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7 Tips On Creating Family Rules

| Examples | How Many Rules Does A Family Need | How to create family rules that work |

What Are Family Rules

Family rules are guidelines or expectations set by parents or guardians for their children’s behavior and actions within the family unit. They help establish structure, maintain harmony, and promote positive behavior in the household. 

Setting rules is an important aspect of parenting. It helps children understand what is expected of them and provides them with stability.

A family’s rules also reflect the values the parents hold dear and how they want to raise their children.

father mother and son wipe their forehead with heads wearing gloves

Examples of Family Rules

Rules can vary widely from family to family. They reflect the values adopted by the parents.

People can have different values, and therefore, there are no “must-have” household rules.

But the adoption of some rules is more common than others.

Here is a list of family rules commonly found in American families.

  • No hitting.
  • No yelling or screaming.
  • No fighting.
  • No breaking things.
  • Be respectful to elders.
  • No climbing on the furniture.
  • No eating in bed.
  • No snacks right before dinner.
  • No playing with fire.
  • No disturbing the neighbors.
  • No frightening the dog.
  • Go to bed by ten o’clock.
  • Finish schoolwork on time.
  • Be willing to share.
  • Complete chores before playing video games.
  • No more than 2 hours of screen time a day.
  • Listen to the parents.
  • etc.

The list of household rules can go on and on.

Every rule has two more rules – one that tells how the rule is implemented and whether there are any exceptions, and another that tells what happens when a rule is broken​1​.

How Many Rules Does A Family Need

Certainly, this is a rhetorical question. There is no optimal number of rules for a family to adopt.

Psychologists have found that rules tend to be associated with how adaptable a family is​2​.

A balanced, adaptive family operates with a mix of structure and flexibility. Relationships within the family are organized, and everyone, including the children, has a say in decision-making through democratic leadership and open communication.

An unbalanced family tends to be either rigid (low flexibility) or chaotic (very high flexibility).

In a rigid family, one person is in control and makes all the decisions. There is little room for discussion or compromise, and everyone has a role that does not change. Conflicts and power struggles are more common in rigid families with strong-willed children.

In contrast, a chaotic relationship lacks clear leadership, and decision-making is often done on the spur of the moment. Roles are unstable and can change frequently.

Compared to unbalanced families which are either inflexible or too flexible, balanced families are more functional​3​, and family members have warm relationships.

Therefore, neither too many nor too few rules is healthy for a family.

The key is to find a balance.

How to create family rules that work

Here are several things for parents to consider when choosing what “rules” to create for the family.

Make them enforceable

Make the rule enforceable. A rule that cannot be enforced holds little value or practical use.

Identifying and addressing rules such as “no hitting” or “no screaming” is relatively straightforward.

However, a rule such as “homework first, then television” may prove challenging to enforce in the absence of adult supervision, as it relies on the availability of oversight.

In cases where hitting and screaming occur, the affected sibling will likely inform the parents upon their return.

On the other hand, allowing siblings to watch television before completing their homework is a less tangible transgression and may go unreported, especially if they are all participating.

If your goal is to ensure that your child finishes their schoolwork, a rule such as “No skipping homework” is appropriate.

Make them fair

A rule is usually seen as unfair if it only applies to the child (or some children) but not others. 

Rules that are one-sided or unfairly target certain individuals can create resentment, frustration, or confusion and undermine the trust and respect between family members.

“No swearing” is such an example of rules.

Despite forbidding their children from swearing, some parents swear at others. This rule is unfair, and they aren’t good role models.

Family rules are more effective when they are fair and apply to everyone in the family. Rules that only apply to children and not adults can be unfair and hypocritical and may cause children to lose respect for their parents.

If children are not allowed to swear, adults must also refrain from using inappropriate language.

Consistent rules send the message that everyone is treated equally.

Besides, this is a good rule for parents and kids.

Control behavior, not feelings

As parents or caregivers, we can only influence our children’s behavior and guide them toward positive choices. 

But we cannot directly control the emotions or feelings of others, including our children.

The rules “You must respect others” and “You must be respectful to others” are different.

It’s possible to act respectfully towards someone without necessarily feeling a deep admiration for them.

This is an important distinction to make when it comes to family rules.

The rule “You must be respectful to others” is aimed at regulating the child’s behavior. In contrast, the rule “You must respect others” is focused on governing the child’s emotions, which is not possible.

While we sometimes wish we could force a child to feel a particular way, we cannot. Psychological control is associated with poorer academic performance and increased internalizing and externalizing problems​4​.

Generally, successful rules guide behavior, not feelings.

Focus on what’s important

The rule “You must apologize when you hurt someone” is aimed at regulating a child’s behavior when they make a mistake.

But a child can say sorry without genuinely feeling sorry.

What’s more important, saying sorry or feeling sorry?

If our goal is to teach children to be empathic and conscientious, forcing them to apologize is counterproductive.

Rather than making this a rule, encourage children to take responsibility and work toward making things right. The process usually involves apologizing when appropriate, but it should also extend beyond just saying sorry. What most parents desire is genuine remorse and a commitment to change.

The better rule is “No hurting others, both physically and emotionally.” When the rule is broken, help them make amends.

Make them reflect family values

Household rules are essential in providing structure and efficient management for parents while reflecting the family’s beliefs and values. But sometimes, one rule may unintentionally contradict another rule or value of the family.

For instance, “Everyone must finish their assigned chores every day” is a common family rule that may conflict with other family values. 

If a child is tired or feeling unwell and doesn’t want to do their chores for the day, will this rule be relaxed? 

Is being kind and helpful to others a part of family values?

Ultimately, family house rules should promote a positive and supportive environment where everyone feels heard, valued, and respected.

Instead of just assigning responsibilities, a better family rule for sharing the upkeep of the living space might be, “We work together to keep this house clean and comfortable for everyone to live in.” If one family member is tired or overwhelmed with schoolwork, others chip in to help.

In addition, being helpful is highly correlated with empathy in children​5​.

Make them meaningful

Many families have rules like “Keep your elbows off the dinner table.”

Although this is a common table manner, it may not warrant a place in the family’s rulebook.

Some manners are necessary to promote mutual respect and consideration for others. For example, saying “please” and “thank you” when appropriate or covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing. 

However, the inclusion of rules that only serve to enforce societal norms can create unnecessary rigidity within the family dynamic. 

Is it hurtful or disruptive to others to have one’s elbows on the table at dinner time? It also raises the question of whether conforming to societal standards is an important core value within the family.

Create rules that are meaningful and teach children what your family values are.

Rules Should Not Replace Teaching

While basic house rules are an important tool for establishing structure and promoting positive behaviors within the family, they are not a substitute for teaching and guidance.

Rules are a complement to teaching and guidance, not a replacement.

By using more comprehensive rules and teaching them how to think critically about the world around them, parents can help their children understand and internalize their values, beliefs, and behaviors.

A concrete rule, such as no hitting or spitting, is necessary to teach a young child self control, but a school-age child can benefit from learning the meaning behind those rules.

Here is a list of rules that is broader and promotes a child or teenager’s critical thinking.

  • Physical and emotional safety rules – No hurting others physically or emotionally.
  • No dangerous act. Do not put yourself, others, or properties in danger.
  • Be kind, considerate, and respectful.
  • Don’t waste. Don’t run the taps unnecessarily or take more food than you need.

Although these basic rules are more general than specific, they can inspire children to think deeply about their meaning.

Through these simple rules, children can develop self-awareness, empathy, and responsibility.

References

  1. 1.
    FORD FR. Rules: The Invisible Family. Family Process. Published online June 1983:135-145. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1983.00135.x
  2. 2.
    Olson DH. Circumplex Model of Marital and Family Systems. Journal of Family Therapy. Published online May 2000:144-167. doi:10.1111/1467-6427.00144
  3. 3.
    FRIEDMAN AS, UTADA A, MORRISSEY MR. Families of Adolescent Drug Abusers Are “Rigid”: Are These Families Either “Disengaged” or “Enmeshed,” or Both? Family Process. Published online March 1987:131-148. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1987.00131.x
  4. 4.
    Barber BK, Harmon EL. Violating the self: Parental psychological control of children and adolescents. Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Published online 2002:15-52. doi:10.1037/10422-002
  5. 5.
    Barnett MA, Howard JA, King LM, Dino GA. Helping Behavior and the Transfer of Empathy. The Journal of Social Psychology. Published online October 1981:125-132. doi:10.1080/00224545.1981.9711995

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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