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.
Keep it real
Should there be one set of rules for all the children in your house? Not necessarily. "Take into account where each of your kids is developmentally," says Karen Gouze, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and a mom of three.
McGraw, for instance, lets 6-year-old Camryn get the mail from the curb while she's watching. But Caise, 3, is forbidden to try it for now. "He might run into the street," she says. And while Camryn can use the computer, it's off-limits to her little brother until he's older. Often the same rules apply to all the kids in the family, but they're adjusted according to age. Bedtime is a classic example—everyone has a set time, but the older kids can stay up later than the younger ones. In Bush's house, the kids are forbidden to barge in on anyone who's using the bathroom "unless there's blood involved." Her children understand and adhere to that rule. Now even her 5-year-old can wait till Mom is out of the bathroom. And the kids expect privacy for themselves, too.
Make the consequences fit the crime
Kids under 8 have a rigid sense of fairness and are likely to accept consequences if they seem fair and directly related to the infraction, says Gouze. "If a child doesn't share his toys when a friend comes over, a reasonable consequence would be to hold off on playdates for a few days," she says. "Similarly, misbehaving at dinner could lead to that child's leaving the table."
Sometimes, the best consequences of breaking the rules are the natural ones—simply step back and watch them unfold. In Bush's house, you aren't supposed to go into siblings' rooms when they aren't there, or use their stuff without asking. If someone disregards the rule, "then she gets the brunt of her sibling's tirade. I'm not going to cover for them," Bush says.
You might try posting house rules so they're visible to all in black and white. "Anytime you can take the parents' voice out of the mix, you do better and avoid power struggles," Gouze says. "Kids are less likely to push against rules that are on paper."
If you decide to change a rule—whether you're making it firmer or more lenient—you should explain why. ("I know I've let you eat in the living room before, but since we had the accident with the grape juice, I've decided that it's not a good idea.") "You can sympathize with your kids' disappointment and still stand firm in your decision," says Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting.
Older kids, who've come to realize that not all rules are written in stone, are likely to lobby for changes. Hear them out: Learning how to negotiate is a valuable skill. Let them explain why they disagree; sometimes they'll convince you that a rule doesn't, in fact, make a whole lot of sense. "I encourage negotiation because it makes my kids think about the reason for the rules," says one mom in Virginia. "We have a 'no food can be taken upstairs' rule, but recently my daughter, who's nine, was having her friend sleep over, and she asked if they could eat upstairs if they spread towels on the floor. I said yes, since it addresses the problem that caused me to make the rule in the first place." Of course, though, you don't want to go totally overboard on negotiation—if a rule is set in stone, say so; don't be afraid to say "enough" at a certain point in the arguments against it.
Do as they do
To be a good role model and avoid looking like a hypocrite, practice what you preach (though clearly adults are allowed certain privileges, like late-night TV watching, simply because they are adults).
Jennifer Maciejewski recalls the time she and her husband were caught talking with their mouths full by their daughter, Katie, age 5, who knows that the family's dinner-table rules prohibit such uncouth behavior. "We've transgressed in other ways from time to time, too, and have fessed up and freely admitted that we were wrong," says the Marietta, Georgia, mom. "I think it's extremely helpful for our children to be assured that the house rules apply to everyone in the family."
Josh and I are pretty careful to follow the new rules we've set for the girls, especially after Lucy caught me sliding down the banister. Trust me: Being busted by a smug 4-year-old isn't fun.