Family rules: why they’re important
Family rules are positive statements about how your family wants to look after and treat its members. Rules help:
- children and teenagers learn what behaviour is and isn’t OK in your family
- adults be consistent in the way they behave towards children and teenagers.
Rules can help everyone in your family get along better. They make family life more positive and peaceful.
What do good family rules look like?
Good family rules guide children’s behaviour in a positive way. They:
- say exactly what behaviour you expect – for example, ‘We speak to each other with respect, like saying “please” when we ask for something’
- are easy for children to understand – for example, ‘Use a quiet voice inside the house’
- tell children what to do, rather than what not to do – for example, ‘Keep your room tidy by putting your clothes away’ rather than ‘Don’t be messy’.
Rules that tell your children what not to do are OK sometimes. They’re best when it’s difficult to explain what to do instead – for example, ‘Don’t use swear words at home’.
A short list of positive family rules is better than a long one, especially for younger children.
Every family’s rules will be different. Your family rules will be influenced by your beliefs and values, your situation and your child’s maturity and needs.
What to make rules about
Choose the most important things to make rules about. This might include rules about:
- physical behaviour towards each other – for example, ‘Be gentle with each other’
- safety – for example, ‘Always tell a parent if someone you don’t know wants to be your friend in real life or online’
- manners – for example, ‘We wait until others have finished talking before we talk’
- daily routines – for example, ‘We take turns setting the table each night’
- respect for each other – for example, ‘Knock before going into each other’s rooms’
- screen use – for example, ‘Screens stay on the kitchen bench overnight’.
Your children will learn that rules are a part of life and that there are rules for different places and parts of life, like school, public transport and sport. Making and following family rules can help your children respect the rules in other places too.
Who to involve in making the rules
It’s important to involve all members of the family as much as possible when you’re making family rules.
Children as young as 3 years can be part of talking about the rules. As children get older, they can be more involved in deciding what the rules should be.
When you involve children and teenagers in making the rules, it helps them understand and accept the rules and why your family needs them. This means they’re more likely to see the rules as fair and stick to them.
For older children and teenagers, being involved in making the rules can also give them the chance to take responsibility for their own behaviour.
It can help to write down the rules and display them where everyone can see them. This helps to make them clear, and it can also prevent arguments about what is or isn’t allowed. For younger children you can make or draw pictures that show the rules.
When to review or change the rules
It’s good to go over your family rules from time to time to check how they’re working. This can also be a good way to remind everyone of the most important rules.
And there will be times when your rules need to change, as your children get older or your family situation changes. For example, you might extend a school-age child’s bedtime or a teenage child’s curfew. Or if one parent’s work arrangements change, you might make some new or different rules about helping with household chores.
Just like when you make new rules, it’s good to involve children in making changes to rules.
Following the rules: what to expect from children of different ages and abilities
Most children aged 3-4 years have the language skills to understand simple rules.
But at this age, children are likely to forget or ignore rules. They’ll need support and reminders to follow your family rules. For example, ‘Remember, we sit down to eat’.
And when it comes to safety, rules are important, but it’s best not to rely on them to keep children safe. For example, your rule might be ‘Stay away from the road’, but you still need to always watch your child near roads.
School-age children and pre-teens
Children might be 8-10 years old before you can start relying on them to follow rules without your help in most situations. For example, children of this age will probably remember rules about brushing teeth before bed or waiting for an adult before crossing the road.
Reminders will help your child remember the rules even when you’re not around.
Rules are just as important for teenagers as they are for younger children. Clear rules give teenagers a sense of security at a time in their lives when many other things are changing. It’s never too late to create or reinforce rules for teenagers.
Rules about safe behaviour are especially important. These might include rules about alcohol use, vaping, sex, dating and curfews. Some families negotiate and sign safety contracts. A safety contract is a signed agreement that outlines the rules – for example, ‘I will text you when I use public transport at night’.
But you can expect some challenges to the rules, as teenagers look for more autonomy and independence.
At this age, a change in language from ‘rules’ to ‘expectations’ can help your child feel like they’re being guided rather than controlled. This might encourage them to follow the rules.
Children with additional needs
In families with children with additional needs, consistent rules send the message that everyone is equal. For example, if your family rule is that you all speak nicely to each other, your child with additional needs should follow this rule just like your typically developing children.
Like all children, children with additional needs might sometimes need help to understand and remember rules.
Some rules might apply to the whole family, whereas others might apply just to younger children or to teenagers. As children get older and more mature, the rules can ‘grow’ along with them.
What to do when children don’t follow the rules
When children break the rules, you might choose simply to remind them of the rules and give them another chance.
But it will ultimately be more effective to use consequences for breaking rules.
It’s best to talk as a family about consequences when you’re making the family rules. This can ensure that everyone understands and agrees on the consequences from the start. And if everyone understands and agrees, it can be easier to put consequences into action when children break the rules.