Household rules keep your family safe, your home running smoothly, and promote a healthy environment. So it’s important that those rules are enforced.
But that’s easier said than done when kids are involved.
What should your house rules be? When should those rules be introduced? How can you make sure those rules are followed? And what can you do when they’re not?
Here’s a blueprint for establishing and enforcing house rules for kids.
1. Setting the Rules
Some rules are no-brainers, because they keep you and your kids out of harm’s way. Look both ways before crossing the street. Keep away from a hot stove. Don’t touch broken glass.
It’s also important to consider your family’s lifestyle and needs. How old are your children? What is your living situation? Are you working outside the home? Do you have any pets? Who does the cleaning, cooking, and household maintenance? What needs to be done in order to be out the door at a certain time?
Involving your child in the rulemaking process is a way to ensure they understand and care about the guidelines that are set. “It makes them feel empowered, which makes them more invested in behaving,” says parenting coach Carolyn Bond, author of Parent with Confidence: Power Tools for Bringing Up Great Kids.
2. When to Introduce the Rules
Which rules you introduce and when depends largely on what your child is capable of. “Some kids are more mature and may be able to handle things much better than other kids could at the same age,” Bond says.
Four years is a great age for children to start contributing to the rulemaking process, though you can certainly involve younger kids as well. Even a simple “What do you think?” goes a long way in making them feel like part of the team.
Other rules can be tacked on as the need for them arises. If your child gets a new bike, for example, you’ll need to set rules for riding and taking care of it.
Instead of standing on your soapbox and laying down the law, try asking your child specific questions about what they think the rules should be for the new bike, such as safe places to ride it and how it should be put away.
Children who are too young or not quite mature enough to set limits for themselves may need you to step in and do it for them. But you can still encourage participation by giving them choices within the parameters you’ve set.
You could ask your child which pant leg they want to put on first, or whether they want to sing their ABCs or the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” on the way upstairs to bed.
3. When Rules Are Broken
Parents traditionally determine the consequences of breaking the rules, but Bond advocates allowing your children to assist.
Returning to the bike example: Once you’ve established the rules, ask your child what they think should happen if those rules are broken. More often than not, they’ll say something along the lines of “I guess I don’t deserve to ride the bike for a while.”
Rather than coming down on your child when they break one of the rules, you can simply say “I see you’ve decided that you don’t want to ride your bike for a while.”
Kids will be more accepting of consequences they helped to determine — and they’ll be more likely to keep those consequences in mind.
4. Helping Your Kids Stay on Track
Parents often feel like a broken record calling out orders: “Don’t touch this! Don’t do that!”
But there are other, more effective ways to keep your kids on track.
You can’t expect your child to abide by the rules when you enforce them one day and turn a blind eye the next. Consistency is key. Whether the rule has been broken for the first time or the hundredth, enforcing the rules is important.
When you’re told not to do something, you want to know why. Children are no different. Explain to your child why it’s important to hang up their coat. Tell him this will keep it from getting dirty or messed up. And that he’ll know exactly where it is when it’s time to put it on again.
Some children are visual learners, so it helps to display the rules where they can see them. “Especially when kids are old enough to read and they realize that they helped make those rules,” Bond says. “They like that.”
You can also use a chart or tally system to keep track of your child’s progress.
Take a Time Out
Sometimes it’s best to remove a child from the situation. For example, if your child won’t stop playing with the television remote no matter how many times you ask them not to, try taking the remote away or removing the child from the room.
Focus on the Positive
We often think in terms of enforcing rules and doling out the consequences when they’re broken. But don’t underestimate the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. Instead of waiting for your child to slip up, let them know when you see them following the rules.
Tell them how happy you are that they washed their hands before dinner or what a big help they were in picking up toys.
When establishing and enforcing house rules for kids, remember what Bond calls the “Golden Rule of Parenting”: treat your kids the way you would like to be treated.
Children feel more invested in household operations when they’re allowed to make choices and encouraged to add their own input. “But because they don’t have your experience and your training, you have to help them along a little bit with the choices,” Bond says.