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Steps in Creating Family Rules

Dad talking to tddler daughter

Family rules help create structure because children know what behaviors are okay and which ones are not okay. The steps for creating family rules are below.

Step 1: Identify the family rules.

Identify and clearly define the rules that are important for your family. Family rules may be specific to a situation, like dinner time rules, or they can be specific to behaviors that are never okay, like running in the house, hitting a sibling, or jumping on furniture. Family rules should be important enough that you have no problem consistently enforcing them.

When you first start using family rules, you may need to choose which problem behaviors to address first. Toddlers and preschoolers can only learn and remember two to three rules at any one time. It is also hard for parents to consistently enforce lots of new rules. It is a good idea to start with just one rule and add new rules as needed over time. This gives children a chance to learn a rule and how family rules work before others are added.

Rules are easier to follow when they are clear, exact, and can be easily explained to your child. Family rules focus on one specific behavior at a time. Avoid vague rules, such as “be good.” “Be good” includes many different things and could be hard for a child to understand and do. A more specific rule would be “Talk nicely to others.”

Unacceptable behaviors should be stated as a clear and concrete rule, such as “No hurting.” It is also important to state the acceptable or desired behavior immediately after the rule so your child knows what behavior you expect. For example, if you have told your child, “No hurting,” you can follow that up with “You need to keep your hands and feet to yourself.”

Family rules also should be realistic and fit your child’s age. The rule should be something that your toddler and preschooler can obey. Other approaches may work better than family rules for minor behavior problems or misbehaviors that do not occur often.

Examples of common family rules:

  • Follow adults’ directions.
  • No hurting. Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
  • No interrupting. Wait for your turn to speak.
  • No yelling in the house. Use an inside voice when talking in the house.
  • No climbing or jumping on furniture. Sit on the couch or lie down on the bed.

Step 2: Explain the rules.

Make sure your child knows and understands the rules. You can check your child’s understanding by having her repeat the rule in her own words. For toddlers and preschoolers, you may need to help them understand what some words in the rule mean.  For example, if the rule is “no hurting,” you may need to describe what “hurting” means. When a child first hits, bites, or kicks someone, you may need to say, “Hitting is hurting. Our rule is no hurting. You should keep your hands to yourself.”

Toddlers and preschoolers need frequent reminders about the rules. Rules can be repeated often and you can place reminders, such as rules charts, in locations where your child can see them. It is also helpful to place them in a public area so that everyone can be reminded of the rules. Good choices include the refrigerator door or on a door that everyone uses such as the front door.

You and your child can create a family rules chart together or you can create the chart and explain it to your child. The family rules chart should contain at least two columns: the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules. Pictures or visual cues can be used on charts for toddlers and preschoolers because they cannot read. For example, if a rule is to stay in the yard while playing outside, you may want to include a picture of a child in the yard. In the consequences column, you may want to include a picture of a child sitting in time-out. Click here to create a family rules chart.

Step 3: Follow the rules.

All family members should follow the family rules, given they are “family” rules. Young children learn a lot about what is expected by watching the adults in their lives. This means they look to their parents to know how to behave. For example, if you are respectful and listen to other adults, you can teach your child to listen to adults.

When you see your child following the rules, you can let her know you see her making good choices by providing a labeled praise. Labeled praise lets your child know exactly what she has done that you liked. The praise should occur as soon as you notice your child’s behavior. Praise should be used a lot when you create a new rule to help your child get used to this new expected behavior.

Step 4: Use consequences for not following the rules.

When family rules are always enforced, your child’s behavior and your relationship will be better. Family rules should receive an immediate response when broken. Consequences for breaking family rules should be clear to the parent and child. They are included on the rules chart as a reminder of what to expect. Consequences for broken family rules should be enforced immediately.