How to Establish New Family Routines for the Sake of Holiness

My first suggestion in creating a new family routine is to begin with prayer.

Gustav Wentzel, “Breakfast II: The Artist’s Family,” 1885
Gustav Wentzel, “Breakfast II: The Artist’s Family,” 1885 (photo: Public Domain)

A mother of many children recently asked me how I would go about establishing a plan of regular family dinners and a smooth bedtime routine when none had been established before. I was stumped for a day, because in our home we have always been intentional about routine, family dinners and bedtime. Further, once a habit of disorder is established, it is extremely hard to pull oneself out of the rut. A parent wishing to change a routine must immediately change from not enforcing a routine to following through every time. It requires great fortitude and perseverance, and while one could do it on one’s own, the help of grace can ease the way.

The Need for Change

The novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen gives an example of what family life looks like when parents do not exert the effort to have a routine of discipline. The Bennet sisters were raised following their own devices. Fortunately for them, the elder two, Elizabeth and Jane had dispositions more naturally inclined to seek order and virtue in their lives. They saw the disorder in their younger sisters and wished that their parents had done better. A passage from the novel of Elizabeth’s reflections demonstrates the disorder in the family:

In [Elizabeth’s] own past behavior, there was a constant source of vexation and regret; and in the unhappy defects of her family, a subject of yet heavier chagrin. They were hopeless of remedy. Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters; and her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely insensible to the evil. Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavor to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement?

The unchecked behavior of Lydia leads to a near ruin of the family reputation. In any family that lacks virtue forming routine and discipline, some children will grow up more wild and others will find their way to virtue because of natural inclinations. However, Catholic parents have a duty to raise their children with a foundation and formation towards the path of holiness. We do this not just out of duty, but out of love for our children’s souls. When we discover a disorder in our upbringing of our children, it is time to implement a change. And because the Lord is always offering grace, improvement for us and our families is never hopeless.


Three Things Before You Start

My first suggestion in creating a new family routine, in order to change a whole family dynamic, is to begin with prayer. A novena to the Holy Family would be a good choice. Or one could pray a Novena to Sts. Louis and Zèlie Martin, who raised five daughters who all became holy nuns (including St. Thérèse of Lisieux). Their feast day is coming up on July 12! I have personally seen prayers to both families bear great fruit in marriages and families.

My second suggestion is to get a dinner bell. My grandmother always called her seven children and husband to the dinner table with a loud bell that could be heard throughout their sprawling house. My house is not as large, but my children know that the pleasant ringing of our dinner bell means that I want them in the kitchen. It brings them in from outside in the neighborhood, down in our finished basement, or from their bedrooms. It is a simple, effective way to communicate that I need them all to come without me having to yell for them. 

My third suggestion is to impress upon your family from the time the dinner bell rings to when children go to bed is “family” time. I know this is only practical in families without evening activities, but on evenings where there are activities, family time begins as soon as everyone is home. And if only some children are away, stick with the routine for those at home. This means children may not leave the table until everyone is finished eating. This means there is no more playtime after dinner. This means that everyone stays together through the cleaning of the kitchen, to getting ready for bed, to bedtime prayer, and a bedtime story (which I highly recommend even for children who can read on their own).

Establishing the New Routine

Next, it is time to make a schedule. I will continue with the family dinner and bedtime routine. Now, it is hard for anyone to have an exact set dinner time. So, pick a window of start time, say 5:30-6:00 p.m., but then have no time expectations after that, perhaps until the time you want them in bed, such as 8:30-9:00 p.m. Then consider what you want to happen in that time frame.

This is a sample bedtime routine:

  1. Dinner is almost ready. Ring the bell.
  2. Have all of the children (who are old enough, so three and up) help set the table.
  3. Pray a prayer to the Holy Family asking them to help your family grow in holiness. It does not have to be a written prayer, just something from your heart.
  4. Say a meal blessing and all sit down together. 
  5. When the meal is over, everyone should work together to clean the kitchen and dining area. Assign a chore to each kid according to their ability. Chore ideas include: clearing table, putting away leftovers, wiping table and counters, sweeping under the table and in the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, handwashing any dishes that cannot be put in the dishwasher, and drying and putting away handwashed dishes.
  6. When the kitchen is clean, the children who cooperate may have a small dessert (without making a mess).
  7. After dessert the children put on pajamas and brush their teeth.
  8. When they are ready for bed, they may read a book in the family room until prayer time. 
  9. Begin family prayer time when everyone is ready. Pray the novena of your choice. Have the children after you have modeled, apologize for something to the family that they have done that day and thank the Lord for one good thing that day.
  10. After prayer time, do a read a loud story. (In establishing this routine, I highly recommend not having any screen time. Screens disrupt the creation of melatonin which is an essential part of a bedtime routine.)
  11. When the story is finished, all the children need to use the toilet one last time, and then go to bed. Older ones may read a book in bed until they are ready to sleep.

The mother who asked me about forming a family dinner routine is on the right path. She has seen a lack in her family, and a small thing such as a routine of family dinner can create a foundation of a family life more ordered to holiness. Establishing a new routine requires much effort. An example of this is in potty training, an activity that no parent can put off forever. Some of my children have been successful after a day or two of learning to use the toilet, while others required weeks of reminding and following through to the point that when the child was able to use the toilet independently, I was completely exhausted with keeping up on it. But then there is that one day looking back, when you have not changed that child’s diaper in weeks and it is all worth it.

So, when parents set out to create a new family routine, they have to realize that it is going to be a lot like potty training. There will be a struggle of wills. There will be accidents and messes to clean up. It will be exhausting, but in the end when the routine is established, it will be worth it. A family has a new chance every single day to get this routine down.

If you fail day after day after day, know that it is worth persevering in. For establishing this one place of family time, what some might call a little space to imitate the Holy Family during the hidden years in Nazareth, will do wonders for your family life. It will spill over into the rest of your day. And when you realize that you cannot do this without grace, that you are helpless to follow through without the Lord, you do not have to worry that your family will never establish the routine. All good things are possible with the Lord.

Dear Lord, we thank you for the gift of our families. We ask you to bless us and pour your grace into our families so that we can become more like the Holy Family. Give us the mercy of your Sacred Heart, the longsuffering of the Immaculate Heart, and the devoted care of the Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph. Help us look to the model of family life in them and in the families of saints that lived like them. Help us to help each other on the path to Heaven. Amen.