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The importance of creating family rules......

In an earlier blog I covered the topic of ‘antecedent control strategies’. Being aware of how to implement these strategies prior to a problem behaviour occurring alleviates stress for both ourselves and our children.

Rules play an important role in the choices we make, influencing our responses to events and the consequences that follow. Rules are particularly important for children of all ages, providing them with the much needed structure and boundaries they require to keep them safe. An important part of following rules is that they allow us to develop a repertoire of skills for adjusting our behaviours when required. Rules influence our response to particular events and help us to avoid certain consequences (like being told to stay away from the hot stove) rather than having to experience them directly. (Michael, 2004. p.119).

As a parent, I had never really given much thought to how I had acquired the knowledge or skills to navigate my way through life but, more importantly, what I needed to do to ensure my children had those same skills. We learn by watching others and imitating, being directly taught something and learning the steps, or through instructions and rules. We also learn via those unneeded natural consequences like falling off a table I had been told not to climb! Whatever the mode of delivery, consequences guided my choices and this was how I learnt and how I knew what I knew.

There were times along the parent continuum when one or both of my children did certain things that involved poor choices. Sure, every child does this and that is one of the ways they learn. However there were times when both my husband and I would express complete frustration at why the children did what they did or made particularly poor choices. Why did he do this? Why did she do that? Don’t they know??

Well the answer to that, the majority of the time is no, they don’t know!! It was my son who inadvertently pointed this out to me. I know, hard to admit, but it’s the truth! The great epiphany happened the first time he had gone out bike riding with his friends. I had sent him on his way with the usual tips - no talking to strangers, stay with the group, make good choices. All the usual stuff you think of the first time they go out into the world without mum by their side.

Admittedly it was really only dusk when he arrived home, but it was enough for me to admonish him for not getting home earlier. Through teary eyes he explained that he didn’t know he had to be home while it was still light outside. All I could think to myself was – “how could any child not automatically know that???” or "how could he not know that it is unsafe for children to be out when it's dark??". I'll pause here and say, in his defence, it was one of those mid winter days where the sun sets much earlier and the days are far too short, particularly when you're outside having fun.

He came home on a high after his first independent outing and I had burst his bubble. When I thought about it, the pearls of wisdom I had shared earlier about street smarts hadn't included a discussion about curfew. So folks, it was then that I took a good long hard look at myself and began to correct my misguided assumptions. I decided to create a list of rules for our family.

A decision was made to include our children in the process of developing the family rules to ensure a more effective way of understanding what is expected in our home rather than depending on the power of osmosis!!! It provided a way to avoid some of the misunderstandings we had about family expectations.

Here are a few guidelines to direct you onto the right course when developing your family rules:

  • Firstly, ensure all family members are involved. This establishes awareness from everyone about expectations. Ask how long they think is an appropriate time to be out bike riding or what is an acceptable amount of time to be on the Playstation. Their answer may not match what you think is acceptable, but it is a good way to negotiate so both parties are satisfied. These discussions are also a great opportunity to encourage and build your child's confidence in communicating their opinions and ideas with others.

  • Ensure everyone understands the rules: Have a set of common rules that apply to everyone to minimise confusion, however it may be necessary to consider having a few individual ones as well.

  • Teach the rules: Depending on age, you might put a visual of family rules on the fridge or share them electronically via a notes or reminder app. Particularly with younger children, you may need to model or role play some of the expectations to ensure understanding and reduce any confusion.

  • Reinforce rule following: For rules and instruction to be effective, they also need some form of reinforcement. This might be a simple comment like - "thank you for coming home on time". The consequence of following rules should be clearly communicated with your child. Positive reinforcement ensures the likelihood of them repeating the behaviour again in the future.

  • Consider age appropriateness of rules: Keep rules short and simple. Teenagers would think it was pretty lame if, when they're 16, you still had the rule in place of "get mum or dad to turn on the hot water taps"!!

  • Rules should always be stated positively with clear expectations: Making a rule "you need to be home by 4pm" is clearer rather than "don't be home late". Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff and Wallace (2014, p.542) suggest moving the focus away from “what not to do” to “what to do”. Always demonstrate supportiveness not negativity in rule development.

  • Lastly, meet regularly to rewrite, add or omit certain rules: Acknowledge and respect that as your children's behavioural repertoires grow you may need to adjust your rules accordingly.

There are times when we do need to take our children aside to discuss what they've done wrong. Sometimes it is a legitimate concern or an important issue that needs to be addressed. But before you begin the conversation, no matter what age your child is, pause and take a breath. We can be a little too quick to judge our children's actions at times, particularly if it's a socially inappropriate behaviour. Never assume my friend! Only as adults (or as older children) do we know the consequence of taking a chocolate from a shop counter and not paying for it, but from a 3 or 4 year old's perspective it is something extremely yummy and there for the taking!!



Mayer, G., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2014). Behavior analysis for Lasting Change. (3rd ed., pp. 540 - 544). New York: Sloan Publishing.

Michael, J. (2004). Concepts and principles of Behavior analysis (pp.119). Kalamazoo, Michigan.: Western Michigan University, Association for Behavior Analysis International.

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