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How to Set Up Family Rules That Actually Work

The right family rules are powerful tools. But you need to enforce them with consistency and kindness. Here’s how to do just that.

by Ashley Abramson
Originally Published: 
A dad sitting with his son on the kitchen floor, setting up family rules.

Navigating parenting without rules is like venturing out on a road trip without a map. But, unfortunately for all of us, raising kids doesn’t come with directions. From the basic black-and-white groundwork of morals and ethics to more specific family-driven goals, it’s up to us as parents to define the trajectories we want our kids to follow — and just as importantly, to stay the course on an everyday basis. A big part of that is learning how to set up family rules that actually work.

Family rules are a good way to help your kids learn how to behave, but they’re so much more than tools to promote obedience, says psychiatrist and couples therapist Kathryn Ford, MD. For one thing, rules are an important way to convey your personal values to your kids. “The guidelines you set up for your family are a way to help your kids understand what you believe and how to implement those values,” she says.

Secondly, Ford says, rules create an important sense of routine in your household. Everyone — especially little kids — feels more secure when they know what to expect. A home environment built on familiar rhythms and clear expectations is less stressful for kids (which, in turn, can help them behave better). Plus, routines can reduce the chaos in your everyday life, so you can feel more organized and less stressed as a parent.

As crucial as family rules are for everybody in your home, they’re only effective if you stick with them for the long haul. In the heat of the moment, when you’re exhausted or irritable, it can be tough to maintain the boundaries you set — which can end up making things more confusing and chaotic for everyone.

The key is to create rules you can enforce with consistency and kindness. Here’s what you need to know about setting and sustaining your family rules, according to parenting and family experts.

How To Create Family Rules

The best family rules should reflect your family’s core values. As such, the first step in creating family rules is to identify what those are. What do you and your partner care about most in life? What principles do you most want to instill in your kids? The rules you set will play a role in shaping your kids’ character, so take as much time as you need to sit down and process your values and then discuss them with your partner. Some examples of common values include:

  • Kindness
  • Honesty
  • Respect
  • Fairness
  • Hard work
  • Humility
  • Independence
  • Creativity
  • Adventure
  • Empathy

If you follow a faith tradition or have a cultural background that’s important to your family, then you might consider adding principles related to those. Once you pin down the principles most important to you, make sure you and your partner (and any other adults in your home) are on the same page) before establishing rules. When all rule-enforcers buy-in, Ford says, it’ll be a lot easier to stick with them (especially when you inevitably start to feel wishy-washy).

Next, rally your whole family for a meeting. If your kids are old enough to follow rules, then they’re old enough to be involved in the process — and they definitely should be. According to Marriage and family therapist Julie Wright, co-author of Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma, asking your kids for rule suggestions can help them feel more capable and empowered, which means they’ll (hopefully) be more likely to follow them.

As your kids identify what’s important to them, help them understand the value behind the rule. For example, if your five-year-old wants everyone to knock on doors before entering, help them understand that’s actually a form of respect.

Once you’ve identified 5-10 values, put them in rule form. Remember: Your rules are just as much about principles for living as behaviors to avoid — that’s why Christine E. Murray, PhD, LMFT, director of the UNC Greensboro Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships, recommends framing them positively.

For example, rather than saying, “No lying,” or “No hitting,” focus on the values you want to instill, honesty and respect. If you want to get more specific, you could create secondary rules underneath the primary ones: For example, if showing respect to others is a primary rule, you could list out “no hitting,” “no taking toys,” and “saying please and thank you” beneath it.

Try to keep the rules simple and few in number, too. “A long list of rules can be difficult for you and your kids to remember,” says Murray. “If you keep the list simple, you can more easily call them to mind in the heat of the moment.”

Once your rules are established, Wright suggests writing them down and keeping them visible, like on a whiteboard in your kitchen or a printed-out poster in your living room. Or, you can put them throughout the house. That way, you’ll see them regularly and can refer to the list of rules when you need to set a limit with your kids.

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Family Rules

Avoiding certain pitfalls can help your family be successful in setting and keeping rules. Here are some of the most common mistakes parents make in rule-setting:

1. Creating Rules That Aren’t Realistic

If you set rules your kids can’t realistically follow based on their developmental stage, you’re setting yourself up for frustration, says Murray. For example, you probably can’t expect a two-year-old to sit totally still for an extended period of time while you finish your dinner. Instead, identify the value you want to instill — for example, respect — and come up with a more age-appropriate way to apply it. Maybe, instead, you encourage your toddler to play quietly in the living room while you finish, with clear expectations about noise levels.

2. Not Following The Rules Yourself

Your family rules are just that — rules for the whole family. Kids have a keen sense of fairness, says Ford, and they also learn by example. You’ll be a lot more successful in your goals if everyone consistently follows them. If you mess up, which you probably will, make sure to explain to your kids that you realize you broke a family rule and that you learned a lesson for next time.

3. Keeping The Rules The Same Forever

In general, it’s a good idea to create rules based on your child’s developmental stage. But as your kids grow and your family changes, you may need to adjust your rules. For example, you may have another baby after you set your original rules, or your kid might learn new skills or take on new hobbies that require new guidelines.

To make sure your rules stay applicable over time, Murray suggests re-evaluating your family rules once or twice a year. Check in with your partner to talk about what’s working and what’s not, and make sure to update your kids if you modify any rules.

4. Punishing for Rule-Breaking

There’s a time and a place for consequences, and you should definitely set them when you establish your family rules. Rather than merely punishing your kids for messing up, use rule-breaking as an opportunity to help them re-align with the value and choose better behavior next time. When your kid crosses a limit, Wright suggests validating their feelings — for example, let them know you understand how much they want a cookie for dinner — and remind them why it’s not OK to have dessert right before a meal. “Over time, your children will internalize that and start to behave from an intrinsic place,” she says.

5. Giving Up When It’s Hard

Rules only work if they’re consistent — but when you’re tired or nobody’s listening, you might be tempted to throw it all out the window. Ford suggests tag-teaming with another adult, passing the baton when you’re feeling weary of the system: “That way, you get consistency with the rule-holding team to be able to follow through and control themselves.”

And don’t give up when you mess up. Everybody has bad days — and expecting yourself or your kids to do things right all the time will only stress everybody out. “Rules can be difficult to stick with, so be patient with yourself and know it’s natural to slip up from time to time,” says Murray.

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