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Making Rules that Work

October 4, 2019

This is a follow up from Rules Without Relationship…

You making rules doesn’t automatically make things work out well. Making rules is essential. It’s the starting gate for raising kids who will grow to be healthy, whole, contributing adults. You’ve got to have boundaries, and that means you’ve got to have rules. They’ve got to be good ones, though, or they’ll never do what rules are supposed to do, which is provide security, consistency, order. Sometimes, how you make the rules is as important as the rules you make. So let’s do some thinking about how to make good rules.

The first thing to consider is the age of your kids. Young kids need a different process than older kids. Very young kids don’t need a formal process. Because very young kids don’t really get language yet. So it does no good to sit them down and tell them what the rules are. They won’t get it no matter how compassionate and articulate you are. They learn the rules by what happens to them when they violate them – by experience. This is one of their primary jobs in the first year or two of life. They are designed by God to be explorers and experimenters. This is how they learn what they can and cannot do. Usually, they learn this without any language beyond the one word, “No.” So don’t list the rules on the fridge for them, and don’t explain why the rule is there and in their best interest. It’s a waste of your breath and their time. And they’ve got stuff to do.

But once they can engage in conversation (not just talk; actually engage in conversation), they can begin to “get” rules. Before that time, they need to hear, “No! We don’t do that,” when they break a rule. They may need to heart it 200,000 times. A day. But once they can begin to reason well enough to have a conversation, you can start talking about rules. Not a hundred rules. A few. Keep the list manageable for them and you. There’s no golden number. Just remember that the best number is probably less than you may want to have. In this, less is more.

When your kid is at this stage of development, where you are routinely having conversations with them, engage them in a conversation about rules. “Who makes the rules in your house?” The answer should be, “Mommy and Daddy,” or, “Mommy does,” or, “Daddy does,” in a single parent home. Start there. Who gets to make the rules is YOU.

There is a broken school of thought that believes the child should make the rules and the parents should figure out how to guide the kids toward acceptable behavior through the use of these child-made rules. The premise is that it’s just so mean to make rules and enforce them on kids. Won’t that make them angry and rebellious? No. Not if you do this thing right. If you’re still making all the rules and handing them down from your parental authority when your kids are 9 or 10, the anger and rebellion thing will come into play. But young kids aren’t benefited from making their own rules. Generally, they can’t make good rules. They don’t have the background, experience or neurology for it. They can benefit from having input into the process, but don’t expect more of them than they’re capable of coming across with.

Before you attempt this conversation, you and your spouse need to decide what the rules are going to be. Even in a divorce situation with shared custody, it would be wise for both parents to have a talk about what the rules are going to be. This will be difficult in many situations, impossible in others. But if you can do it, it will be so much in the interest of the kids(s). Living under two sets of rules, one at one parent’s and another at the other parent’s produces confusion at best, and at worst, sets the kid(s) up to learn how to play the system.

Whatever your marital situation, you need to talk with your spouse or ex-spouse about what you will agree on for the substance of rules at your house before you have a talk with the kid(s).

Boil it down to the most basic rules that will provide safety and security for everybody in the family. What falls into the category of, “That will never be OK”? You need a rule for what that thing (or those things) is/are. You may have several in this category. What falls into the category of, “This will always happen in our family”? There’s got to be a rule for those things.

Make rules that are about behaviors, not attitudes. You can much more easily (and accurately) judge a behavior than you can an attitude. So don’t make rules about the kind of attitudes you require your kids to have. That’s a backfire waiting to happen. Make rules about behaviors.

Many rules will be connected with chores. These are behaviors, so they can be measured, and that’s good. I found a good resource on the interwebs for this: I like how they’ve broken things down by age development.

But please don’t lay out 200 chores for your kids and make a rule for every one of them. Decide what you think they’re capable of doing (even doing poorly), and make a rule that we all do our chores. That should be enough.

When your kids begin to develop more cognitive skill, about age 9 or 10, (“about” being the operative word) the conversation changes. There’s more dialogue. The kids should begin to get more input. Be open to their suggestions, but come to the table with rules that you will introduce into the conversation.

When your kids are teens, you’ll need to be creative, thoughtful and non-combative. That last compound word is really important. You don’t want this conversation to become a fight. You don’t want it to spark more friction. You’ve already got plenty of that. So be calm and non-combative. This conversation about rules isn’t a chance for you to punish your teen with another rule. If you can’t be calm and non-combative, you probably shouldn’t have the meeting. Strike “probably.” If you can’t be calm and non-combative, you shouldn’t have the meeting.

The nature of rules changes as your kids get older. Older kids should generally need fewer rules. Especially if you’ve been working rules with them for the previous years. Even a few previous years. The rules still need to be about behaviors, but you don’t target the same behaviors for a 5 yr. old and a 16 yr. old. Their needs and their capabilities are vastly different. In fact, you may want to consider reviewing your rules about every 6 months to see if they’re still worthy and valid. If you discover they’re not, can them. Kids outgrow rules like they outgrow sneakers.

You’ll notice I’m not including any specific rules you should make for your kids. Here’s why: I don’t know your kids. Rules are best when they’re forged with specific kids and specific goals in mind.

I’ve got one more big thing to talk about, which I’ll leave until next time. But there’s this one thing to close with, that should have been at the front end. P R A Y. Ask God to make you wise. He wants to. Ask Him to help you work in productive ways with your kids as you set rules. He wants to do this.

Don’t start any part of this process without prayer. It’s way too hard for anybody to do on the basis of their innate senses. No mortal is that smart. No offense, but that includes you. And me.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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