With children, you never know what they’re going to do on any given day. No wonder you need some great family rules!
Case in point: A few days ago, my husband and I came home from a trip with some chocolates that I’m really looking forward to. Even though we don’t do a lot of sweets for the kids, we also got them a few chocolate covered pretzels and let them have a piece the night we got back into town. So my kids knew there was chocolate on the counter.
I came to the kitchen yesterday to see that Bella Bean, my three year old (and scrounger), was about to get into the candy. I moved it to the top of the fridge (where they couldn’t reach even with a stool) and then put all three kids to bed.
The next morning, we got up and I started getting dressed. I noticed a suspicious quiet (you know what I’m talking about, parents of toddlers).
So I walked into the kitchen, and what do I see but three kids hovering near the fridge, where there is a chair topped by a stool! I’m not sure how much chocolate each kid got, but I know that Budrow Wilson’s face was smeared with it (hey, at least she shared!).
Fortunately, everyone was safe and no one fell. And of course we told our little girl that it is so not okay to stack stools on top of chairs to climb up the fridge.
But big picture, what’s my game plan? Do I just be passive about the situation? Of course not!
Do I need to create a new rule stating “Don’t stack stools on top of chairs for climbing,” and post it on my wall?
I’d argue not. We’ve talked before about how there are more options than just being permissive or being strict and authoritarian. Family rule creation falls into the same guidelines.
Too many rules can just be confusing for little ones and overwhelming for parents. So how do can you make only a few rules that will cover pretty much any scenario your family runs across?
What ideas did I use to create our family rules?
I struggled at first to design our family rules. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted the rules to be, I did have ideas for how they should serve our family.
1. Rules should support overarching values for the family.
What core values do we want to instill in our family? For us, it was love, respect, trust, and cooperation. Others you may want to focus on include:
And the list goes on. I definitely want all these values for my family too, but I chose to narrow in on the first four. Therefore, our rules emphasize these ideas.
2. Rules should give your children a lens through which to view the world.
How do I want my kids to see their role? I want them to know they are contributing members of the family, and that they will one day be contributing members to our global society. “Don’t chew with your mouth full,” while something that’s good to teach your kids, doesn’t prepare them to have an impact on those around them.
3. Rules should encourage children to be their best selves.
I wanted my rules to set expectations for my kids. Yes, they’d be expectations that would challenge them (and myself at times!), but they’d give my children something to aspire to.
At the same time, setting out punishments didn’t seem like the role of rules for our family. “When we hit, then we sit,”doesn’t seem so much like a rule to me as much as a consequence.
Worse, this “rule” sets the expectation that hitting will happen! I know that we will encounter some occasional hitting in our home of three children (have you ever met a three-year old?), but I’d rather create a rule that points to our aspirations instead of our failings.
4. Rules should grow with your family.
While “Don’t climb up the refrigerator to get to Mommy’s chocolate” seems like a good rule at the moment, there will come a day where this scenario is irrelevant. After all, one day Bella Bean will be old enough to reach above the fridge without a chair, and maybe one day I won’t have to hide chocolate to enjoy it!
Again, I want overarching guidelines that all our more detailed “no-nos” will fit under as we need them, but then we can shed those and come up with new ones (curfews, perhaps?) as the kids get older.
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What rules did we decide upon?
After a lot of consideration, we ended up with only three:
1. We treat others with kindness and respect.
This is our first rule for a reason. Whatever we do, we need to treat others with kindness and respect.
This rule applies to any scenario, with any other person. Is my oldest talking rudely to her sister? We treat others kindly and with respect.
Do we have a classmate who is upset? How can we show them kindness and respect?
Are you refusing to obey and get pajamas on? We treat our parents with respect.
Notice that we didn’t include obedience as an official family rule. Maybe obedience is really important to you, so if that’s a rule you want, that’s fine. But again, I wanted our rules to grow with our children. When kids are this young, yes, respect and obedience generally are two sides of the same coin. But this won’t always be the case. One day, our kids won’t be under us anymore, but we hope that they still respect us.
And the rules apply to my husband and me too! I strive to show respect to my children in hopes that this instills a desire in them to respect me too, even when they’re adults and no longer in our house.
2. We treat ourselves with kindness and respect.
While very small children might not be ready to understand this rule, we teach it to them by how we treat them.
When your newborn is screaming for hours on end, yet you’re still there with him, holding him through the internal storm, you’re teaching him that he’s worthy of kindness and respect.
When your toddler is being an absolute disaster, and rather than scream at her, you say, “I’m so sorry this is hard for you” and let her release all those pent-up big feelings, you’re showing her that she’s worthy of kindness and respect.
But even as young four or five years old, this rule is starting to be teachable.
When my five-year old gets frustrated and says “I can’t do it!” about a new skill, I can remind her to be gentle with herself. We treat ourselves with kindness and respect.
And this idea will only become more important as my kids get older.
How will my child view herself when she bombs a test in middle school? We treat ourselves with kindness and respect.
What happens when my teenager is on a date and is getting pressure for something he or she isn’t ready for? I am worthy of respect.
But guess who this is rule is hardest for right now? Hint: It’s not the kids!
Am I trying to do all the things and wearing myself out? My body and mind are worthy of kindness and respect.
Am I having a really hard time controlling my emotions when I’m low on sleep because the baby is teething and the toddler is sick? I can treat myself with kindness and compassion.
Am I down on myself because somehow I haven’t found time to lose that last bit of baby weight while holding down a full-time job and taking care of three kids? We treat ourselves with kindness and respect.
And by modeling loving-kindness and respect for ourselves in front of our children, they are much more likely to foster it for themselves.
3. Families help each other.
This rule instills a healthy sense of responsibility in my children. This rule is my go-to for chores!
General Leia, flopping and rolling around on floor: But I don’t want to put my clothes in the drawer!
Me, in an obnoxiously cheerful tone: Well baby, families help each other! I washed all these clothes, so I need you to help me put them up.
And the kids know this rule! The other day, Leia wanted Bella Bean to do something, and when B. Bean refused, Leia said, “But families help each other!” Afterwards, Bella complied.
While invoking “families help each other” was a stretch for whatever game Leia wanted to play, I was glad to hear that this value has been instilled in my girls!
My runner-up sub-rules:
These rules exist as part of the three main ones, but I use them often enough that I thought they would be useful to mention:
Sisters are for loving. Corollary: Sisters aren’t for hitting. No explanation needed.
We always try new foods. Check out this post on encouraging kids to try foods for a whole bunch of ideas on working with your picky eater!
We clean up our own messes. Whether my kids spill something or accidentally pee the floor, they know that to expect a matter-of-fact “We clean up our own messes.” Do they do a sufficient job on their own? Usually not. They’re five and under! Are they learning to take responsibility? Yes, so that’s totally worth the extra work that their help usually entails.
RELATED: How to give your kids a growth mindset
Want help getting your kids to cooperate with these rules?
Making up rules is one thing, but it’s a whole ‘nother ball game to get your kids to comply!
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