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At home, our kids' lives (3 and 7 months) are fairly well-defined, in terms of when events happen. Waking up, meals, naps, bath, bedtime - except for a little slacking on the mornings on weekends (only for the 3yo! the infant still gets her milk on time), the times at which these things happen don't change much.

When I take the kids to visit my family, I find it hard to keep a consistent schedule - there's always something that we want to do, or someplace to go, that gets in the way. I also get the impression that they think I'm being overprotective, or anal-retentive, or something, because I try to keep to some sort of schedule.

So, my question is: does anybody know of any studies that examine how much "structure" (for lack of a better term) a child needs in its life in order to be healthy? And what are the effects of not keeping their lives on a pretty stable rhythm?

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Good question! As an aside (and thus, a comment), different people have different preferences for vacations. I prefer mine loose and unstructured. My wife prefers scheduling and structure. Neither is wrong, and short-term disruption of schedules while visiting family, vacationing, etc., won't undo any benefits your kids might receive from a more structured "normal" routine. –  Beofett Sep 24 '13 at 12:14
    
Yeah, one of my internal reasons for not worrying too much about stresses incurred when visiting family is that it adds a certain variety to their lives, which is generally a good thing so long as it's not (too) harmful. –  Kelsey Rider Sep 24 '13 at 12:58
    
Similarly, we are very unstructured, but with a range of consistent rules, so we can go anywhere at short notice eg camping with the kids in another country, and it doesn't upset them at all. This has helped the two eldest be prefects and leaders at their schools, as well as happy chilled out kids. –  Rory Alsop Sep 24 '13 at 15:27

2 Answers 2

The main ill effects are a sense of stress from the routine being disrupted, and being hungry or tired from not eating or resting when their body is accustomed. However, different children have different tolerances for variation. One of our daughters has an extreme need for routine, but our son seems to have almost no sense of time at all. Our other daughter is somewhere in between.

Even with our strict daughter, we can usually move things plus or minus an hour or so. For her, the order and manner we do things is more important than the exact time. Kids don't watch the clock, they pay attention to their internal signals. You should pay attention to their signals as well. If you force your baby to eat an hour before she's hungry enough, she's not going to eat as well, even if you time it precisely by the clock every single time. Schedules have to be based on the children's needs. They should be a tool for planning rather than an unassailable rule.

Not everyone knows what it's like to parent young children, and grandparents have often forgotten. Some people have a different parenting style. When you go on vacation, try to remember and communicate the underlying reasons for the schedule.

For example, most young children need a nap, but they don't need it to be exactly at 1 p.m. The time you chose for your schedule is based on other factors like when you woke up, when you had lunch, when you have to pick up other kids from school, etc. With those other factors changed or removed, a nap earlier or later in the day may be more convenient for the group and meet the children's needs just as well.

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They Both Work

It's the wrong question: your child can be healthy with lots of structure or almost none.

It's About Your Situation

It's a bit too specific to your situation to answer, as it all depends on whether or not you do need the structure to live yourself within your conditions.

Likewise, you may need structure in some circumstances and not others (say, if you don't work for a given period, take a sabbathical, go on holidays...).

Do you yourself always need structure? If you feel you do, then that's probably why you'd feel like you need it for your kids. But most likely, you need that structure for a personal reason, and not because of grander reason.

Recommendations

That being said, from what you wrote I'd say you need to allow a bit more flexibility in your routine, or at least in dealing with external events. For instance, you shouldn't worry if something gets in the way, especially when going about, or you'll start worrying a lot and the children will sense that as well, and it will be less enjoyable for you as well. It's important to also show that, while structure helps, adaptability is equally important.

Also, it depends what you mean that something "gets in the way". If it's just "family lunches take longer than planned and Mary is late for her nap" or other family-related activities that "delay" or "cancel" an element of a daily routine, I'd think (but that's personal, and they're your kids, so you know best) that's overreacting. Different interactions are good, and diversity is great for young kids and infants to discover the world. So let them look at it.

Baby Blues - 2000-04-20

Your Kids, Your Life, Your Rules

Now, about being called anal-retentive and such things no parents ever want to hear...

  • If nobody ever said it and you didn't hear it indirectly, then you worrying about it probably means you already feel like you might need pushing it a bit.
  • If someone ever told you, then maybe accept the criticism, all the while knowing that it's your life, your kids, and that you have to live it the way it works for you.

Oh Right, "Hard" Data

Note: to take with a grain of salt and read thoroughly before judging based on the title or abstracts only... While you could correlate parenting techniques to behaviors and successes appearing later in life, context and environment are too hard to control to imply a strong causation. That, plus any other possible bias research studies can always have and that you need to be on the lookout for (lobbying, personal biases, quality and diversity of study samples, etc...)

Also, some of these do not answer your question directly but bear a relation to the topic and how it affects other things, so I included them.

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