Rules: the Fewer the Better

My kids did not have curfews. We had no rules about where they were supposed to do their homework or even when. There were no real rules about food, dress, chores, or even tidiness. We bought a dog without extracting a single promise from our sons. This was not an oversight as I had grown up in a home with a litany of rules. On the other hand, my kids had strict rules about computer use, bedtime, manners, academic and athletic endeavors and, above all, lying.

Making Rules is Hard. Here are 12 Essential Factors to Consider.

When and how we make rules for our kids is one of the trickiest aspects of parenting. Enforcing and altering them is the other tricky part. Rule making is not something to take lightly or to try and do on the fly. It is important that we have a philosophical underpinning to the constructs we set for our kids.

Yet for me, the number one rule was: make as few rules as possible. It was, I believe, a risky proposition, one about which I received a great deal of criticism, but I believe it has merits.

Larry Nucci, a research psychologist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that we make four kinds of rules. There are moral rules, safety rules, rules of social convention, and then there are the all-encompassing others. And it is in this final catchall category that things quickly become murky, where most of the family battle are fought.

Parenting expert Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, argues for care in applying rules. He suggests that, when faced with an unwanted behavior, parents ask themselves if they can live with the behavior and, if perhaps, it is something that will, in time, change on its own.

One of my single biggest mistakes as a parent was extrapolating. l would assume that the behavior I abhorred, a lack of personal hygiene or mouth full of teenage cynicism, would last forever. My anxiety at any given moment had to do with the mouthy, unkempt 20-year old I could see in my future. That person, needless to say, never materialized, but his image effected my behavior. Kazdin gives many examples from attention issues to lying and delinquent behavior that often resolve over time. He entreats parents not to legislate away behavior that will disappear on its own.

Ultimately, the role of rules is for our kids to internalize desirable behaviors, to do what we have taught them even when we are no longer there to enforce our will. For me, this argues for taking the risk and trying to raise kids with as few rules as possible. The most recent research suggests that rigid parenting is not without its own risks in terms of both defiant behavior and unhealthy practices.

Early on, I thought my kids were remote control cars and that I could steer with my rules. I was painfully naive. Here are my rules about, well, making rules.

1. Make as few rules as possible.

The dirty little secret about rules is that they require enforcement which rates right up there as one of the least enjoyable aspects of parenting. Keeping credibility with our kids is paramount so with each rule there is more enforcement and more negativity. For me this argues for picking rules very carefully, deciding what is essential in our families and then My rules had high stakes, had to be picky.

2. Go easy with the rule making early on, the hard stuff lies ahead.

While I would have loved to have rules about tidy rooms and clean clothes, looking ahead I knew that rules about driving, drinking, respect for girls were going to be non-negotiable in my house. I tried to pace myself, knowing that these major issue loomed on the horizon.

3. Ignore what anyone else (other than your child’s other parent) does, it truly does not matter.

Every family has their own rules, which is as it should be, and concerning ourselves with another family can only mess with our heads. This includes grandparents and siblings. Our kids are our kids, and the rules we set must be our own.

4. Different kids, different rules.

I get the controversy surrounding this, but like so many families, my kids were so different, their needs so different, that I plugged my ears to the chorus of “it’s not fair, you let him…” and forged ahead. In the end they felt treated as individuals, seen for who they truly are…but in the midst, I got nothing but pushback.

5. Rules have a hierarchy.

There is a reason that there are ten commandments because those were the rules that were metaphorically etched in stone. Our religious texts are replete with rules, but they have a hierarchy and our homes need the same. Not all rules are created the same and our kids need to know explicitly that some loom far larger than others. Stay up past your bedtime and you are looking at a stern word or maybe an earlier bedtime the following night. Hit another kid on the soccer field and you are looking at a trip to the 1970’s, weeks of grounding and a ban from playing sports.

6. Parents do not always need to explain themselves.

My parents made rules and I did not even dream of asking why. I made rules and my kids wanted to explore my reasoning like anthropologists uncovering a new civilization. Then they wanted to negotiate. It is great if we can explain ourselves, it is great if our kids buy in, but one truth that does not change from generation to generation is that we are the adults and we make the rules.

7. Rules should say something about the person we hope our children will become.

They are a way to transmit our families’ values, not just a method of keeping our kids in line. It was all to easy to look at rules as a way of controlling behavior rather than imparting . Dr. Kazdin’s filter of, “do I need to change this behavior,” rather than “do I want to change this behavior” is an excellent one. In reality, I could live with far more that I considered undesirable than I thought I could.

8. Think ahead.

My son’s principal told the 9th grade parents, think of the curfew you want spring of senior year and then work backwards to what it means for your 9th grader. If you start at midnight in the first year of high school, he warned us, you will not like where you end up in four years. This is true of every rule that moves with age and maturity.

9. Parents need to be on the same page regarding family rules and, sometimes, they need to get other parents to, at least, read that page.

I had rules about R-rated movies, but I know that my kids visited houses with more lenient rules. Crossing my fingers was not good enough. I had to call other moms and tell them the rules my sons were expected to live by. As awkward as this can be, I found that this goes remarkably well.

10. Don’t depend too heavily on the rules we had as children; this is a different world.

While some things are immutable, so many of the rules I had – wi-fi off at 10:00 or no multiplayer games with strangers –  were not exactly things my parents had to contend with. It is a new world and it requires new rules.

11. Think about the ways your child might break your rules and build failsafe into the package.

My kids were not allowed to use the computer after 9:30. I programmed the parental controls to disconnect them from the wi-fi at 9:30. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I found one son on his computer at 10. He had simply changed the time on his computer to 8:00 and continued on his merry way. Reliable enforcement needs to be a built-in part of making rules.

12. Finally, many rules have a natural life.

Boyfriends and girlfriends might not be allowed to sleep over in high school, but what about in college? Computer use rules generally relax with the age of the child. It is important to sunset rules, to plan for their waning and retirement even before that day arises.

Maybe my kids had too few rules, the jury is still out. But one thing I feel certain about, parenting isn’t made easier with more rules, it is harder. And enforcing what is important only becomes more difficult in the face of a litany of decrees. For most of what I hoped for my children, I tried, with mixed success, to model the behavior I hoped from them and set for them clear expectations. I plugged the holes with a whole lot of nagging. The truth is, that in most areas, the micromanaging with rules was effort and heartache wasted. Every time I found myself thinking, what happens if he does not do what I am saying and the answer was, really not very much, I got rid of that rule.

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