No more late nights
Rule #2: I don't work past 8 p.m.
Goal: Regular bedtimes and time off for you
You can't just announce a rule to your husband and kids that says, "Bedtime has to go really smoothly so I can get a break at the end of the day." It won't happen. But if you flip the problem and make a rule about you instead of telling everyone what they have to do, it all falls neatly -- and miraculously -- into place.
When this occurred to me, back when my oldest was 6 and my youngest was nearly 2, I announced to Anna and Taylor that the U.S. Department of Labor had just created a new rule and I was no longer allowed to do any kind of mom jobs past 8:00 in the evening. I would gladly read books, play games, listen to stories of everyone's day, give baths -- the whole mother package -- before then. Then I held firm -- I acted as if it were out of my hands. Sort of like Cinderella and midnight.
Suddenly, my 6-year-old (and my husband) developed a new consciousness of time. My daughter actually rushed to get ready for bed just after dinner so that we could have lots of books and time together before I was "off." My husband, realizing that if things dragged past 8:00 he'd have to face putting both girls to sleep himself, became more helpful. Anna's now 11, and my hours have been extended, but the idea that I'm not endlessly available has been preserved and integrated into our family routine.
Why it works: You're not telling anyone else what to do. The rule is for you, so you have only yourself to blame if it's not enforced.
Rule #3: You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit
Goal: No more haggling -- over which pretzel has more salt or who gets their milk in the prized red cup and who in the cursed green, or which cast member of Blue's Clues adorns whose paper plate
My friend Joyce, director of our town's preschool, told us about this terrific rule, now repeated by everyone I know on playgrounds and at home. Not only does it have a boppy rhythm that makes it fun to say, but it does good old "Life isn't fair" one better by spelling out both the essential truth of life's arbitrary inequities and the only acceptable response to the world's unfairness: You don't throw a fit.
When I first heard this, I was skeptical. It seemed too simple. But to my utter surprise, not only did it do the trick but kids seemed to rally around it almost with relief. They must have seen that if it applied to them today it might apply to someone else tomorrow.
Why it works: It's irrefutable -- it almost has the ring of runic or prehistoric truth to it -- and rather than focusing on an abstract notion like "fairness," it speaks directly to the situation at hand.
Rule #4: Take that show on the road
Goal: Peace and quiet
Is it just me or does someone saying "one-strawberry, two-strawberry, three-strawberry" over and over in a squeaky voice make you want to smash some strawberries into a pulpy mess? I want my kids to be gleefully noisy when they need and want to be. But I don't feel it's necessary that I be their audience/victim past a few minutes or so, or that I should have to talk (shout?) over their, um, joyous clamor when I'm on the phone. So once I've shown attention adequate to their display, I tell them that they're free to sing, bang, chant, or caterwaul to their hearts' content, just not here. The same goes for whining, tantrums, and generic pouting.
For the irrational and long-winded whining jags sometimes used by her 4-year-old son, my friend Denise has turned this rule to a pithy declaration: "I'm ready to listen when you're ready to talk." She then leaves the room.
Why it works: It gives children a choice rather than a prohibition and does so without rejecting them.