You have rules for your family, right? We all do! But have you ever really thought of what they are? I’m willing to bet that you haven’t! I’m sure you can name a few off the top of your head, but I guarantee that you can’t name all the rules you have for your kids. You know why? Because the situation hasn’t come up yet!
If you are like most parents (myself included), you’ve only actually thought of and enforced a family rule when the situation arose. For example, until your child told his first lie, you probably didn’t even think of that as an established family rule. Sure, you knew that lying was going to be a No-No in your house, but you never actually thought of it, or considered what the consequences for lying would be, until your child actually told that first lie.
Imagine if our society was run this way. Imagine driving in your car and suddenly being pulled over by the police. They walk to your window and hand you a ticket. When you ask why, the officer replies, “You can’t drive during the day with your headlights on.” When you ask why again, he simply states, “That’s the rule.” How mad would you be???
As parents, we are often flying by the seat of our pants, just trying desperately to make it day by day. But if you are parenting this way on a regular basis, you make it that much harder for yourself to be consistent in your parenting! As a therapist, one of the first interventions I do with parents is have them sit down and really consider what their family rules are. I assign this as a homework assignment for them to complete between therapy sessions. If they have a spouse, the expectation is for both parents to work on the assignment together. I get all sorts of reactions. Some think the assignment is easy and are eager to get to it. Some look at me like I’m wasting their time, but still manage to give it a try. And yet others look at me with dread, “How am I supposed to write ALL my rules down?!?”
Here’s what happens… invariably, they always figure out the task is way trickier than expected. Sometimes the couples fight about rules, some don’t know where to begin, and others realize they can’t get past a few, obvious rules before being stumped! Eventually, the question comes up, “Why are we doing this?”
The home environment should be a microcosm of the larger, outside world. One of our greatest tasks as parents is preparing our kids to function in the society we have chosen to raise them in. We teach them the different social customs, dangers and joys of our communities, and we also teach them the rules. When you teach your child to drive, you’ll teach them speeding laws, what side of the street to drive on, etc. We do all of these things because we want our children to be able to adapt to this much larger world so that they can be successful. We do all of these, and yet, we somehow forget the most basic structure of society… that every rule, regulation and stipulation is clearly written out and accessible to the public.
Part of the reason why our society writes down laws is because it eliminates confusion and doubt. And as a member of society, we are quick to argue a traffic ticket if a road sign does not clearly explain what the rules are for that particular street corner. Your household is no different.
Your home should be a microcosm, a miniature version of the outside world. As such, having your “laws” (i.e. family rules) clearly written down and on display for all to see quickly helps to eliminate arguing, confusion and frustration. If your child knows exactly what is expected of him, then there is a higher likelihood that he will follow through with those expectations. Does it mean that he will never break the rules? Of course not! Do you still speed on the highways even though you know it's against the law? Of course you do! But you do it less often and with more caution. And when the police car pulls you over for speeding, chances are, you won’t argue with him. The same goes for your child.
Having your Family Rules clearly listed also helps you to be consistent each day. By taking the time to form your rules, you commit them to memory, and you have a clearer understanding of your own expectations. I have witnessed many times how a parent can be very lax on Sunday, but on Monday, after a rough day at work with little patience, suddenly barks and yells at everything. Knowing your Family Rules ahead of time, before the grind of life beats you down, helps to eliminate this parental reaction because you aren’t parenting from an emotional/reactive place anymore. Does this mean you won’t scream and yell again? Of course not… you’re human! But it will help cut down on that a little bit. (More on this is just a moment....)
Having Family Rules written down also helps with consistency between parents because now both parents have a clear understanding of each other’s views and expectations. Most families have a strict parent and a lax parent. Typically, the lax parent has much fewer expectations and is much easier going. But this means that the kids are likely to get away with a lot more. Having a collaborative discussion between both parents on Family Rules, and then having those rules clearly listed helps the lax parent remember what he/she is supposed to be enforcing. This helps to increase consistency between both parents and decrease confusion and manipulation for the kids.
Having your Family Rules posted helps to increase consistency between kids too. Similarly to the reasons above, children in the home understand that the rules apply to everyone equally. Parents, because they have gone through the task of creating and posting the rules, have also committed to memory those same rules and are much more likely to follow through on applying them to all the children. In the event a parent is being more lenient on one child, you can bet your money that your kids will point it out. Don’t be upset with them if they do. Just consider what they are highlighting. Did Johnny break the rule? Yes? Then administer consequences as appropriate. The guessing on whether the situations were the same or whether you really did or didn't punish Bobby for the same behavior doesn’t matter anymore. Johnny either broke the rule or he didn’t, end of story.
Finally, if you can adopt this approach, you will find that parenting, in general, becomes a little easier. And when you are tired after a long day, if you can stick to referring back to your Family Rules, then you will also help minimize parenting from that emotional/reactive place. An example of this is, in general, parents are much more forgiving and willing to let kids “slide” when relaxed and well rested. The minute a parent is tired and emotionally drained, we can become short-tempered and are quick to anger. The issue here is that we are failing to be consistent from day to day, and we leave our children feeling confused about what the rules actually are. Stick to your list, and you’ll be much less likely to fall into this trap.
Hopefully you can see the value of writing down your Family Rules. Now it’s your turn! You can work with paper if you like, but I recommend having it on the computer where you will be able to make adjustments easily. Take some time, and as you think of rules, write them down. You can have as many or as little rules as you like. I had a family with only 5 rules and another with 100. There is no wrong or right way to do this. It is simply, what is right for your family? Once you have a set of rules you are happy with, go through each one with your kids and help them understand what each rule means. Then post them up and hold them to it! Note that kids are masters at finding loop holes! Whenever they find one (and they will), simply edit your rule to cover that loop hole.
The thing to remember is that your Family Rules is a living document, which means it will change as you and your family changes too. That’s perfect! Just remember, any time you have to change, add or adjust a rule, be sure to host a mini family meeting to discuss it. This could be over dinner, during a car ride or a special family meeting you host just for this purpose. However you choose to do it, just be sure to share the change and explain it. Remember our example about getting a traffic ticket for having your car headlights on during the day? No one likes to be reprimanded for a rule they didn’t know even existed. It’s just not fair. Don’t do it to your kids… discuss the changes and let them know they will be held accountable.
Hopefully you found today's technique helpful to you! If you are left with any questions on this topic, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask. I’m always happy to help. You can also join my Facebook group @kcdreisbach where you can ask many of your parenting questions to a community of fellow parents. And don’t forget to get your FREE copy of my book Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Mastering Your Child’s Anger Outbursts. It’s FREE, no strings attached! Just click the link and tell me where you want your book delivered. It’s that easy. Finally, if you want to learn more about Parental Consistency, check out my last post, How to Achieve Parental Consistency.