Let’s look at sporting rules. It provides structure and directions for the game. The players know the purpose of the game, how to compete safely, and if rules are broken, then there are consequences. There are different rules for different roles in the game: say a goalkeeper has specific rules applicable, which is different from the quarterback (gridiron) or centre-forward (netball). We have a place where it is played e.g. a soccer pitch, a basketball court, an ice hockey rink. Relating back to the family: what is the purpose of rules? Similar to the above. It sets boundaries and a structure by which every family member agrees to behave in different contexts. There are safety rules – holding hands when crossing the road for young children, driving rules and safe sex rules for young adults. In some families, there are different rules specific for gender, or order of birth (this is quite common in certain cultures). Rules may vary depending on different family locations, occasions or contexts. Some families may have strict attire for Sunday church service, weddings or funerals.
Rules require relevance or reasons why it is important. Why road rules? It could be about safety. Why bedtime rules? It could entail getting into a healthy discipline. Some rules have come from traditions handed down over generations. Others have been created or built together. This is where the partnering of parents and children becomes important. All rules, whether handed down or newly co-created, need agreement by family members for it to work. Sometimes revision is necessary. There was once a family tradition handed down for ever, until GenY grandchild challenged the tradition. She was promptly told that “We’ve always done it this way”. Not to be put off, our young investigative journalist revealed that great-great-great-great-great-great grandma had too small an oven – so the limbs had to be removed to cook the turkey! The following Thanksgiving, the turkey graced the table with all its limbs intact…
Moral of the story:
Rules that are no longer relevant or useful need to be reworked, revamped or refined.
How does it work?
Some examples of rules that have served our family well include:
- Food. There are ‘everyday’ foods and ‘sometimes’ foods. Healthy eating is encouraged with ‘everyday’ vegetables, fruits, nuts, water, fresh fish/meat any day. However, ‘treats’ such as lollies, wine, chocolates, cream cakes, soft drinks are partaken ‘sometimes’ on special occasions according to the family charter. e.g. Lollie Happy Hour on Fridays @ 3-4pm or soft drink on Saturdays, School Holiday treats such as cream cakes, ice slushies, and Christmas pudding.
- Sleep times. Weekend and holiday bedtimes are more relaxed than weekdays or school days, when a curfew takes effect after the specified time. Exceptions? What if a birthday fell on a Thursday? Does that mean no lollies (not Friday Happy Hour) nor Sprite (not Saturday) nor chocolate mudcake (not School Holidays)? Well, this would be a Festival Special (like Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, graduation) where exceptions are acceptable.
- Changing rules. We have rules that we consciously rewrite so that they are current and fitting for us. For example, our safety rule of ‘holding hands when crossing the road’ became obsolete for Jett and Xian in recent times, and has been replaced by ‘staying alert when crossing roads’ to avoid unnecessary accidents that can spring from say, foolish clowning around.
- Charter of Agreement. The Civil Code in our family: we agreed that there was to be no physical violence (hitting, throwing things at others, etc.) or verbal abuse (screaming out expletives, calling names, etc.). Consequence is time out in number of minutes according to years in age. So a 3 year old would get a 3-minute time out for a misdemeanour, while 60-year-old grandma would get an hour! And believe me, this once happened in our household when the child gave grandma a time out for screaming!
- Frequent Good Behaviour Points. FGBP, better known in our family as the Good Behaviour Fairy (GBF) Award, is a system of collected points awarded to one another by members of the family – which is claimable for a product or service (‘goal’ set ahead of time – e.g. a Nintendo Game worth $70 could mean working up 35 points to get it) eg 2 points for taking initiative (say, offering help to sibling so the latter puts points up); 1 point if had to be reminded (say I had to remind a child to brush teeth before bedtime). Conversely, if a behaviour deemed undesirable occurs (a child leaves toys in common living area when agreement is to respect common areas, then 2 points can be removed from FGBP system. Why the GBF? Well, all good fairies (like Santa’s elves) know when you are pouting, sleeping, naughty or nice so inevitably, a special bonus gift can miraculously appear under the pillow from the GBF when FGBP keeps growing. Since it is the good fairy’s gift, the big thrill is there is no necessity to redeem any points in this instance. This system is also inflation-free and GFC protected.
So what rules have you agreed to with your family? What are those rules that you currently live by that are no longer useful? What new rules have you consciously chosen to replace these? How have you partnered with your children to co-create and agree to these current rules?
Rules can empower
When I was a child there were a lot of school rules. I used to think: “Rules are terrible – when I am a mother, there will be no rules!” Big mistake. No rules means the child doesn’t know the boundaries. Every time they do something they need to ask me. How tiresome! So we sat down to work out some rules together. Here’s how negotiations happened when my kids were 5 and 7 years of age.
Rule 1: Homework first before play. “It’s very important to Mummy that you finish your homework first because I care that you don’t get in trouble with your teacher, and I care that you learn so that you may teach me some things too.”
Rule 2: Common area in house to remain tidy. “We are sharing in the living space, parents are not perennial hired help in the service of the god of childhood and I want to spend time with you playing rather than cleaning the house.”
Rule 1: Activities with Mum after homework. e.g. go for a walk, play games.
Rule 2: A story at bedtime.
Xian at five years old is the one who tells her 7-year-old brother Jett to, “Put those things away!” Perhaps she is learning delegation as a leader. Now Jett is the one who is more tidy than she is! I have friends come over and wonder how I manage a tidy household with my two little ones. It’s nice to be able to say that I have two little helpers. If they know the rules it’s much easier to keep the boundaries. Boundaries are important to all of us. When these are clearly delineated, it allows for independence. When you have rules you have freedom. Funny that.
Freedom and self-discipline are two sides of the same coin. We need to have both happening at the same time to achieve independence and fulfillment. How? If we were given a few simple rules to follow, then we know our limits in that context. So we can act independently within those confines knowing that we do not have to keep checking with the person-in-charge, whether it is a parent, a nanny/caregiver, teacher.
If there are no rules, you are caught in the prison of uncertainty. Nobody likes that. Besides, I don’t want to be the nagging mother pointing my finger all the time. I’m always the bad guy then. With rules, you lead your children to freedom. That’s love, isn’t it?
Agreement towards a code of behaviour allows for independence: children know there are consistent consequences as a result of not honouring agreement, and they are empowered to act without constantly having to check for permission when then understand clearly the expectations.
There is a “Civil Code” that we observe in the family that covers principles of behaviour we expect in the family. It is written on poster board and covers both rewards of good behaviours (tracked via a point system) as well as consequences of misdemeanours eg duration of time-out, systematic deduction of ‘good behaviour’ points. It is important to reinforce desirable behaviour through validation, celebration (no matter how small a win), and counting (vs discounting) any small tweaks of continuous improvement.
There is also a clause for Safety Rules of how to act under ‘emergency’ situations (e.g. in case of fire: what to do, who to call and where to congregate).
So what do you do with your family to co-create clear enough rules that you do not have to micromanage? What rules do you observe with your family? Are the rules written? Are there any exceptions? What other rules would you like to observe with them?
Dr Dr Yvonne Sum