The Case for Family Rules (and What Those Rules Might Be)
Remember how easy discipline seemed when you only had to consider it in the hypothetical? Before you had kids of your own, you might have looked on in horror at that toddler in the restaurant—he was pulverizing a crunchy snack and making it “snow” all over the floor! You might have vowed never to be that parent who bribes their child with cookies just to peacefully exit the playground.
Yep, the whole “what I thought...how it is…” line is one of the most trite-but-true inside jokes of parenting—mostly because a huge part of parenting really does involve just winging it. This fact is never more obvious than when you find yourself (or watch someone else) navigating the muddy waters of discipline. And although there is no way around this, there might be a way to get a leg up: a solid foundation of family rules.
Worried this will just formalize your role as a buzzkill? Fear not. Really, it's just an opportunity to communicate values and impose structure, rather than merely reacting to a situation as it unfolds. Dr. Heard-Garris, a pediatrician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, shared her view on the matter with the New York Times: “stable, consistent rules are the first step before you talk about the actual approaches to discipline.” In short, rules provide a healthy daily dose of consistency, which means you can breathe a little easier at times when it makes more sense to be flexible.
But what exactly are these rules? Well, the best ones channel proactive discipline into the creation of new routines, ideally fun and inclusive ones that give your child a sense of agency. Tovah Klein, child psychologist and toddler whisperer, sums it up neatly from the perspective of the child: “today may be different, but I have a routine to return to.”
Read on for some examples of rules that can help resolve real-life, blood-pressure raising scenarios. But before you draw up your own list, just remember that the benefit of family rules is lost if you have too many—be realistic, choose them wisely and make them fun!
Problem 1: Chaos At MealtimeYou aren’t alone if you’ve found yourself allowing your restless toddler to roam, or your picky preschooler to graze just so they get some calories. Still, it’s definitely not cool when you find a half-eaten drumstick from last night’s fried chicken in the playroom and a PB&J crust on your pillow. Or have you ever suffered the indignity of having your home-cooked meal turned into a food experiment (yes, that’s your lovingly prepared summer salad swimming in a cup of apple juice) by someone who will later demand a granola bar to fall asleep? Yeah, same.
Sample rules: Don’t play with food. Ask to be excused from the table when done with a meal. Try a bite of everything on your plate, before any alternative is offered. Two light snacks a day and/or no snacks after dinner. Your mealtime rules can be tailored to whatever food drama you most often encounter, and if you work in a new routine that makes your child feel “grown up,” it becomes all the more palatable. (Ask her to set the table, or help with light food prep, for instance.)
Problem 2: Too Much Screen Time
As any parent who has ever tried to get a load of laundry done knows, screen time is sometimes necessary. But if your daily Paw Patrol fix has transformed the living room into World War III whenever you try to turn it off, or you've realized that evening hours TV is making your formerly good sleeper a manic beast at bedtime, it's time for a change.
Sample rules: Never more than X number of episodes of a show in one sitting (yes, this can be determined based on the length of a full washing cycle). Or you might make a family rule that bans screen time after dinner. The point is that your children know where you stand and that the rule applies to everyone equally, every time. (That means you too, Mama!) Sound hard to enforce? These rules can be made easier with a routine-based alternative to screen time—say, after dinner books or card games.
Problem 3: Out-of-control EnergyWe get it: Your kids are super high energy and you feel like you always need to manufacture excitement for them. Or maybe you just need to work in some down time that doesn’t involve a screen. Or maybe it’s just a matter of calming a child who’s easily overstimulated. Fear not: There are rules-based solutions to keep everyone off the wall.
Sample rules: A designated period of quiet, independent play—before bed, midday or any time that you consistently find everyone is in need of a chill pill. Kids need a lot of active time, but once they’ve had their fun and exercise, there’s nothing wrong with a family rule that teaches the lesson that IT’S OK TO BE BORED sometimes.
Problem 4: Interrupting
Got a chatterbox on your hands? It’s downright adorable...until your toddler gets downright angry with you every time you attempt to speak to another adult.
Sample rules: If you're the parent of a younger child, this one is sadly tricky because *realistic expectations.* At the same time, it’s a great example of a family rule that can evolve and become all the more effective. The message is always the same: let grown-ups talk. But for your 2- or 3-year old, your family rule might be to always say “excuse me” before blowing up a conversation. A year later, you can ask that he still say “excuse me,” but in response be told a reasonable length of waiting time. Think: “In 10 minutes, I will look at that drawing.”
Problem 5: Yelling
You fell into the habit of “calling” to your kids from another area of your home, maybe because you wanted to check in on them without abandoning a quick task you had begun. Now it feels like your kids are summoning you with a scream all day long.
Rule: If you need something from a parent or caregiver when they are in the other room, find them and tell them in person. Remember though, parents have to follow their own rules—even if it means putting down the iron and walking all the way to the living room.
Problem 6: Kids Who Hate Cleaning UpYou missed the Montessori boat and the playroom isn’t exactly a carefully curated, rotating selection of “just enough” toys. You can hardly blame your children for being too overwhelmed to clean up their own messes, but a little effort would go a long way.
Sample rules: For older children, your family rule might be that one activity must be cleaned up before another one begins. With younger kids, this would probably take an inordinate amount of time and energy to enforce. In that case, your rule might look more like the quiet time idea—for 20 minutes every night, we will all work together to clean up messes around the house and put the toys to bed. And if you want to add a little friendly competition (say, grown-ups vs kids), we won’t judge you.