08/30/2013 06:40 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

How Important Are Routines for Young Children?

I just had a busy dad ask me this question. He and his wife work long hours, and they want to have some special time with their son when they all return home from busy days. I was going to write about this subject before, but now I have decided to address this to both stay-at-home parents as well as working parents. I am not addressing weekend activities, as everyone needs some recovery time from their busy weeks.

The flurry of our lives always brings to mind the issue of the child's needs. How do we hold on to those few precious hours in the evening and still offer our children routines that will contribute to successful days at school? The answer is the same for all children. By knowing what to expect, many hours of negotiating can be put on hold so that the time gets spent meaningfully.

When a child gets home from school, he or she is almost always in need of a good snack. This snack should not include TV time, as this is a great time to talk about the day or simply relax. (TV time is a subject that I will address in another blog.) After snack time, your child should do whatever homework or activity is needed to prepare for the next school day.

By this time, it should be time for dinner, after which your child will be ready for a bath, story and bedtime. If you try to do homework after dinner or bath, your child will be feeling too tired to approach it. The food satisfies their hunger and the warm bath water comforts their muscles, so their bodies will be asking for rest.

If you come home right at dinnertime, which is the case for those parents who work and who pick their children up from after-care later in the day, the same is true, only snack time and play time before dinner is limited. Basically, the recipe for a school night needs to be: snack, play, dinner, bath, stories and bed time. Or: short play time, dinner, bath, stories and bedtime. It is the quality of your time together that really counts, not the number of hours spent together. Most importantly, your child will have a solid expectation of what happens next, and the transition home will feel much smoother.

I once read about a study that was done at Harvard many years ago. The incoming, high-functioning students were asked to fill out long pages of questions regarding their lives before college. After a long processing of the information given, the people conducting the survey discovered only ONE common factor between all of the students. They all reported that they ate dinner together with their families each night. Their backgrounds were diverse, their socioeconomic status was varied and they came from all kinds of families -- a mother and father, two mothers, two fathers, single parents, etc. This underlines my belief that those minutes spent discussing your days or sharing information about all kinds of subjects at the dinner table is far more important than we thought!

In my family, we usually began with "What was the best thing that happened to you today?" or "What made your day different today from yesterday?" Sometimes with young children, the conversation can yield silliness or giggles, but it is in the sharing of this time that children feel the connection through the loving interest of those around them. Telephones are not answered, televisions and computers are off, and the business of being together is paramount. Whether you are a 35-year-old or a 5-year-old, it is a time to be heard. Try it for a while and you just might find out some important new things about those whom you love!