Best Mom Tip #193: Set House Rules

Write Your Own House Rules

I love back-to-school preparations. I love the anticipation and the nervousness. I even love the smell of a school building and the heat from the laminating machine. I just love school. As the daughter of teachers, a former student, a teacher in my own right, and now the parent of school-aged children my entire life has moved with the rhythm of the school calendar. Although I no longer head into the classroom to teach, I still think about setting up my classroom and how fun it was to get started with the new year.

Back when I was in teacher school, one of my professors gave me a truly solid piece of advice about making class rules. He said, “keep it simple and keep it broad. You cannot possibly anticipate what goes on in their minds.” And, boy, was he right–I just didn’t know it yet.

The rules I came up with for my classroom were incredibly simple:  Be Kind. Be Respectful. Be Prepared.

I found, over the course of my 10 years teaching, that I could apply just about anything a kid did into one of these three simple rules. For instance, I could have said “keep your hands to yourself.” That sounded reasonably simple and reasonably broad.

Except that it wouldn’t have covered the time a kid went up to my desk for hand sanitizer, carefully collected a large glob in his hands, and gingerly walked back to his desk. All in order to throw the giant mess onto his buddy’s new shirt, because in 15-year-old boy world that is hilarious.  He did, in fact, keep his hands to himself-just not his hand sanitizer. I believe I told him I was giving him administrative detention for “being a doofus.”

Also, boys can use farts as a weapon.  I’m not going into more detail, but trust me when I say it falls under rules against being both unkind and disrespectful.

There was the kid who put his shirttail up over his head in the middle of a presentation.  I don’t know why he was possessed to do that, but I know I would never have thought of a rule to cover it.  I guess, “keep your clothes in place” might have done it. He, by the way, told me he was being “Yellow Man.”  No clue what that means.

I had a girl start dancing to the music only she could hear in her head who was highly offended when I told her that it was somewhat distracting, and therefore, disrespectful. One time I had a rather well-drawn and very explicit depiction of a sexual act penciled into a textbook. The participants had no heads, which I’m sure means something from a psychological point of view, but I know I wouldn’t have made a rule against headless sex drawings because, really, I wouldn’t have thought I needed to.

I learned that kids will test the limits of specific rules even if they don’t really disagree with the rule itself. Some kids will honestly misunderstand the rule if it is too complicated. Still other kids will have no idea that there are rules, that they are posted in 12 inch letters on the wall, or that you read them out loud every day for two weeks. Those kids are the ones most likely to dance to the music in their heads.

So when Jay and I decided to come up with a list of house rules, I knew that we needed to use the same simple approach.  Our kids are getting to the age where we start telling them “no” for things that are not as easy to explain or justify as they once were. When your kids are toddlers this is easier–no one else’s parents lets them go to the grocery store naked or only eat hot dogs for every meal, either.

But explaining to our 9-year-old that she can’t go to a spend-the-night party because there’s something that just gives me the creeps at Katie’s* house is a lot harder.  We need rules that apply to a broad range of situations, allow us to adjust the specifics depending on the age and personality of the kid, and that are easy to remember.  Here’s what we’ve come up with:

1. Be a good teammate
     We spend a lot of time talking about being a “family team.”  We want our kids to know that we are in this life together, we work together, and we support each other.  We will always be a team. This is the rule I use to cover every form of brotherly torture you can imagine.  “Hands to yourself” would just not cover sitting on your brother’s head, stealing his lovey, luring him away from the sofa to steal his spot, or using him as spitting target practice.  Brothers are brutal.

This rule also includes cleaning up after yourself, helping with chores and tasks around the house, and using positive and encouraging words. A good teammate is helpful, kind, and loving. A good teammate shares the ball. A good teammate focuses on the entire team winning, not just his or her own stats.

2. Be safe and healthy
     Jay and I have been talking a lot about our rules on electronic usage, phone ownership, and internet access with our kids.  And although we have some decent guidelines (no one is allowed to personally own an electronic device of any kind except for Jay and me), we know that those guidelines will shift as kids age and have different needs or concerns.  We do not currently have any electronics in bedrooms and our kids are not allowed on the internet without our supervision.  All internet access happens in the common rooms of our house.  But I know that these are rules for younger children, so we really talked about what the purpose of the rules are: we want them to be safe and healthy.

It is our job to allow their minds to grow and flourish just as we do the same for their bodies.  So, in this rule we cover movies/TV/songs they can see or listen to, where they’re allowed to play with and without us, how many vegetables they have to eat, and why they can’t just sit on the couch all Saturday long. When I was teaching I realized that even when a kid didn’t like a decision, they could still understand (if they really believe you care about them) that you’re doing something in their own best interests. When faced with a “Can I, pleeeaase” moment about a borderline activity we ask ourselves if we have any concerns about that particular child’s physical and mental safety if we say yes.

So, no, you can’t watch the new Spiderman movie because I think the bad guy is scary and it would not keep your dreams safe. Feel free to be mad at me.

3. Be well-rested
     This rule may not seem as important as being a good teammate or being safe and healthy, but I think it is. Our home should be a place of peace and rest for our family. No one person gets to disrupt the joy and calm of another. Right now, this applies mostly to hours of sleep at night and that, if you want to pitch a fit, you have to do it in a room by yourself. Every parent knows how angry and miserable a tired little kid can be, but on a regular basis it becomes a bigger problem. Sometimes it’s worth it–we went to a Braves game this weekend that definitely messed up bedtime for everyone, but it was fun and an exception, not the general rule. What we’re really talking about is that we set up a lifestyle where every family member has a reasonable expectation of being physically and mentally rested enough to take on the outside world.

As parents, this one is our job to enforce regularly. As the kids age, it is also coming to mean limits on the number of extra-curricular activities that they can pursue. It means saying no to some birthday party invitations. This rule does not make us popular with the kids, but if we don’t help them learn how to set boundaries in their lives early on they will become like the millions of adults who feel overwhelmed and squeezed by their lives before they even wake up in the morning. It’s a big deal.

4. Be of good character
     The number one thing our children can do to discover the vast array of our punishments is to lie to us. More than any other behavior, this rule cannot go unpunished. Without character, without honor, nothing else our children do will have meaning or purpose. When a liar does something good, people just wonder what they’re up to.

When one of our kids lies to us, we bring the hammer down. If the crime would lose you a day of TV, the lie to cover it up loses you a week. We are downright draconian about lying. I know our kids are far from perfect and that they will lie to us–out of embarrassment, or fear of retribution, or because they just feel like it. I will still love them, but my trust will be damaged. I don’t want them to wander around with guilt and shame, but I do want them to know that the words they say and the actions they take have real and lasting consequences. Convicting though this is, this rule is best taught by example. Jay and I have to keep our own characters in good standing to have any credibility with our children.

This rule also covers defending those weaker than you are, being generous to those in need, and respecting your parents. We are raising adults here, not children. They already know how to be children–loud and messy and irrational are not qualities we have to teach. Faithful, responsible, honest, patient–these take more practice.

That’s it.
1. Be a good teammate
2. Be safe and healthy
3. Be well-rested
4. Be of good character

These are our house rules for the foreseeable future.  They are simple and broad. They can be interpreted for a wide variety of situations and they give us four pretty easy responses to the “but why can’t I…” whine that we often hear. I’d love to hear if you have house rules or are thinking about it for your family. Happy back-to-school and good luck with writing your own general rules.

*not an actual kid. I’m not dumb enough to talk about the children of people who might read this. 🙂 

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