“I don’t want more rules—I want more freedom!”

With those parting words John left his parents in the den and stomped angrily up the stairs to his bedroom. At age fifteen he thinks that he should be old enough to stay out later on Friday nights, but his parents continue to enforce the old timeline. His thoughts were really churning. “Why can’t I decide for myself? Why do they have to run my life for me? Why do I have to have so many rules? I feel suffocated!” Meanwhile, John’s parents remained downstairs in the den where they were carefully considering their son’s parting message. John’s words bordered on a disrespectful tone but they decided not to fight that particular battle tonight. His request was generating some important questions. Were they being too strict about the curfew? Did the current rule need some modification? What timeframe was appropriate for a fifteen-year-old? They struggled with their desire to allow John more freedom because they also felt very responsible for his health and safety. In their struggle both Dad and Mom were really feeling the stress of parenting a teenager. They had hoped for an evening of peace but the current stress felt more like war.

What causes most of the tension and turmoil in families today? Clearly, family rules are frequently the arena for open warfare in many households, regardless of whether the child in question is a teenager or a preschooler. Conflict about rules can rob any family of much of its health and happiness. Yet rules cannot be abandoned else the family members would all suffer from the resulting anarchy. So, what’s to be done about family rules? What’s the best approach for parents to take? Should the children be involved in the development of the rules? How should the rules change over time as children grow and mature? These questions are tough ones and they invite a great deal of thoughtful attention. Without a doubt most families would prefer to have a house at peace rather than a house at war. For peace to prevail two actions are essential: first, appropriate rules are established and enforced, and, secondly, all family members respect and follow the family rules. However, those two actions are much easier said than done!

Most of us can identify with John’s weariness with rules, at least to some extent. Like him, we get tired of rules and regulations and perhaps yearn to live somewhere with fewer rules—or at least with rules that we personally prefer. But, like it or not, rules are co-travelers with us along our Highway of Life. Beginning from birth a person’s travels are regulated by rules that impact every aspect of life. Toddlers and preschoolers are well-acquainted with frequent “No-no” rules. Each year the child enters a new grade at school and has a new teacher who announces “Now it’s time to go over our school rules.” Children sign up for various sports only to learn that every sport has its own rules to learn and follow. The teenager takes Driver’s Education classes and is given a manual to study—the “Rules of the Road.” Life on a college campus is regulated in many ways by administrative rules to be obeyed. The young adult enters the work force and is given a staff manual that contains many rules and regulations unique to that employer. He applies for a professional license and has to submit to rules. He leases an apartment or buys a house, and he inherits more rules to remember and obey. After dating several women he meets his “special someone,” receives a “Yes!” to his marriage proposal, and begins a new lifestyle as a family man. Within days he discovers that his new lifestyle contains more rules that relate to almost every aspect of his relationship. By this point in time this fellow has come to realize that rules are a part of life. In fact, throughout life the variations may change but the basic theme remains the same:  rules, rules, rules!  The continuing message is clear:  “Here are the rules; comply or goodbye!” Cooperation with rules is essential to a safe and successful lifestyle, but the ability to cooperate can be a hard lesson for us to learn.

Teenagers sometimes dream of a “utopia” where rules do not exist. However, the young person who leaves home to “get away from all the rules” is usually surprised and disappointed as he encounters rules at every turn in the road of life. One older teenager who hated rules came up with the perfect solution:  he would leave home and join the Army! Had he done so, he would have understood the meaning of the old saying about “jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.” However, before we get too critical of a teenager’s fantasies we need to remember that many adults also dream about and yearn for a new life in Utopia. Recently I decided to look for this sought-after utopia and in my search came across Utopia, Texas, a small town located just west of San Antonio. You might recognize this Utopia as the town in which the 2011 movie “Seven Days in Utopia” was filmed. The town offers a great deal to both residents and tourists, including one significant provision: the town has rules for regulating behavior. So, in spite of our fantasies about life in Utopia we can’t get away from rules! Clearly, rules just cannot be avoided as we travel along the Highway of Life. 

Since the issue of family rules often becomes the arena for severe family tension, parents would do well to invest a great deal of serious attention and effort in the development and enforcement of the particular set of rules they adopt for their family. With that thought in mind let’s consider several key questions about family rules and then explore a process for rules assessment.
                                                                 Considering Key Questions

No doubt you’ve struggled with your own questions that relate to the issue of family rules. I’ve identified several key questions that I’ve heard from parents during various professional and personal experiences. Perhaps our exploration of these questions will connect with you and possibly stimulate you toward some creative thinking about your own family situation.
What is a “family rule” and how are family rules established?

A “family rule” is simply an established guideline or regulation for attitude and behavior within the family.  These “rules” are designed to deal with the day-to-day activities and growth of the family members.  In some families the rules are clearly acknowledged and openly discussed.  In other families the house rules may never be openly discussed but are tacitly understood to be “in effect.”  A family may have its rules written down and posted somewhere in the house, or may simply discuss them at regular intervals without a written list.  Some parents decide upon the rules without any input from the children.  In other families children help establish the rules by sharing their ideas and preferences with their parents.  Joint-participation in developing family rules is obviously more workable in families with children beyond the preschool years.
Why are family rules needed?
Every family needs some type of “structure” to help the family members feel secure and to help them know how to interact with one another.  Without clearly-defined rules which are appropriate and helpful a family finds itself in a chaotic type of family government.  The lack of rules and the resulting lack of predictability foster insecurity and confusion.  If the rule-structure is too strict and therefore oppressive, the family may develop a rigid type of family government which has unhealthy implications for the family members.  Obviously, the nature of family rules must change as children grow and mature.   Families with adolescent children need to be more flexible concerning rules than do families with small children who need greater limits for their protection and security. Hopefully, the rules can gradually be replaced by “principles” which serve as guidelines for family interaction as the children move toward adulthood. Good family rules might be compared to a guardrail along a steep mountainous highway:  the primary purpose is not to restrict freedom--but to safeguard life!
What types of family rules are needed in families?

Specific rules obviously vary from one family to another.  However, rules are usually needed in several important areas of family interaction.

WORK (household chores, responsibilities, maintaining the home, etc.)

SPACE (who “owns” a certain room or area, when permission is required to use a certain space, etc.)

POSSESSIONS (what belongs to whom, who can use certain items, what has to be shared with others, what happens when something is broken or lost, etc.)

TIME (getting up in the mornings, mealtimes, snack times, bedtimes, curfews, what happens when timelines are broken, etc.)

RECREATION (what activities are allowed and are not allowed, scheduling a “playtime,” playmates, etc.)

COMMUNICATION (how discussions with others can be initiated or refused, what language is allowed, the use of time-outs, etc.)

CONFLICT (how to handle anger, the process of conflict resolution, handling personal grievances and complaints, physical hitting, etc.)

MISCELLANEOUS (Other specific rules may be needed in unique situations which should be handled as they arise. The areas listed above will cover most family situations.)
What factors determine the rules we establish and maintain in our family?

The following questions can be discussed in an effort to determine whether or not a particular rule needs to be established.

NEED (Is the rule needed? What purpose does it fill?  What is it expected to accomplish?  What is happening without the rule in effect?)

CLARITY (Is the rule understandable to everyone in the family, or at least to those who would be “governed” by the rule?)

APPROPRIATENESS (Does the rule relate to the need?  Is it suitable in terms of the age and needs of the people involved?  Is the rule “fair”?)

ENFORCEABILITY (Can the family members recognize when the rule is followed or broken?  What is expected to happen when the rule is not followed? 
How is the rule monitored or enforced?  Who is responsible for the enforcement?)

FLEXIBILITY (Can the rule be changed, temporarily discontinued, or abolished altogether? Is there room for negotiation about the rule?  Who is allowed to initiate the process of change?  Is the process of change understood?)
How can we establish rules which all family members will accept?

Parents must assume the primary responsibility for establishing and monitoring the rules governing their family.  Rules are accepted best when two principles of decision-making are applied:  joint-participation and consensus.  Joint-participation involves letting all the people for whom the rule is intended have a part in establishing the rule.  Even though a certain child may not “get his way,” he will be more supportive of the final decision if he had a chance to “have his say.”  Consensus means that the decision is made that has the greatest amount of support from the family members. Many family decisions fall in the area of “judgment” or “expediency”; these types of decisions are well-suited to the consensus concept.  Obviously, parents need to retain the right to make a final decision concerning a matter involving right or wrong.

Once a rule is discussed, established, and understood by the family members, the entire family should assume responsibility for monitoring and enforcing the rule (unless the enforcing process is delegated to one or more family members).  An important key to effectiveness is consistency in implementing the rules.
How often should our family rules be changed?

Some rules by their very nature are temporary; they deal with short-term needs.  Other rules serve long-term needs and may last for years. It should not be assumed that every rule, once established, should be left in effect forever.  A rule suitable for a preschooler obviously may be inappropriate (and even damaging) when that child becomes a teenager.  Regular family discussions of the family’s rules are highly recommended.  In these sessions the current rules can be identified and discussed. Rules considered as “out-of-date” or “once-helpful-but-now-harmful” can be abolished.  New rules designed to meet current and future needs can be considered and established. 

After considering several key questions about family rules, let’s turn our attention to the important area of assessment. What are the current rules and how satisfied are we with them? Every family needs a clearly understood process for reviewing old rules and for establishing new rules. Children, especially teenagers, need to have a clear process for requesting and negotiating change regarding rules. Let’s consider several actions that can be helpful and productive.

                                                                 Conducting a Family Rules Assessment

Families would do well to schedule periodic assessments of the rules for their particular household. Obviously, the parents should be in charge of the meetings, and during the sessions they need to maintain their authority and responsibility for the functioning of the family. At the same time they need to create a positive climate for open discussion about the rules. Children can be instructed in the appropriate way to disagree with a rule and/or to request a rule change. Compliments can be paid to members who have followed the rules. Consequences for violations can also be discussed. 

At some point the specific rules for the family need to be identified and clarified so that every family member is very clear about the rules and the related consequences of keeping or breaking the rules. As they are identified, the rules and consequences could be written down on a large piece of paper or newsprint. After the list has been compiled, the parents could allow family members to share their feelings and to request potential changes. The parents need to consider carefully all appropriately-given requests instead of quickly dismissing the ideas as silly or impossible. Through the entire process the parents are training their children to respect and work with rules and to learn the skills of appropriate negotiation with people in authority.

There are certain benefits to having the family rules listed somewhere in an understandable style. The list can be given to the children periodically to reinforce awareness and compliance. If your child breaks a rule, you could take the child to the posted list, point to a specific item, and ask the child to read the rule and the consequences. If the child tries to fuss with you, you can redirect him back to the list and remind him, “There’s no need to argue with me. Your problem is with #7 on the list. You chose to break that rule which means that you also choose the consequences that follow.” This particular action can help you as a parent to stay business-like so that you do not get emotionally sucked into an argument. Keep the child’s attention focused on the posted list and not on you as the parent. The list holds the child accountable and responsible for the specified consequences. Of course, you as the parent will need to enforce the consequences and to monitor them for fulfillment. If the child doesn’t like the rule he violated and wants it changed, you can encourage him to bring up the request at the next Family Rules Meeting, reminding him to use the specific process you’ve given him for requesting changes in rules. 

(If you would like to look at two sample worksheets that I’ve developed entitled “Clarifying our Family Rules” and “Modifying our Family Rules,” you can find links at the end of this article to a PDF-format version of the materials. The worksheets can be printed out for usage by your family.)
Concluding Thoughts . . .

Family rules are essential to the structure and health of all families. The extremes of “too many rules” and “too few rules” need to be avoided. Perhaps a good approach would be “no more than necessary but enough to get the job done.” As family members demonstrate maturity and responsibility, the number of rules can be decreased to the extent that they are replaced by higher-level principles. Living by principles is certainly better than a dependence upon rules. However, until all family members are mature enough to be governed by principles, the reality remains that rules are necessary. 

If you’re like most parents, you are definitely interested in “less war” and “more peace” regarding family rules. The approach you use in the establishment and enforcement of family rules will certainly determine how much peace—or war—you’ll experience in your household. I hope that the material presented in this short article will both encourage and equip you as you continue your travels along the Parenting Highway.

As always, best wishes in all of your relationship travels.
Credit:  I extend my personal thanks to all the people who have influenced the development of the material presented in this article. If specific source documentation is warranted for any part of the material, please let me know so appropriate credit can be granted. (BJB)

Resource:  To see the worksheets that Dr. Baker has developed for families to use in identifying, assessing, and changing the current rules, click on the titles below. (The material is in PDF format.)
           Clarifying our Family Rules”
            “Modifying our Family Rules” 
Parenting Resources:  Dr. Baker has published on this website an article about family negotiation that could be of interest and benefit to you as you work on your family rules. The material provides a process that teenagers can use in requesting permission and/or changes in family rules. To see the article you can click on the title below or the image to the right.
          “Parents and Teenagers:  Learning to Negotiate”
Referenced Resources:  To read or print Dr. Baker’s guidelines for Parent/Teen Negotiation described in the article about "Parents and Teenagers: Learning to Negotiate" please click on the titles below. (The material is in PDF format.)

Related Articles:

Other parenting articles written by Dr. Baker include a five-part series called “Pro-Parenting” and one called “Parents and Homework Stress.” These articles can be located in the Blogs section of the website, or just click on the titles listed below. . Additionally, a list of relevant books, articles, and websites is available in the Resources section (Category:  Parenting).
VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Family Rules:  Providing Structure for Children" please click on the image to the right or click here

Video Resource: To view a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses how parents and teenagers can use a form of negotiation to help with "getting permission" issues, click on the title below or the image to the right.


(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



    (Parents and Children:  Blog #408)


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