We all grew up with rules. Some were obvious while others were more subtle. A lot of the time they started with the word ‘no’ as in ‘no snacks before dinner’ and ‘no messy rooms’ or ‘no food in bedrooms’ and ‘no swimming until at least half an hour after eating’ ….
My parents had separated, so that meant two different houses with two different sets of rules - or similar rules, with differing levels of flexibility around them.
At mum’s house, where I lived most of the time, we could curl up on the sofa, wrap up in a blanket and fall asleep while watching tv. At dad’s house, the tv was inside a cabinet that was only opened when there was something of substance to watch - the news, or tennis or cricket. There were no Sunday afternoon movies that we’d pop popcorn for. Sections of the Sunday paper would be spread across the large coffee table, and I’d sit on the sofa, two feet on the ground, itching to cross my legs and curl up to read through the magazine - longing for a blanket to wrap around me.
Rules are funny things! And our ability to learn and adopt (and adapt to) different rules is even more interesting.
In the early 90s, I lived in Japan, where for the first time, I had my own apartment. The school where I would be working had generously furnished it and had left a selection of slippers, still wrapped, fresh from the store, in a range of sizes - flowery and small, solid and large. They were placed there to make it easy for me to follow the cultural norm of de-shoeing and putting slippers on upon arriving home. I got off to a good start. I’d diligently arrive home, slip off my shoes and put the slippers on. But it was so hot and the slippers became very slippery and uncomfortable compared to my bare feet on the tatami mat floor. My apartment, I thought, my rules. I took the shoes off and wore slippers most of the time, but cut myself some slack when the heat and humidity was just too much.
So how do we help our children adapt to new rules?
Does it work to make them feel bad and ashamed, and worried about being punished when they don’t follow the rule? It really doesn’t ….
At The Parent Team, we believe that rules are an extension of what matters to you - the things that you deeply value and want to pass on to your children – rather than ways to coerce children into behaving the way you want them to.
When rules are guidelines and reminders to do the things we have decided need to be done, and are worth learning to do – and then everyone in the family follows them – these rules (over time!) become family habits.
When rules are about controlling what your children do or don’t do, they may work for a while, but they usually become things for them to rebel against.
It takes time for rules to become habits.
We can’t expect our children to do something just because it’s a rule. We need to teach our child what to do, and how to do it, and allow them time to master it. And it’s so much easier for our children to learn new habits when we spot them doing what’s required, or trying to do what’s required, and we acknowledge it. We also speed things up when we empathise with how the thing they may have to do is not terribly fun. Any of you love to take the recycling bins out each week? Didn’t think so!
We need to have some room for the evolution, and flexibility, of our family rules too.
You may have a rule such as ‘only healthy snacks’, and it’s the first really nice day of the summer term and the ice cream truck has conveniently pulled up by the park - and all the children are racing towards it. You may choose to stick to your ‘healthy snack rule’ or you may tell your children that they can join the queue for an ice cream. That’s always going to be your call.
Rules are more effective when they live somewhere between the chaos of not having any structure at all and the rigidity of being overly strict. It’s not easy to live in a home that feels rigid, where there is little freedom to evolve how things get done. Equally, it’s confusing to be somewhere where you have no idea what you’re supposed to do!
Rules are routines, structures, agreements … and just as the values they bring to life … they are absorbed more quickly when they’re visible, and when they clearly communicate what we can do, rather than what we can’t. Over the years, our clients have sent us copies of their family’s rules. Some are hand-illustrated images, others are photographs, some are lists.
One favourite came from a mum of three boys. She broke the day down into chunks - morning routine, after school, playdates, playing with brothers, homework, bedtime … Together with the boys, they came up with things that needed to be done, habits that needed to be developed, alongside which were small incentives that those actions would earn. For example, when they followed the “happy bedtime” rules and did things like put their dirty clothes in the basket and were in their rooms by 7:30pm on a school night, they would earn an extra chunk of time to read or play something quiet – a classic case of a positive consequence.
Being motivated by extra play time meant that it didn’t take them long to develop that habit!
So, if you find yourself repeatedly annoyed and stressed because your children aren’t doing what you’d hope they’d do, take some time to consider that perhaps it’s not working because (a) you haven’t talked about what they need to do (b) they don’t know how to do it (c) nothing much happens if they do what’s required, but they do get negative attention when they don’t and (d) it’s not fun, and they have other things they’d much rather be doing.
Once you know you need a rule … how do you go about setting it up? This is something we explore in the fourth class of our Family Skills Course. For those who have taken the course, we’d love to hear how things are going for you. If you’ve yet to take the course, we have a new cycle starting on Monday 23rd May at 8pm GMT.
It’s an interesting exercise to look back on your own upbringing, and think about what rules your family had. What did you learn from those rules? How did those rules make you feel? Keep this in mind when you start to work on your own family rules. Also keep in mind that the best rules emerge from a collaborative process.
When your children are very small, they won’t be able to contribute much to the conversation. For those of you with older kids, if you don’t include them in the rule creation, and help them understand that the rules are a way to bring family values to life, then you’ll probably struggle to get them on board.
The best part of having your own home and your own family, is that you get to create your own rules! So as you can imagine, in my home, we can curl up, grab a blanket, pop some popcorn and feast away while we watch our favourite shows … and you can take a weekend newspaper, sit with your back nice and straight, with your two feet on the floor and spread it all over the coffee table. In our home, you get to choose … and that choice feels just right for us.