Family Rules: The Guardrails of Safety

From the time my children could walk (and even before), my family has enjoyed walking along the ridge of Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh, PA. Our daughters often ran ahead of us and darted out onto the overlooks. They would run right to the edge of the overlook and MtWash3peer through the fence at the panoramic view of Pittsburgh and the three rivers. We enjoyed those walks. Others did too. We saw high school couples taking prom pictures with the city of Pittsburgh as a backdrop. We even watched one romantic wedding proposal (she answered “yes”). We looked forward to walking, running, and skipping across the ridge of Mt. Washington; and, we never worried about our children’s safety. We simply enjoyed our family while looking over the ridge at the three rivers of Pittsburgh. Know why we never worried? Guardrails! Guardrails lined the ridge and each overlook. They kept us (and our children) from “going too far” and falling over the edge. They protected us. They added to our safety and allowed us to simply focus on enjoying one another in the moment.

Loving rules act as guardrails in families. They clearly delineate the limits and keep family members from “going too far.” They protect family members from hurting themselves or one another. They add a measure of safety to our lives and allow family members to enjoy one another more freely. All families benefit from clear, concise rules that create security. Establishing effective rules can prove a challenge. In fact, the rules may vary according to family, ages, places, or times. But, if you keep these five principles in mind when establishing family rules, you will enjoy the benefits of a healthy security and growing intimacy.

  • MtWash2Keep rules to a minimum. Too many rules become a burden and take the focus away from enjoying the relationship. Besides, you don’t need a rule for every situation. Some things are simply taught during daily interactions and don’t require a formal rule. Rather than making a rule for every situation, focus on rules that promote safety and respectful interactions. (Read Lincoln on the Parental Tyrant)
  • Establish reasonable rules. Rules are most effective when they make sense, when they have a logical foundation. When children ask about the reason for a certain rule, give them a clear and concise age appropriate reason. If the only reason for a rule is “because I said so,” you might want to reconsider that rule. (Read Because I Said So to learn more)
  • Make sure the rule is enforceable…and that you are willing to enforce it. Nothing undermines a good rule like lack of follow through. Enforceable rules focus on actions and behaviors—not attitudes, feelings, or thoughts. We cannot enforce an attitude, feeling, or way of thinking. However, we can enforce appropriate behaviors reflective of those attitudes, feelings, or thoughts. Effective rules focus on those behaviors. They define specific behavioral expectations and the realistic consequences related to them.
  • Effective consequences match the behavior. In other words, make sure the punishment fits the crime. A four-year-old who neglects to brush their teeth requires a very different response than a sixteen-year-old caught drinking. The rules and the consequences need to fit the situation and the child. (Parenting Advice from Horton the Elephant offers more)
  • Effective rules are undergirded by loving relationships. Vague, ambiguous rules result in too much slack and free reign to children who do not have the experience or wisdom to make some of those choices. Too many rules and rules based on “absolute black and white thinking” result in a lack of needed flexibility. They create a rigidity that prevents children from internalizing the “spirit of the law” and making it their own. The balance between these two extremes, between permissiveness and rigidity, is found in rules that flow from loving relationships. (Read Relationships Rule for more)

These five principles will help you establish loving, clear, effective rules that will protect your family from “going too far” and allow you to more fully enjoy your family.

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