The idea of having house rules or family rules sounds like tyranny, the last thing parents want for their kids. But when one of said house rules for kids is done right, the result is structure and predictability. The family members understand the existence and purpose of the rule. The kids feels safer, and everyone’s stress (especially yours) goes down.
Now, there’s a big difference between any rule and the right rule. So we asked a variety of child psychologists and therapists to suggest family rules and house rules that parents of children 4 to 7 years old should consider enforcing. Some are for the kids, and some are for parents. But, in truth, all rules are for the adults to follow and take the lead on.
First, one caveat: A list stuck to the fridge isn’t all-powerful. “Rules alone won’t get the job done,” says Dr. Laura Kastner, a family and child psychologist and author of Getting to Calm, the Early Years. “There needs to be context, fairness, and understanding.” In other words, family rules have to be clear. More than that, the enforcer of said rules (i.e. you and your spouse) have to be clear, so the behavior can become automatic. Stick to this, and you’ll see results.
Here, then, are the rules parents should consider enforcing in their home.
Rule #1: Ask for Solutions When Problems Occur
Accidents happen. Rather than asking “Why do you keep doing this?” the better response is: “Wow, look at what you did. What do we do next?” That keeps parents from being constantly reactive and, as a result, stressing kids out. “They’re always waiting for you to blow up,” says Brian R. King, a social worker and parenting coach. You’re also not swooping in to fix the problem. According to this rule, your child is asked to be resourceful and imaginative, which isn’t an issue. If this approach concerns you, just consider how a kid builds anything. They aren’t encumbered by what doesn’t work. Their fix might not be the one, but they’re collaborating and problem-solving, two skills with long-term benefits. That’s what this rule yields.
Rule #2: Use Fewer Words
This isn’t for the kids. You want them to talk. This is for you. Because, per Kastner, adults talk way too much — like 80 percent too much. What happens is that they end up babbling and a 5-year-old says something like, “I hate you,” sidetracking the conversation and getting out of any responsibility. Using fewer words helps that.
Using fewer words also applies to praise. “Good job” means nothing said once. Said constantly, it means even less. The best practice is to save compliments for stuff kids have been struggling with. “You really figured out the seat belt. I’m impressed!” shows your kid that you’ve had your head up and been noticing, adds Kastner.
Rule #3: No Interrupting
Kids believe two things: One, that you’re always available. And two: Their needs are paramount. Often, these coalesce when you’re on the phone. Just say, “Hang on for one second,” then, “Thank you so much for waiting,” with full sincerity. And all you need to do is finish your sentence. This rule may take a while to stick, but it introduces patience and impulse control. Even more than that, it teaches them that they’re not the only people in the family with stuff to get done, offers Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette, child and adolescent psychologist in Exton, Pennsylvania.
Rule #4: Clean Up Your Messes
Kids don’t long to put stuff away, but they will build up their frustration tolerance by owning what they’ve created. It’s a pretty straightforward rule … until they stall. When that happens, in a calm voice say, “I’ll leave it up to you, but if you choose not to do this, I can’t talk to you right now.” You don’t give her any reaction, which is what she wants, but you’re giving a path back to you, which is really what she wants, says Jude Currier, a licensed psychotherapist in Amherst, New Hampshire. There may be yelling at first, but she’ll eventually see those tactics don’t work and when she completes a task, she’ll feel some independence and self-esteem.
Rule #5: If It’s Not Yours, Ask Permission
Grabbing is a popular sport among 4- to 7-year-olds. A simple “Can I use your truck?” is a lesson in boundaries. But since kids are a bundle of impulses, they’ll constantly miss the mark. Still, it’s a good concept, because it’s ultimately about consent, Kastner says. You ask before you touch someone, and when she says stop, you stop. “It’s one thing to have heard the phrases. It’s another thing to have lived it,” says Alison Smith, parenting coach in New Brunswick, Canada. It’s also important to model it. One big area? Tickling. The automatic laughter doesn’t automatically reflect enjoyment. Once you start, ask if they want more. They get the power of whether it continues.
Rule #6: No Sarcasm Allowed
Your child goes upstairs while company is over. When he comes back down, you greet him with “So nice of you to join of us.” Cue the buzzer sound. Sarcasm comes with bite and dismissiveness. “It has never made anyone feel better,” Sasson Edgette says. You may think you know why your child is behaving a certain way, but there’s no way to always keep everything in mind. A simple “You okay?” is plenty. You’re curious. You assume nothing. There’s an invitation to talk and you might hear an explanation. If it’s valid, validate it. If it’s not, you can say, “That doesn’t really work.” Either way, you’re an understanding guy.
Rule# 7: Let Them Reflect
This one’s about your impulse control. When, say, a toy gets thrown, instead of the never-productive response of “What the hell?” simply ask matter-of-factly, “Why did you decide to do that?” You’re not looking to stop their emotions or make them feel bad. You’re just getting them to realize that they have choices, something that kids don’t immediately realize. This won’t transform a 5-year-old, but the concept that alternatives exist is now in play, King says.
Rule #8: Chores First, Then You Play
It’s the way of the world. You do the hard thing, then you get the reward. Long run, coffee. Work, paycheck. The overall goal is to create happy, competent people. Sometimes, that means being unliked, Kastner says. If the chore is to clean up the blocks, say it, refer back to the rules, then disengage.
Rule #9: First, Calm Down
This is an all-encompassing family rule. Nothing can be discussed if people are freaking out. You need to be in control, so take a fraction of a second to pause before you say or do anything, Smith says. For the kids, make it a game. Play Statues — start it before you have to use it, so they know how to respond to “Freeze.” Injecting laughter reduces the heat, then you can explore the original issue in a non-reactive fashion. The kids will see parents who don’t get rattled, know what non-chaos feels like, and can carry that forward.