12 Tips for a Happier Home, Adapted from Nursery School.

One of my resolutions is to Treat myself like a toddler. I’ve found that much of the advice aimed at children is just as helpful for me.

For instance, I’m reading Nicole Malenfant’s Routines and Transitions: A Guide for Early Childhood Professionals (non sequitur:  a surprising name for a childhood expert). She lays out several strategies for teachers to use in establishing routines and transitions for children. I’m going to try to apply them to myself.

Here’s a tips list, loosely adapted:

  1. Turn routines into games. My evening tidy-up, while not quite a “game,” is kind of fun and quite relaxing.
  2. Control the level of noise. I’m much calmer when there’s no TV or music playing in the background.  (Except at night. Weirdly, my husband and I fall asleep to all-news radio.)
  3. Organize space so it’s attractive, well organized, and well lit. One of my most important Secrets of Adulthood: Outer order contributes to inner calm.
  4. Plan times each day for relaxing activities. Why is this so hard for adults?
  5. Encourage a feeling of belonging, e.g., by displaying children’s work and pictures. I have a resolution to Cultivate a shrine.
  6. Consider children’s reactions when making an unavoidable change. I do better with routines and predictability. I don’t react well when there’s a sudden change in the schedule.
  7. Balance indoor and outdoor activities. Just going outside into the sunlight gives a mood boost.
  8. Make sure there’s plenty of time to get things done without rushing. This makes a huge difference in my day-to-day happiness. In Happier at Home, I write a lot about my struggle to create an unhurried atmosphere at home.
  9. Provide opportunities for curiosity and creativity.
  10. Speak in a calm voice. This is a big issue in my home. We talk all the time about “a kind voice,” “a mean voice.”
  11. Explain the behavior you’d like to see in a clear, respectful way. Not “Settle down,” but “Sit in your chair with your feet under your desk.” Not “I could use a little help around here,” but “Please unload the dishwasher so we can get the dirty dishes out of the sink.”
  12. Meet people’s basic needs. Children and adults need to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, rest, and spend time outside.

It’s such a cliche to say that “I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten,” but I find that sometimes the most basic ideas are quite effective.

What would you add to this list? What lessons from nursery school?


  • I would say the importance of sharing. I watched the documentary Happy and they talked a lot about how happiness comes from being in a community, which kindergarten is. The most interesting thing was they said that the most happiness comes not from having someone give you extra, but being able to share the extra that you have.

    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting. I agree with the idea of community, absolutely—a feeling of belonging and participation.

      About sharing: I’ve heard that it’s easier for children to understand “Taking turns” than “Sharing.” Sharing is pretty hard for children and also adults. But taking turns is clearly “fair” and children (and adults) very much want things to be fair.

      • Hmm, well in the documentary it was about trading off nights making dinner and things like that, so maybe “taking turns” is a little more apt. But in that example, it was also about sharing your extra resources: crops from your garden, etc. I think a lot of it is an “abundance” mentality, versus a “scarcity” mentality. Most people today believe they don’t have enough, so they hoard everything, which leads to unhappiness. Once you start to be more generous, it reinforces the feeling that you have more than enough, which can lead to happiness.

  • Doug Johnson

    Where is nap? I want my nap…..

    • Nicola

      That was #4, couched in the phrase “relaxing activities”. Even when I supervised naptimes, the minimum asked for was to lie down quietly and rest. For most of us, that means a short sleep, i.e. nap.

  • Floss Heal

    It’s a great list! One thing I would add is the sense of ‘ownership’ and being involved in planning. I work with all ages (4 – 60) and nearly everyone prefers being told that there’s a variety of things to do and they can choose the order of how they do them. It certainly gives children that sense of control and ‘ownership’, and helps them to get involved rather than rebel.

    A second suggestion is to put instructions in visual form rather than spoken. For toddlers, a set of symbols they can order to show when they’re going to do each task. For my teenaged sons, a cheerful list on the whiteoard of things they have to get done in the day (eg. homework, piano, wash car, have fun) is much better than trying to get their attention and telling them to do things verbally. Less nagging, as you say yourself.

    • Meg R

      Ah, Visual Instructions. I am a visual learner and it is so hard for me to hold it all in my head without visual aids . . . . have fun is such a good idea.

    • Aha! We’re having problems with toothbrushing at the moment. He loves to read a little bit and loves the idea of doing steps. I just need to draw up a toothbrushing step-by-step guide and all our troubles will be over!

    • Nicole Placek Tankovich

      Oh yes, I’ve learned the value of carefully crafted options with my 3 yo (and my husband). I never ask “do you want to get dressed?” or “what color shirt?”; instead I say “Okay, time to get dressed! Do you want to put on your pants or shirt first? I’ve got two awesome shirts here – which one do you want to wear?”. Everything needs done, but the order is under his control.

  • Leslie H.

    I just want to express my epiphany with #11. I am vague about my expectations and then frustrated when I don’t get what I asked for. Picturing a teacher saying, “Put your feet under your desk” instead of “Settle down” put it together for me. And I’m not talking about using this with children, as mine are grown, but with adults from whom I ask help. Thank you!

  • Sadye

    I hated napping as a kid and never was able to take any until a few years after college. Now, even when I don’t fall asleep at all, I just find lying down for about half an hour with my eyes shut to be so refreshing and calming — especially when a pet cat decides to hop up and cuddle!

  • Veronique

    As a former Kindergarten teacher I would add…play nicely! It encompasses so much in life.

  • When my youngest daughter was in nursery school, I absolutely loved spending time there. I think perhaps this list points to the reason. It was well-organized, tidy, predictable, cheerful and fun. Processes and routines had been well thought out, so everything just seemed to flow well. The children were almost always happy, as were the adults. There are certainly ideas that could be applied to home!

  • Jennifer Howell

    I used to be a nanny and I think these tips are brilliant! I’m surprised I don’t use them more in my own life, but the ones I do use certainly help me a great deal!

  • Don’t underestimate the need for rest — I’ve discovered that things that stress me out are often much more managable after a good night’s sleep or a nap…

  • MJ

    create visual space everywhere possible, in the clothes closet, on a bookshelf, under the sink, anywhere a bit of real estate can be found or created. This one practice fills me with calm and anticipation…..

  • Eighty Twenty Project

    I love the idea of making cleaning up into a game! There is no more heinous chore as an adult (except maybe going to the dentist), but I find if I attribute game-like qualities to it – setting a time limit, singing, telling myself it’s fun – it goes a lot faster.

    • Sometimes we like to throw the toys into the box. Most toys wins!

  • Great analogy. I like the limited noise idea, it can get aggressive sometimes. Also I like quiet time. A time where you leave the computer, the TV, and concentrate on yourself, to rest, think, meditate… or sleep.

  • spacymd

    An enlightening simple approach. If we do what we teach our children we would all be better off. I am definitely applying #11 and 8 into my routine.

  • Nicole Placek Tankovich

    Label where things belong. I saw that my son’s preschool has where the toys, supplies, etc. go labeled with text and pictures – so the kids can put things away. I did this at home for almost everything. It saves so much time when someone else is looking for stuff… or if someone wants to help clean up.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! A friend of mine has labeled the place for just about everything. It’s weirdly satisfying – and means that others have no excuse for not helping to put things away.

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  • Mickey

    These are great tips! I might add a little plan to make life sweeter and richer each day (this might go along with plan relaxing activities). I noticed that my sisters with kids really put in effort to do seasonal, fun things that the kids will enjoy, along with the work and obligations of the day. A drive around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights, a kid-friendly carol-sing, making cookies, museum trips, short hikes, trips to the playground or ice skating, planning a little party … these are all things I would kind of overlook as an adult in favor of getting the “important” stuff done. But then I realized my sisters were having so much more fun than me, and I could do the same things without kids (except maybe the playground).

    • Mamacita

      I was just going to add something like this. I realized that I schedule all kinds of enriching things for my kids (that they don’t always appreciate–especially now that they’re teens). So I’ve recently decided that I can do all of that stuff if I want to. And I don’t have to drag any whiners along with me.