The House Rules - FamilyEducation

The House Rules

February 16,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I've been thinking a lot lately about House Rules--or, namely, about how they are often not followed at our house, despite having many of them. We had a lot more success with House Rules when the kids were toddlers. Rules like don't touch the outlets, or no climbing on the tables, or don't walk out the front door without a grown-up, or no chewing on toys that don't fit into the end of a toilet paper tube. Those rules were all easier to enforce in the old days, when the kids wore diapers and listened to us. The rules were all concrete and there were pretty clear cause-and-effect outcomes to not following them. But something happens to House Rules when your kids get older. Not only are they more difficult to enforce, but they begin to deal with behaviors and issues that are more ambiguous than the toddler transgressions--things like "talking back" and "being ugly," or violating people's need for privacy. These nuanced changes to parents' expectations of how kids should or shouldn't behave can be difficult for kids to understand; hence the need for House Rules. Our House Rules can be divided up into several categories. There are the House Rules that are basic and fairly simple to understand, like these: No eating candy before lunch No hitting or pushing or use of physical violence No snacking after 5:00 No whining No turning on the TV without permission No waking up parents on the weekend before 7:30 No walking around the house naked (Walking around in underwear is sometimes permitted.) No talking with your mouth full (This one is for T., who does this constantly.) Let me hasten to emphasize that just because these rules are in place doesn't mean they aren't violated on a daily, if not hourly, basis. And some rules are more complicated, like these: Respect people's privacy Clean up after yourself when you're asked to. L. has had to learn this one the hard way: If I ask you more than three times to pick up the things on your floor and you don't do it, then I will pick them up myself and put them straight into a trash bag. Whether they end up in the crawl space or the trash can cannot always be predicted... Don't interrupt a conversation--and this doesn't mean it's okay to say "excuse me" AND interrupt--it means don't interrupt at all! Respect people's possessions No fibbing No talking back about about any of the simple rules in place We do try, however, to encourage healthy conversations about what's deemed fair or unfair. Sometimes L. will argue a point and when he's done I do have to concede that he's right--he's pretty good at pointing out his side of things in a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense way. I'm also finding, as Scott and I get older, that we are taking more liberties in asserting our own rights than we did when the kids were younger--rights we often threw by the wayside, the way parents of very young children often do. They have learned that we just won't drop everything to read a book or play a game, but that as adults we have responsibilities that must be met, too, and sometimes these need to be taken care of first. Here are some other "rights" we are quick to assert these days: If the bathroom door is closed, don't come in. While I used to fully relinquish any expectations of privacy and used the bathroom with the door open so I could monitor my younger kids, I close it now and sometimes even lock it. This doesn't prevent T. from sometimes rattling the doorknob to get in, or talking to me through the crack under the door, but she is learning that a closed bathroom door means I want privacy. I am who I am about certain things, and I'm getting too old to fight it anymore. I did try to follow that bit of early parenting wisdom about sometimes letting the unimportant things slide--like how dirty your house is, or how much laundry needs to get done--and focus instead on enjoying the time with your kids. But now that I'm older, I just can't fight it anymore. I'm finding that I sometimes just need to take care of those small things, in order to fully enjoy the bigger ones. My new House Rule this year is that if I come home at 4:00 with the kids and there are still dishes in the sink and strange smears on the kitchen floor, and the laundry is busting its way out of the laundry closet, I need to take care of all that first, and then I can kick my shoes off and do a puzzle with T. Also, even though I'm thrilled when it's Saturday and I can read books with T. all morning in my pajamas, I still do need that cup of coffee first, and sometimes a second one, too. Sometimes we like to listen to the music we like in the car, and not Junie B. Jones books on CD. Our House Rules are always changing and evolving, just as we change and evolve as a family every day and every year. But they do give us a loose framework--maybe an illusion of order in a very chaotic world. Not only do the kids need them, but we're finding that we parents need them, too--we really do. And if you're careful to always explain why they exist and why they are important to follow, then hopefully, little by little, your kids will grow up with a healthy understanding of not only why rules make sense, but also why they should be followed in the first place. What are some of your House Rules? Are they followed well? What tricks/techniques do you use to encourage your kids to follow them?