Family rules help create structure. A family rule is a specific, clear statement about behaviors you expect from your child. Rules work best when there is consistency, predictability, and follow-through.
Family rules help children understand what behaviors are okay and not okay. As children grow, they will be in places where they have to follow rules. Following rules at home can help children learn to follow rules in other places. It is normal for children to break rules and test limits. Consistent follow through with consequences when rules are broken help your child have a clear understanding about the importance of rules. Remember, young kids sometimes break rules because they simply forget. Not all broken rules occur because kids are testing the limits. But, our responses should be the same no matter what the reason for breaking the rule.
For family rules to work well, everyone needs to know, understand, and follow the rules. By doing this, children don’t get mixed messages about what is okay or not okay. For example, you know screen time should be limited for young children and you want dinner time to be family time so you set a family rule that no screens are allowed during dinner time. If another caregiver checks their phone during dinner, your child may be confused. Your child’s behavior will be better if all caregivers support the rules in the same way. This is true for parents, grandparents, or any other caregivers in your child’s life.
There are several steps that can help all family members be consistent. Parents or caregivers can:
talk about what rules would help their family and agree which ones to set
post the rules in the house so everyone can know them
talk with other adults who care for their children about the rules to make sure everyone knows what is allowed and not allowed
ask all caregivers to be consistent in monitoring and enforcing the rules
remind children about the rules by repeating and posting them in the home
The number of rules you set depends on your child’s ability to understand and remember. It is also hard for parents to consistently enforce lots of new rules. For young children, focus on only two or three of the most important rules at any one time. As your child learns a rule and is following it consistently, you can add new rules.
Steps for Creating Family Rules
STEP 1: Identify the family rules
Identify and clearly define the rules. Toddlers and preschoolers can only learn and remember two to three rules at any one time. Try starting with one rule to give children a chance to learn how family rules work before others are added. Family rules should also be realistic and fit your child’s age. The rule should be something that your toddler and preschooler can obey.
Avoid vague rules, such as “be good.” “Be good” includes many different things and could be hard for a child to understand. A more specific rule would be “Talk to other how you would like them to talk to you.” Unacceptable behaviors should be stated as a clear and concrete rule, such as “No hurting others.” It is also important to state the acceptable or desired behavior immediately after the rule so your child knows what behavior you expect. For example, if you have told your child, “No hurting others,” you can follow that up with “You need to keep your hands and feet to yourself.”
Examples of common family rules:
No hurting. Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
No interrupting. Wait for your turn to speak.
No yelling in the house. Use an inside voice when talking in the house.
No climbing or jumping on furniture. Sit on the couch or lie down on the bed.
STEP 2: Explain the rules
Make sure your child knows and understands the rules. Check your child’s understanding by having her repeat the rule in her own words. For toddlers and preschoolers, you may need to help them understand what some words in the rule mean. For example, if the rule is “no hurting others,” you may need to describe what “hurting” means. When a child first hits, bites, or kicks someone, you may need to say, “Hitting is hurting. Our rule is no hurting. You should keep your hands to yourself.”
Toddlers and preschoolers need frequent reminders about the rules. Rules can be repeated often and you can place reminders, such as rules charts, in places where everyone can see them. Good locations to place rule charts include the refrigerator door or on another door that everyone uses.
The family rules chart should contain at least two columns: the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules. Pictures or visual cues can be used on charts for toddlers and preschoolers because they cannot read.
STEP 3: Follow the rules
All family members should follow the family rules, given they are “family” rules. Young children look to their parents to learn how to behave. For example, if you are respectful and listen to other adults, you can teach your child to listen to adults.
When you see your child following the rules, you can let her know you see her making good choices by providing a labeled praise. Labeled praise lets your child know exactly what she has done that you liked. The praise should occur as soon as you notice your child’s behavior. Praise should be used a lot when you create a new rule to help your child get used to this new expected behavior.
STEP 4: Uses consequences for not following the rules
When family rules are always enforced, your child’s behavior and your relationship will be better. Family rules should receive an immediate response when broken. Consequences for breaking family rules should be clear to the parent and child. They are included on the rules chart as a reminder of what to expect. Consequences for broken family rules should be enforced immediately.