily start with nursing. I tried other distractions and so on. But if baby bumped his head, of course I would nurse the baby, even if he had just been fed a few moments before!
The key term shift for me was from scheduled vs. demand feeding, to flexible routine feedings instead. My breastfeeding relationship with a baby followed a predictable pattern (one I could detect and foster), yet could be altered if circumstances warranted it.
With homeschool, a similar style works well for us. Scheduling our days so that each hour has a specific task didn’t work so well. When I created a daily, hourly schedule, I mostly felt guilty for falling behind. It seemed that if we were supposed to have our read-aloud time at 10:00, but we couldn’t find the book, we were now “off-schedule” and an urgency to get back “on schedule” took over. If a dental appointment slowed our reading pace (so many pages, by a certain date), then we were battling to squeeze in extra reading to “catch up.”
The one time I successfully enforced a schedule for an entire semester (when I really did have five kids under 9), Noah woke up one morning and said, “I hate my life.” It was the wake-up call I needed. We had managed to get our work done, to follow that schedule, to keep up with the demands of reading, workbooks, writing and math problems despite life’s natural intrusions. I felt great, but he was miserable.
That was a turning point for me. I realized that enforcing a program was less effective than enriching our lives. At about that time, I discovered Charlotte Mason (no “demand-feeding” style instructor was she!). Yet her vision of a full, rich, day-with-free-time lifestyle caught my attention. What if we simply chose to include certain activities and areas of focus in our lives each week, in a flexible, yet predictable pattern? Could we, for instance, read poetry every week? We could pick a day for it but not worry so much about what time of day.
The idea would be: We’ll read poetry once a week on Tuesdays when everyone is calm enough to read together. I discovered early on that drinking tea at the same time brought that calmness to the table.
Could we look at art once a week? I started to bring art books home from the library, left them out, would page through them on my own in the evenings (drawing the attention of the kids). I hung prints and identified the artists over breakfast. I took everyone to an art museum. Then we took a hour a week to draw or read or flip through an art book.
What about math? I’m not so good at intuitive math instruction. So we continued with math books, several pages each day. But I didn’t pick the time. We’d simply be sure that at some point in the day, “math got done.” When they were younger, it worked to have them do it in staggered stages so I could help each kid. Now that they’re older, it’s easier to do it all at the same time (provides morale and support).
Read-aloud time became the centerpiece of every day. It signaled that we had eaten breakfast, had all become clothed, had brushed teeth. Once those tasks were finished, we gathered in a group in the family room. I would read. And often nurse someone (and sometimes a baby wouldn’t nurse if I read, so I would have to have read-aloud time during a nap period instead). Still, each day’s read-aloud time reassured us that we were making progress, that we had been together in a meaningful way, that education had happened. It didn’t matter if it happened at 9:00 a.m. every morning. It mattered that it usually happened, most days, in the morning, after breakfast and brushed teeth.
A flexible routine is slowly cultivated.
It doesn’t spring into existence in a book you keep. It’s the patient adding of “what works,” “what needs to be done,” and “what interests” to your lifestyle over a period of time.