Having house rules and setting limits is an important tool for parents to help children understand what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate. Establishing and enforcing rules is an effective way to ensure consistency in discipline and thereby reduce behavior problems. Rules also help children learn about responsibilities and important life skills.
Kids of all ages need rules. Having limits actually helps them to feel safe and secure. By establishing house rules, youth are taught that following rules and keeping responsibilities is part of life. Even adults have rules to follow, whether it may be rules while driving a vehicle or policies set by an employer.
Research indicates that teens whose parents have set household rules are at a much lower risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors. Teens who must follow rules are much less likely to drink, smoke and use drugs than peers who have unlimited freedom. Also, these teens tend to have better relationships with their parents.
As a family, talk about the rules and agree upon them. Some limits can be negotiated; others may not be up for discussion. For instance, a non-negotiable rule might be completing homework as soon as a child arrives home from school. A negotiable rule might be weekend bedtimes. Be careful not to set too many rules at first so as not to overwhelm the child.
Rules should be designed with the age of the child in mind. State them in a positive way if possible. Instead of saying “no fighting with your sister,” you might say “be respectful of your sister.” Keep in mind that you will need to monitor these rules, so they should be easily observed.
Rules can cover several areas including:
• Health and Safety. Use rules to create healthy habits and keep kids safe. Sample rules include “brush your teeth every morning after breakfast” or “wear your helmet while riding your bike.”
• Family Values. Create rules that instill morality and values. Examples include “tell the truth” or “treat others with respect.”
• Social Skills. Use rules to teach appropriate ways to interact with others. For instance, some rules may be “no cellphones at the dinner table” or “share your toys with your siblings.”
• Life Skills. These rules would encompass chores like “make your bed every morning” or “take the dog for a walk every day after dinner.”
Setting house rules can be a great way to instill in children that there are expectations to follow as a member of the family. They can teach youth that for the home to run smoothly, every member of the family must contribute.
When establishing house rules, be specific and clear about the behavior you expect of your youth. For example, if you want your youth to do his or her homework, be specific as to when it should be completed. Would you like it done immediately after school, before dinner, or by 7 p.m.?
For family rules to work well, everyone needs to know, understand, and follow the rules. Even parents need to follow the rules to model the expected behavior. By doing this, children do not get mixed messages about what is allowed or not allowed. For example, perhaps a rule is that no cellphones are used during dinner. However, if a parent or caregiver takes a call or checks email during the meal, it sends a mixed message to the kids.
There are several things families can do when creating house rules to ensure success and maintain consistency.
• Post them in the house so everyone can review them.
• Discuss the rules with other adults who care for the youth so everyone knows what is expected and consistency is maintained.
• Once you establish rules, be sure to enforce them consistently. Rules that are not enforced consistently are ineffective.
• Provide consequences for broken rules. Remember that sometimes kids break rules because they forget rather than being defiant and testing the limits. But consistency and follow through with consequences is important. Have the youth involved in determining consequences. Some consequences could be things like a time out for younger children, loss of privileges, or having to do an extra chore.
• Review the rules from time to time. They may need to be adjusted, especially as a family grows and changes.
Finally, help kids follow the rules without yelling, criticizing or blaming. If that occurs, children can develop a poor self-esteem or become rebellious. Stay calm when rules are broken. Be sure the child understands the rule and follow through with the consequence.
For more information on parenting, check out the Thrive parenting series. A Penn State-developed resource, Thrive, is a free online developmentally age-appropriate parenting program for parents of children ages from birth to 18 years. To access the program, visit https://thrive.psu.edu.