by Mark Strobel, LCSW
Though not many kids would admit that they enjoy following rules, they all appreciate the structure that rules provide. Rules provide structure that helps children feel safe and secure. In addition, rules provide the expectations needed to help them understand and practice acceptable behaviors.
Without rules, children live in a state of chaos and disorder which typically invites conflict and behavior problems. In addition, children learn to take matters into their own hands instead of informing their parents of the misbehavior of others. Behaviors such as violence, stealing, and lying thrive in environments without structure.
Believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to establish household rules. This article identifies effective ways for parents to create effective household rules. The following are 10 specific principles that parents should follow when establishing household rules:
1. You should always involve your child when creating household rules. Children are more apt to follow rules when their input was included instead of when the rules were created solely by their parents.
2. The older your child, the more rules you would need. For a toddler, one rule would be appropriate. Specifically, a toddler should learn to follow the rule entitled, do as you are told. As your child grows older, you could include additional rules to meet his/her growing needs.
3. If your child has difficulty reading, it would be appropriate for you to draw a picture next to each rule to help him/her identify the rule.
4. Do not worry about creating rules that cover every aspect of your child’s life. Only create rules that address specific behaviors that your child is having difficulty. For instance, if your child always tells the truth, it might not be necessary to include this as a rule. Keep in mind that the more rules that you have, the more difficulty you will have enforcing them.
5. When establishing rules for an older child, attempt to create no more than ten rules. Again, the more rules that you have, the more difficulty you will have enforcing them.
Many parents believe that their child only understands extremely specific rules. These parents are being manipulated by their child. Their child’s underlying motive might be for his/her parent to feel overwhelmed by the number of rules hoping that his/her parent would give up attempting to enforce them.
Each rule should be general enough to encompass several mini rules within the same category. In other words, a rule entitled, keep your hands and feet to yourself, should include all inappropriate body contact such as hitting, kicking, tripping, and shoving. If you were to create a rule for each of these areas, you would end up with an encyclopedia of rules, something that you want to avoid.
6. Make each rule sound positive rather than negative. Negativity only invites noncompliance. In addition, positive rules help children learn the behaviors they could engage in rather than focusing solely on the behaviors that they should not engage in. An example of this is again with the rule entitled, keep your hands and feet to yourself. This rule identifies the behavior that your child should engage in rather than the behavior he/she should avoid. Rules entitled, no hitting, no kicking, and no shoving, are all inappropriate rules as they emphasize the negative.
7. Every rule needs to be clear, concise, and measurable so that everyone knows when a rule is broken. In addition, every rule must be clear and specific to a particular behavior. If the rule is ambiguous, your child might not know the desired behavior. An example of this is a rule entitled, respect others. Though this might sound appropriate as a rule, the word respect is ambiguous and should be broken down into subcategories defining the specific behaviors that are expected.
8. Rules can always be added or edited at any time to meet new behavioral expectations. For instance, a toddler would not require a curfew rule, but an adolescent would. As before, it is recommended that you include your child’s input when adding or editing household rules.
9. It is very important for everyone in your household, including yourself and your spouse, to follow every household rule. If you want your child to live by one set of standards yet you behave by a different set, you would not only be setting a poor example but the inconsistency in expectations could cause your child to lose respect for you and the household rules.
10. And finally, to promote communication, it is very important that you post your household rules in a public area of your home such as the kitchen or the living room. In some cases, it might be a good idea to provide a copy of the rules to each household member. These household rules would then act as your household constitution.
The following is a list of common household rules that you might want to consider when creating rules with your child:
a. Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
b. Tell the truth.
c. Respect property. (This rule includes behaviors such as picking up after ones’ self, walking in the house, keeping the bedroom clean, turning off lights and water when not in use, and not stealing from others)
d. Talk nicely. (This rule addresses behaviors such as cussing, inappropriate language, yelling, and interrupting in conversation)
e. Do as you are told.
f. Chores must be completed by a specified time each day. (To teach your child responsibility, it is important for him/her to have at least one household chore to complete daily. In order to avoid manipulation and to encourage timeliness, your child’s chore must be completed by the specified time or else he/she broke this rule. In addition, chores are defined as tasks that the family contributed to dirtying. Keeping the bedroom clean should fall under the respect property rule instead of the chore rule as your child was the only one who dirtied his/her bedroom)
g. Complete homework after you return home from school. (It is important for your child to complete his/her homework after they return home from school rather than later on that evening, as right after school he/she has better recollection of how to complete his/her homework. Before starting his/her homework, it would be appropriate for your child to reenergize his/her brain muscles by eating a snack and drinking a refreshment. Please, do not have this rule include a specific time when your child’s homework must be completed. If he/she fails to complete his/her homework by the designated time, your child might perceive themselves as a failure)
h. Have good school and public behavior.
i. Bedtime is at a specified time. (It is recommended that if your child asks for a second hug, requires a drink of water, or needs to go to the bathroom after his/her designated bedtime, he/she broke this rule. It is important that you follow this recommendation or else your child might choose to manipulate this rule every evening by going to bed later than his/her designated bedtime. Remember, if you give your child an inch, he/she might take a mile)
j. Curfew is at a specified time. (Again, if your child arrives home one minute later than his/her designated curfew, he/she broke this rule)
Following these simple procedures in creating effective household rules accompanied by reinforcing appropriate consequences and implementing rewards for good behavior would ultimately create a structured household environment that would significantly improve your child’s behavior.
Mark Strobel, LCSW
Bright Star Counseling Center
1408 Elwood Avenue
South Bend, IN 46628