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The Family Bathroom Waltz

Some mornings are like this:

“Come on! Get out of there. I’ve got to leave for work in 10 minutes.” My daughter has been trying to get into the bathroom for the last half hour.

“Cool your jets! I’m coming!” That’s her younger brother who lately has been spending more time in there than she does. So much for the theory that it’s the girls who need a mirror.

“Hey. I need to get my makeup!” Daughter again, now banging on the door.

“Yeah, yeah.” He emerges, along with steam and the distinct odor of aftershave.

Younger sister giggles, dashes in, and slams the door while big sister is sneering at her brother. Other son stumbles out of his room, late as usual and half asleep, and bumps into big sister. She pulls rank. “Don’t even think about it. I’ve been waiting for like hours. . .”

“Mommmmm!” The appeal to a high court. I’ll ignore it, of course. Did I mention that I’m trying to get ready for work too?

For years, the upstairs bathroom has been the pivot point of morning activity at our house where 4 kids, 2 adults and some kind of pet rodent (gerbil, hamster, white rat, I lose track) try to live in reasonable harmony. We live in a 19th century farmhouse with a rabbit warren of little rooms, no closets, and, you guessed it, one bathroom. Oh, there’s a half bath off the kitchen on the first floor, but to teenagers who are all-the-way-upstairs, that might as well not exist. So the bathroom do-si-do is part of the morning routine.

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I love my old house, creaks and leaks and all. But I must admit I read with no small bit of envy those real estate ads for McMansions going up across town: “4 bedrms, 4 baths, master suite with Jacuzzi.” Then I think about the second job my husband and I would each have to take to support it and the effort it would take to get everyone to help clean it and oh well. But the idea of a higher person to bathroom ratio does have its charms.

Or does it? As much as an occasional morning feels like I’m living in a badly written and utterly predictable sitcom, most mornings really aren’t like that. Much of the time, in fact, most of the time, the routine around the bathroom is more like an intricately choreographed dance performed flawlessly by a troupe of pros.

The Daily Routine

My husband and I are the first up. We don’t mind sharing. As a matter of fact, lots of family information gets exchanged while one is brushing his or her teeth and the other is on the pot or in the shower. It’s not elegant but it organizes the day. We remind each other who needs to be where and what needs to get done. Management meeting and morning bathroom routines accomplished, the last one out calls into the room of our first born to announce vacancy and the second act of the dance begins.

For the next 45 minutes or so, kids waltz in and out of the bathroom, most of the time with no intersection at all. Each year they figure out the order of use, who can intrude on who, who needs more time, who can be in and out in a flash. There’s no need to talk about it, fight about it, or complain about it. Somehow the 6 of us have mastered the complicated routine so it usually goes without a hitch. Oh, the first week of a new semester has its bumps and any change in schedule can create momentary confusion but we figure it out pretty quick. (First days of vacations are less of a stretch as people want to sleep in anyway.) If someone oversleeps, it can wreak havoc on everyone else’s morning, but even that is a rare event.

It may be that I’m rationalizing but I’ve come to think that there’s valuable stuff going on around the lowly bathroom. Our kids are learning to share space and shampoo, to put the cap back on the toothpaste, and to clean up after themselves. They are learning to manage time and be efficient. They have had to figure out how to accommodate to each other and negotiate according to their individual needs, while still respecting that there are 5 other people to take into account. They’re learning to keep track of their belongings. (Eyeglasses or earrings left on the sink stay there for what can seem like hours if a kid of the other gender goes in the shower next.) They’ve even learned that sometimes it’s better to be flexible and go all-the-way-downstairs to use the half bath for last minute touch-ups instead of being pushy.

The kids are learning to be considerate and generous too. Sometimes, one person is under special stress or needs the confidence boost that comes with an extra few minutes at the mirror and the other kids give way. They’re learning that people who want to have a dry towel left for them better leave some for the other guys. People who want their ownership of some special shampoo respected better respect someone else’s equally special item. They’ve found that asking instead of taking works much better in the long run. I can’t think of a better way to teach that the “golden rule” has real meaning.

Our bathroom isn’t the portal to a different plane of reality so all this good stuff didn’t happen by magic. Their dad and I had to take time in the early years, and step in now and again over more recent ones, to teach lofty ideas like the value of taking turns, sharing, and being considerate. And it certainly has fallen on us to show them all that it can be done and should be done, even if one doesn’t feel like it at the time. But once those basic ideas and skills were established, the daily morning bathroom routine has provided lots and lots and lots of practice for how to be a civilized adult. Future roommates and partners will be grateful.

The Family Bathroom Waltz

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). The Family Bathroom Waltz. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.