Here are some of my rules about having family rules:
1- Have them.
Your throat will get tired without them. Once a rule is set, it becomes a constant voice inside a child's head that helps them decide what to do and not do in particular situations. Without rules, YOUR VOICE is the voice that has to be constant; CONSTANTLY telling your child what to do and not do in particular situations. That can be problematic for many reasons.
2- Have only a few of them.
- Instead of having 10 rules about different words that should or should NOT be used...
- ...have one rule: "Talk like Daddy/Momma talks and use the words that Daddy/Momma uses."
- Instead of having 20 rules about what to do and NOT do at the dinner table and on the furniture and in the bathtub, etc...
- ...have one rule: "Use it for what it's supposed to be used for." (i.e. Couches are for sitting. Beds are for laying. Forks are for bringing the food to your mouth. Bathwater is for being in the bathtub.)
- Instead of having 10 rules like, "Come when I call," "No rolling eyes at Momma," "Look at me when I say your name," etc...
- ...have one rule: "Show that Daddy's/Momma's voice is important." (i.e. When you role your eyes your showing that Daddy's voice is annoying. When I have to call your name 7 times for you to come, your showing that playing is more important than Daddy's voice.)
For rules to work, they have to be managed well. It's hard for both parents and their children to manage rules well if there are too many of them.
3- Practice them.
This can actually be FUN, particularly when your kids are 1-6 years old. Here's a scripted example:
"Okay, kids, listen up. Momma made a yummy dessert that we can eat; now that dinner is done. But tonight we can only eat it one bite at a time. And we can only get a bite if Daddy gives you a bite to eat. And Daddy will only give you a bite to eat if you show me the right way to do our rule. I know I AM going to get a lot of bites of dessert because I AM really good at showing the right way to do our rule. Maybe YOU will get lots of bites of dessert too.
Okay, Kesean, you go first. Here's the bite of dessert that you'll get if you can show me the right way. There's the couch. Walk over to the couch and show me what we use a couch for." (Kesean walks over and sits on the couch.) Daddy says, "Yes! Yes, Kesean! A couch is for sitting! Kesean is sitting on the couch. See! He didn't jump OR climb on the couch because couches are for sitting!" (Daddy smiles at Kesean and motions for Kesean to come.) "Here Kesean. Sit next to me and eat your bite of dessert while we watch your brother do the next one."
"Alright, Darius, your turn. Sit over here with some toys. Pretend you're playing and Momma calls you into the kitchen. When Momma calls, show me that Momma's voice is important." (Momma goes into the kitchen and calls for Darius to come.) While Darius is leaving the toys and going to Momma, Daddy says, "Yes! Look at Darius! Momma called and he DIDN'T keep playing! He's getting up right away. Look! He see's Momma and he's going to the kitchen and showing that he wants to listen. He's showing that Momma's voice is important!" (Daddy gives Darius a bite of dessert and says, "Good Darius. You ARE really good and showing that Momma's voice is important."
4- Consistently enforce them.
Rules can become your worst enemy if you don't consistently enforce them. Here's why:
Every time a rule is not enforced, it teaches kids unspoken rules like: "Mommy's rules don't matter," or, "Daddy's rules only matter if he's angry," or, "Mommy only wants me to follow her directions when she starts yelling," etc.
Picture this: you're sitting with another adult in the living room and your kids start running in the house. It's getting a little loud, but you don't want to interrupt your visitor to address your kids' behavior. Kesean speeds by and you say his name, implying that you want him to stop running and come over to get instructions. Kesean doesn't hesitate and keeps running because he's been having too much fun (for a while now!) while you've been preoccupied with your visitor. You feel annoyed that your son just ignored you but you smile and keep talking to your visitor. Two minutes later the kids yell too loud and you holler out, "Quiet down kids," but the noise level doesn't really change. 7 minutes later you call your oldest child over and tell her to tell the younger ones to behave. She runs off and says something but it doesn't have an effect. As the visitor leaves you apologize for your kids' behavior, close the door and go off to yell at your kids for not "listening."
In moments like these, and especially if they're repeated, kids start learning the unspoken rules listed above. Your family rules become worthless. I'd even go so far as to say that...
...having no official family rules would be better than having rules that aren't enforced.
5- Reinforce rules. Don't Re-teach rules.
(Note: There are a gazillion ways to enforce family rules. I'll only mention the main way I enforce my rules with my children at this stage (ages 4-6).)
Check out these real-life scenarios:
- Bethany (age 4) is playing and I say, "time to be done playing and come to the bath." She says, "BUT DADDY, I want to keep playing!"
- DON'T let her keep playing for a couple more minutes.
- DON'T SAY, "Bethany, I said come to the bath!"
- DON'T SAY, "Bethany, remember Daddy's voice is important. Do what I tell you."
- DO SAY, "Bethany go put your nose on the wall." (Bethany puts her nose on the wall.) Immediately I say, "Okay come back and let's try that again." (Bethany should go back to her toys and you should repeat the instruction and expect her to come right away. If she doesn't, she should be 1- removed from the room and the company of others 2- put in a place that she can't (or isn't allowed to get out of) 3- kept in that place until she stops tantrum-ing 4- given some form of serious consequence so that she hears decisively that defiance will kill the life of a family 5- brought back to the original spot of disobedience and expected to obey the right way.)
- I'm super busy with getting dinner on the table and Ava (age 6) starts jumping on the couch.
- DON'T ignore it because you're in the other room or because you're too busy.
- DON'T yell out, "what did I tell you about couches and jumping!?"
- DON'T wait until dinner time and then say, "Ava I noticed you were jumping on the couch. Don't do that next time, okay sweetie?"
- DO SAY, "There's a little jumper over there. Ava come sit on the stool behind me while I finish getting dinner ready. You can get down when it's dinnertime. Next time I'll let you play if you remember to use the couch for what it's for."
6- Rules For The Unexpected Occasions
Yesterday my wife went blueberry picking with our children.
As soon as they got to the field, my daughters went running off on their own. After a few minutes of picking, my wife looked up, couldn't seen them and thought, "hmmm...it's not going to work for me to have those girls running wherever they want. I'm going to have to give them some rules/boundaries for what to do and not to do while we're here this morning." So she gathered them and said something to this effect:
"Girls, this is so much fun isn't it?! Blueberry picking with cousins is great! We will be here for a while. We will get to pick a lot of yummy blueberries. I will let you pick and run and play with your cousins as long as you follow this one rule. Whenever you go, you have to be able to see me. Before you run somewhere, stop and look to see if you can see me. If you go to a place where you can't see me, then I'll tell you to come away from your cousins and stand by me and my blueberry bush for 5 minutes. But if you can always stay seeing me, you can walk wherever you want."
At my church, our leaders teach this technique and call it Prepare - Event - Debrief.
Prepare: Before the activity starts, gather your kids and explain any boundaries/expectations you have for them during the activity. Explain specific awards/consequences that you'll give them for compliance or non-compliance.
Event: Have the event and reinforce rules as needed.
Debrief: Gather your kids at the end and talk about how it went. Praise them for following your leadership. Encourage and redirect them if they didn't.