How to Let Your Kids Set Their Own Rules -- and Make Sure They Follow Them

Family Matters on 11.09.12
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Photo: Laura St. John 

With all the election hoopla, my kids have a recent spike of interest in voting. So, I decided to end any dictatorship in our household, and channel their energy into something productive: Designing rules together, democracy-style. The results have been tremendous, and here's why: Studies show that if kids are involved in the rule-making process, they get a clear understanding of expectations -- and are more likely to live up to them. You show respect is a two-way street, and that you value their opinions.

How to Creatively Lead the Way

In order for your rules to not end up being ones like "No bedtime, eat all the candy we want, and watch as much TV as we can,"  you have to get creative with how you lead your kids. This is not a who is-in-control power struggle -- you are clearly in control at all times. The trick is that they don't realize that.

First, set the tone and have some fun.

Today we're going to make new rules in our house, and you're going to help me make them. FIrst, how many rules do you think we should have? A hundred rules... 10 rules.... a million rules? (My kids thought we should have infinity.) No! We only have 3 rules. Let's make them together.

Next, lead them by giving examples through questions... continue to make it funny. If you have really young siblings, then add facial movements like shaking your head when you say "Yes!" and "Nooooo" since little kids follow body language better than verbal cues.

OK, let's make the first rule. If Sam is working on a project, like building with his new Legos, should we wreck his work? Nooooooo! If Will is sitting on that chair, should we push him over? Noooo! If Lucas is drinking his milk, should we toss his sippy cup across the room? No way! You're right. You know what? You just made our first rule -- respect. Do you think respect means to be mean to each other or nice? Nice, right!

I am sure to remind my kids that I know it's hard to always be nice and respect each other, but siblings are best friends for life, so they don't have a choice -- they have to respect each other. They're stuck with each other forever -- so better build the bond early on. My boys are best buds.

All right, now let's make the second rule. If Will needs new sneakers, does mommy and daddy have to get all three boys new sneakers? No, not if your current sneakers still fit you! If Sam gets to go to a friend's house after school, do we all have to go somewhere? No. You just made rule #2 -- no counting. No counting means that we will always try to be as fair as we can be based on what we feel you need. We're not going to count who gets what or multiply it by three -- we will always try to take care of what you need.

That rule really nips a lot of sibling issues, and saves a lot of money. Then there's the final rule.

Now let's make the final rule together -- this is an important one. If we're going out to dinner, do we yell and scream at the restaurant? Noooo! Do we throw around all the silverware and plates? Noooo! Do we make lots of bodily noises you guys think are so funny? Nooo! If we're going to the store, do we have a meltdown if I say no to something? Nooo. You just made the final rule -- be good. I expect that you'll always try your hardest to be good, because if you're good, then people will think that I'm good. If you're not good, then people won't think I'm good, either, and I want people to know I'm a good mommy.

Added Benefits

I want my kids to be able to solve problems and think for themselves. So if I always run around telling them what to do (Brush your teeth! Put on your shoes! Hurry up!) then that's not helping them become independent thinkers. It's making them rely on me like a crutch. So turn off your drill sargent commands, and flip it around to them.

Once rules are set, constantly challenge them with scenarios as they arise. Don't forget to prompt with questions. For example, "Today we're going on a long car ride. Remember our rule of respect? Should we be bothering each other in the backseat? No! I expect you'll be good and respect each other."

My three family rules (Respect, No counting, Be good) are so broad that nearly anything can fall under one of them. Don't forget to catch your kids being good, and point out specifics, like "I love the way you just used your manners so nicely when you talked to the waitress." Make positive attention the easiest kind to get -- and your kids will be in a good position to be on the "nice" list this holiday season!

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