The Universal Mom Cry of “Put On Your Shoes:” Blame the Brain

This morning, as always, I swooped through the morning routine with the well-oiled efficiency of a Mom Machine. This morning, as always, my children (ages 6 and 8 – perfectly capable little people) required the same repeated prompts they hear EVERY MORNING. As I was ushering them upstairs to brush their teeth with under 5 minutes to get out of the house, they continued to engage in whatever important game they were playing with a jump rope.

Do you hear my voice?

Do you hear the words I am saying to you?

In the six years of having at least a 2-year-old in the house to get ready, I have pleaded with these very words in an infinite loop.

The 6-year-old finally runs into the bathroom semi-obediently and I hurriedly run the comb through her tangles and she starts sobbing with unnecessary drama. The 8-year-old continues to dangle the jump rope over the stair railing, with no indication of movement to come brush her teeth. I get close to her and repeat that she needs to brush her teeth. She doesn’t move. This? Consider my button pushed. I grab the jump rope even as she maintains her iron grip and I say I will throw it in the trash if she is unable to follow directions. Now it’s my moment of unnecessary drama.

As if reminding me I can be a totally ineffective parent, she drops the jump rope, stomps away, and slams her BEDROOM door. Not bathroom, bedroom . . . at the same moment we need to walk out the FRONT door. I open her door and for the sake of time, keep my lecture short and we are able to miraculously get out of the house, with only one set of teeth brushed and a jump rope dangling in defeat over the downstairs railing. At least both children have on their shoes.

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I have been trained to view all child behaviors through a developmental lens, and I use this every single day in my work. But my years of school and training geared towards understanding the inner workings of children -- and over a decade working with children actually sharing with me their inner workings -- did not prepare me for getting out of the house with my own children.

What is this madness? We do the same thing every morning. Repetition is supposed to teach habits. When we walk out the door in the 15-degree winter morning and the 6-year-old says “where are my gloves?” I don’t understand. We do this every morning.

I dug out one of my favorite parenting books, All Joy and No Fun, which actually explains this phenomenon in a way that make sense. The brain’s prefrontal cortex controls our organization and behavior, which affects our attention. In preschool-age children, this area of the brain is barely developed, which results in what psychologist Alison Gopnik refers to as the “lantern” effect of attention (taking in the 360 of their environment instead of focusing on one part), combined with an inability to think of the future.

We adults are very future-thinking (“we need to get to school”) and we have a “spotlight” attention (focusing on each step of the process at a time to move towards leaving the house). In total opposition to our brains, young children focus solely on the present AND have this “lantern” attention (eg, the toy on the floor consumes attention originally directed to put on shoes).This helps me take some perspective . . . when I have the presence of mind to use it.

The two culprits this morning were older than preschoolers, but it helps me remember their brains have not caught up to mine in ways that come out in these day-to-day frustrations. Unfortunately, to be good brain research, the studies have to be very controlled and specific in a way that does not always translate to real life. There is no study that zeroes in on what is happening in a child's brain when asked to put on shoes the first time versus the seventh, or putting dirty socks in the hamper without twenty reminders, and how we can improve those brain functions, but I have some great participants ready to be studied!

I have children I consider to be brilliant – they are model students, they constantly outsmart us parents, and they impress us with insightful questions about the world. But if left to their own devices (apparently, their brains), they would be wandering the streets shoeless with rats-nest hair, backpacks and lunches left behind, starting their school day starving and unprepared. I guess that’s why they have parents with parent-sized brains, and the more I can remember that, maybe the smoother some mornings may be. No promises.