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Pillars of Parenting - Expectations (a.k.a. RULES!)


Once we know our Parenting Mojo (otherwise known as “values”) and what exactly we want to accomplish in parenting our children, we next have to figure out how we will make that happen.  This is where expectations and rules show up in the equation. (I know, I know, every kid’s FAVORITE thing!)

I find that most families, like values, feel that these rules already exist and are utilized in their everyday parenting. However, what I find is that these rules are assumed and not necessarily written down, properly explained or taught to all members of the family. This can leave parents feeling frustrated, kids confused and lots of parenting by way of shooting from the hip. In addition, the rules you may have been operating on may or may not align with the Parenting Mojo you have established for your family. This also can throw things off and may make you feel like you’re spinning your wheels.

When we are lacking in a clear set of rules for the family how do we know when and what we should discipline and what we can ignore or leave alone? We don’t. And your kids won’t really know where the lines of expectations are and what it takes to cross them. When it comes down to it, unless a rule is broken should there be a consequence? Probably not. The rest of the world doesn’t really work this way, so we don’t have to make it more complicated in our families. We don’t get sent to detention or get arrested because people around us didn’t like what we were doing. It’s because we broke a specific rule.

So, first thing’s first, as the parents or guardians (if there are two) and the leaders of the family, sit and discuss whether or not you, in fact, have rules and expectations all your kids know, understand and are in-line with your values. You may be winning already and have this piece knocked out of the park - or you may find, like many of us, that there are a lot of assumptions being made and some things out of alignment.

If you find that you need to do some work in this area, the first thing you want to do is pretty simple. Sit and make a list of rules. (I know, sounds kind of basic, right?) You may choose to have your kids in on the “fun” or you may decide, as parents, you want to have control of this all on your own. I recommend that your kids give some sort of input - either before you make the list or after – then, as The Parent(s), you have the final say.

There are a few things you want to think about in making your rules:

  • Rules must be able to tie back to at least one of your family values. Most of the time there will be more than one value to tie a rule to, but if you can’t tie it back to any value, it may not be a productive rule or it may need to be reworded to stay in alignment with your Parenting Mojo.
  • Make rules simple and clear. For example, “Respect others and their property” could have a lot of line items under this umbrella. It could include not teasing siblings, not taking other people’s things without asking, talking back, or even ignoring people in conversation. As a family you may decide to outline these things or, if you’re like me and like to keep things simple, you can remind the child of this rule when actions happen to break it and move forward from there. The risk to outlining every possible scenario would be your (especially more literal) kids pointing out when their action is not specifically listed in the line items and arguing that they did not break the rule. That may cause some frustration for everyone.
  • Rules must be doable. Feeling like you’ve been set up for failure stinks. For each rule it is important to triple-check that the rule is doable, and manageable in combination with other rules. For example, if you have a rule that all chores must be done before bed and also have a rule that everyone is in bed by a certain time, this could cause a problem in some situations. If you have a teen busy with school, sports, work and hours of homework they may be able to do one or the other (have chores done or get to bed on time) but not both.
  • Rules should apply to all members of the family (mostly). It will be very difficult to enforce rules without resentment if kids feel like they have to follow a rule you, as parents, don’t also respect. I mean, you can try and all, but I’m just giving you fair warning - it may cause more frustration than it’s worth. If you have rules like “respecting yourself and others,” and “everyone is expected to control their temper,” it may be seen as hypocrisy if you lose it on your kids left and right over both small and big things. Your kids may not put as much effort into following this rule as you would like. And you can expect them to point out, when being disciplined for breaking these rules, that “you do it all the time, too!” And that never feels good. This doesn’t necessarily mean consequences look the same if you break the same rule as your kids, but there should be a sincere effort to follow them in the first place.
  • A rule is not a rule until you make it a rule. Ok, so this is in preparation for the next segment on accountability, but we will discuss it here too. You may find that something comes up that you did not expect and it does not exactly fall under your other umbrella rules. Once this happens, it is important to talk about it as a family and decide what kind of rules need to be made for the issue. After and ONLY AFTER the rule is created, and there is a good understanding of the rule, can discipline be effectively accomplished. For instance, as more use of technology happens as kids get older there may be a need to build in some new rules or make some revisions.

Once rules and expectations have been hammered out, they should be written down. There’s something about writing things down that makes them real and makes them happen. It is good practice to write these rules down to add accountability for you and your kids to follow them. In addition, it is important to remember that, although rules are written out, they can change.  We want to have a clear and fairly concrete list of rules, but we also want to be sure this is a living breathing document with flexibility. We want to use this list as a guide and make changes as we need to. As our kids grow and change and have different needs and struggles, we may need to adjust how our rules are written and what is on the list. When they’re teenagers we may not need a rule stating they need to ask before grabbing a snack, but instead something clearer about checking in with the “who, what, where?” of what they are doing.

The most important last step, however, is making sure your kids know and understand the rules. No one likes feeling like they got in trouble for something they didn’t know was wrong or they didn’t know was a rule. Be sure you are clear with your kids regarding your expectations, and why you have those expectations in the first place. Also be clear before going into unique situations about what your expectations will be while there. If your kids are not used to going to a fancy restaurant or a formal dinner party, you may want to lay a few things out before getting there to make sure they realize what is expected of them.

I know sorting through your expectations and actually writing them all out may seem like a big job, but even God himself committed the Ten Commandments to stone!  I’m not asking for any engraving here (or any burning bushes!), just a way to make everyone in your family knowledgeable about the when, how and why they are following or breaking the rules you’ve set out for them – a strategy that will increase the calm in the chaos of family life.