Family rules: the basics
Rules can help your family members get along better, and make family life more peaceful. Effective rules are positive statements about how your family wants to look after and treat its members.
When rules are stated clearly and unambiguously, they help:
- children and young people learn where the limits are, and what’s expected of them
- adults be consistent in the way they treat younger family members.
It’s important to involve all members of the family as much as possible when developing family rules.
Children as young as three can have meaningful discussions with parents about what rules are and why they’re needed.
As children get older, they can contribute even more when deciding what the rules should be, as well as the consequences for breaking them. By the time they reach adolescence, involvement in rule-making will give children valuable experience in taking responsibility for their own behaviour.
Choose the most important things to make rules about – for example, a rule about not physically hurting each other would be a must for most families. You might also develop rules about:
- daily routines
- how you treat each other.
Every family’s rules will be different. The standards you create will be influenced by your beliefs, values, your situation and your child’s maturity and needs.
Rules come in different shapes and sizes. But all good rules have something in common: they are specific and easy to understand.
‘Do’ rules are good teaching tools, and they’re best in most situations because they guide your child’s behaviour in a positive way. Here are some examples:
- Sit down to eat.
- Speak in a polite voice.
- Wear your seatbelt in the car.
- Be gentle with each other.
- Be home by curfew.
It’s best to have more ‘do’ than ‘don’t’ rules – use ‘don’t’ rules when it’s difficult to explain exactly what to do instead. Here are some examples:
- Don’t spit.
- Don’t beg.
These are rules that apply everywhere, no matter what. Some ground rules might apply to the whole family, whereas others might apply just to younger children, or to teenagers. Rules about politeness and not hurting each other are examples of ground rules.
Sometimes it can be helpful to have a short set of rules for specific situations. For example, you might have rules for:
- travelling in the car
- visiting another person’s house
- using the computer
- going shopping.
A few clear and specific rules are likely to be more effective than a long list. This is especially true for younger children, who are less able to remember them. As children get older and more mature, the rules can ‘grow’ along with them. If your child tends to break the rules, you might need to choose your battles and focus on basic issues like safety and fairness.
Children and teenagers appreciate being involved in the rule-making process.
Taking part in discussions about rules won’t necessarily stop young people from breaking them. It will, however, help them understand what the rules are and why they’re needed.
Many families find it useful to write down a set of rules about how family members are expected to behave. Writing them down makes them clear, and can also prevent arguments about what is or isn’t allowed. Sticking the rules on the fridge, or in another prominent spot, can help younger children be constantly aware of them.
Written rules are also helpful for teenagers. For children of this age, instead of making the rules public by sticking them on the fridge, it’s a good idea to keep them somewhere a little more private that’s still close to hand for when you need to refer to them.
You can start making simple rules as soon as your child has the language skills to understand them. This is part of teaching your child what you expect.
Young children will need supervision and support to follow rules. Preschoolers tend to forget, are inconsistent in their behaviour and can be easily distracted. Remember that a false sense of security in a rule can lead to tragic consequences (for example, ‘He knows not to go near the dam’, ‘She knows not to touch matches’).
Some children with special needs might also need help to understand and remember rules.
All children are different, but it’s usually not until they reach middle to late primary school age you can start relying on them to follow rules without your guidance in most situations.
The teenage years present a new challenge. At this stage, young people begin to explore their own power, and might push for more independence. This can sometimes involve challenging the family rules. Your teenager might be feeling tension between your family’s rules and the expectations of his peer group, and might be working hard to balance the two.
But rules are just as important for teenagers as they are for younger children, and it’s never too late to create or reinforce them. Involving your teenager in creating family rules can help him feel that you listen to him and he can contribute. He’ll also be more likely to see you as fair and stick to the agreed rules.
Rules about safe behaviour are likely to be helpful for you and your teenager. These might include rules about alcohol use, sex, dating and curfews. Some families find negotiating and signing safety contracts useful.
Be willing to discuss and adjust rules as your teenager gets older – for example, by extending your child’s curfew.
Rules will change as your children develop and your family’s situation changes. As children get older, for example, rules about privacy might become more important.
Revise your list from time to time to bring the most important rules into the forefront of everyone’s mind. Involve older children and teenagers in making any changes to the rules.
Rules are effective only if they are enforced. When you decide on a rule, also decide what will happen if the rule is broken. Talk about the consequences as a family, and make sure everyone understands and agrees.
When a rule is broken, you might choose simply to remind your child of the rule and give them another chance, especially with younger children. But it will ultimately be more effective to implement the consequence you agreed on.
Starting as early as age three, if children agree to the consequences of something in advance, they’re much more likely to keep a level head when it’s time for you to follow through.
When children reach their teenage years, agreement on a clear set of rules and consequences will help them develop self-discipline.