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How to Make Rules that Stick

We recently renovated our house, giving our girls new ways to test authority. Just minutes after we moved back in, Lucy, 4, was sliding down the early-1900s banister, while Olivia, 9, headed to our pristine family room carrying a bag of Goldfish crackers and dropping crumbs along the way. As I looked on in horror, I realized that we needed some new rules.

But what kinds of restrictions could we all live with? Should banister-sliding be an absolute no, or was it futile to forbid something so tempting? How about a ban on eating in the family room? Was it crazy to think that TV watching could never be combined with snacking? And would my husband, Josh, and I have to obey the same rules as the kids?

Since the road to civilization isn't always an easy one to pave, here are some rules, if you will, for making house rules.

You gotta be you

I'd love to live on a page of a Pottery Barn catalog. But with two kids, I shudder to think what it would take to make that happen. Josh and I do know parents who maintain spotless homes, but since we lack the genes required to pull that off, we're not even going to try.

Be honest with yourself about what's most important to you. "Sometimes people adopt rules simply because their parents made them when they were kids or because it seems like the right thing to do, but rules that feel unnatural will be hard to enforce down the line," says Marvin Berkowitz, Ph.D., author of Parenting for Good. "Focus on a few critical ones, making safety a priority."

Karen Bush of Great Falls, Virginia, has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bed-jumping, for good reason. "Grandma was relaxed about this one time and one of my kids sprang off a hotel bed and hurt herself," she says. Jodi McGraw of Morris, Alabama, worries less about the furniture but limits where her two kids can eat (dining room only). Bush is a stickler for privacy; McGraw isn't. "We leave bathroom doors open, forbid locked bedroom doors, and walk around half dressed," McGraw says. The bottom line: Different strokes for different folks. Do what makes sense for you.

Christina Frank, who lives in Brooklyn, writes about health, psychology, and parenting for national magazines.

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