Establishing Family Rules

I don’t want “Because you said so” to be a regular chorus in our household. It’s OK when the kids are two or three, don’t understand why it’s wrong to play with the electrical socket or touch the hot stove, but need to avoid it “because we say so”. In the said situation, we are fulfilling our role as parents – protecting and teaching our kids, and they are doing what they are capable of doing at that age: learning to respect our “no”.

But I don’t buy it for kids older than that. Even why my three year old makes reference to doing something “because we said so”, I try to focus him on the cause and consequence of his action.

Don’t get me wrong – I am NOT advocating for less respect or letting your kids do whatever as long as they give a reason for it. The bottom line is, we ARE their parents, and they DO have to respect what we tell them to as long as we are responsible for them.

But the “because you said so” factor just isn’t enough past toddlerhood. It’s an empty response that gets robotic pretty quickly. It requires no thinking whatsoever, and also doesn’t address the deeper, underlying reasons of why or why not our child may do something. If the only reason they do it is “because you say so”, what happens the day you stop saying it?

It’s very important for our kids to learn the reasons that drive their actions and our family’s expectations and way of being. And that means 1) we have to teach them the reasons and 2) they have to learn how to apply the reasoning. This  doesn’t mean they have to agree with the reasoning. But they do have to learn it and they do have to respect it. When they grow up, they’ll decide what they’ll carry on in their own families and what they’ll change, but they’ll make their decisions with a thorough understanding of why we did or didn’t do certain things certain ways.

So yes, the first step might be that they respect given rules “because we say so”, but there needs to be an immediate second step, which is understanding, as soon as they are capable of doing so, WHY Mommy and Daddy say x, y and z. This way, when Mommy and Daddy aren’t around, kids still have a reason to behave one way or another; they develop an internal understanding of virtues, values and principles, and are therefore better able to determine what to do when they face new situations. It makes them independent, but responsible.

Looking for a practical way to help to help your kids actively make the connection between what you as a family believe and how you behave? The simplest way is to explain to them the principle behind what the behaviors you expect of them, or the rules you set.

An even more effective way to connect internal motivation with external behavior is to sometimes involve them in your family rule-making process. This works in reverse. Instead of YOU setting the rules and then explaining why, you ask your kids to help develop sets of family rules, and then explain why to you. For example, if your kids are being too wild in the living room and too many things are getting broken, instead of saying “OK, new rule: no playing in the living room,” sit down with your children and discuss principles, like responsibility, respect, and care of property.

Then ask THEM to propose a few family rules they think will help all of them grow in these areas. “No playing in the living room” might or might not be one of the rules, but whether it is or isn’t, your objective should have been met. If it wasn’t, you as the parent, always have veto power, and can set clearer parameters.

Finally, ask your kids to suggest logical consequences that will be implemented when the rules they’ve suggested are broken. Then sit down and, taking their suggestions into account, finalize your family rules.

This process will help your child replace “Because you said so” with “Because in our family ______________”, or “Because it’s important to ______________” or “You’ve asked us to do x, y or z because…”. It also strengthens your family unity by bringing everyone together for the problem-solving process. Finally, it encourages responsibility and “personal ownership” of your family culture. When your kids are involved in helping set the rules and determining the consequences in advance, they become fully aware of expectations and take on a greater responsibility in upholding them. More importantly, they fully understand WHY they are expected to behave a certain way, and are therefore much more likely to willingly abide by your family standards.

So give it a try if you think it might help. And either way, keep enjoying these years of chaos and joy, tears and laughter. Little ones are learning, inside and out, and its worth it!