Every so often I find myself involved in a parenting discussion where my humble opinion is actually requested. When these rare occasions arise, and unfortunately more often when they do not, I typically don’t mind sharing our family’s system for rules and consequences and how we generally deter our children from acting like savages.
Now that my older children are entering the teenage years, I can reflect on the rules we put in place years ago and begin to judge whether or not they’ve been effective. With the onset of adolescence, some things in our parenting toolbox are adapting but because of the ground work we laid through the early years, I’m hopeful the path ahead won’t be too rocky.
Thus far, I really like spending time with my kids. Being home all day with them isn’t bad. I look forward to going on vacation as a family and even going out to eat. (this is despite the fact that sometimes I can appear to be a stressed out pyscho in either situation). I still need mom time, and my kids need to socialize outside their siblings but I usually feel like we have a happy home where everyone works together and gets along. Maybe we could’ve gotten here without rules but I wonder how much harder it would have been .
So here for posterity is part one of our system (or Domestic Rule, inspired by ‘The Rule of St. Benedict.”) Part two will deal with consequences. It’s not the system I believe everyone needs to use right now and I don’t believe it’s the fail proof Catholic system. You are free to disagree and then go write your own blog post about your much better system that relies on butterfly kisses, deep heart to hearts over patchouli incense or tasers. But if you’re a young or struggling parent trying to create order with all these lively strong-willed little people running around, perhaps some of my advice might help you.
First, why create rules at all? It doesn’t take a genius to see that all great civilizations, successful organizations and Holy Mother Church Herself relies on rules. Nothing enduring is created from anarchy, in fact we generally call that barbarianism. If we understand our faith we know that the rules laid down by God and transmitted through His servants, like Moses and the prophets or His Son Jesus, ultimately make us happier and prepare us for eternal life in Heaven. God knows that as fallen creatures we need rules.
If I remember correctly it was sometime shortly before Fulton was born, when my older three kids were all five and under that we first introduced a list of clear-cut rules. I wrote them down and stuck them on the fridge, where they hang to this day. They include:
- Apologize (even for accidents) when you are wrong and forgive when wronged.
- Resolve problems by yourselves without arguing or tattling.
- No screaming when inside.
- No jumping or climbing on the furniture.
- No taking of another’s possessions without asking permission.
- Tell someone to ‘Stop’ if they are bothering you and ‘Stop’ what you are doing if someone asks you to THE FIRST TIME.
- Always say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’.
- Always say ‘Sorry’ (even for accidents) when someone is hurt. Hug your sibling.
- Always tell the truth.
- ONCE GIVEN AN ANSWER DON’T ASK AGAIN.
- OBEY MAMA AND PAPA THE FIRST TIME YOU’RE TOLD TO DO SOMETHING WITHOUT SASS OR COMPLAINT. DO THEN ASK.
I hope it’s clear that most are child sized versions of the Ten Commandments and the two greatest commandments mentioned by our Lord in Matthew 22: 36-40. “Always tell the truth” references , the eighth commandment “Thou shall not bear false witness”. And our children’s first “neighbors” are their family. Using good manners, apologizing, and working together all show love towards them and sets the stage for doing so within society at large.
Before the age of two, I do not think children need strict rules but more oversight for their safety. You say “No!” to protect them from putting their hand on a burner or stabbing the dog with scissors. Young children don’t know these things are bad, they’re just exploring their environment. However, around 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 kids start to understand what all these “No!”s mean and they start testing your boundaries. They want to know if you will really keep them from stabbing the dog every single time or if was a one time thing. Now is when you make your expectations for their behavior crystal clear.
We introduced the rules and went over them with the children many times. I didn’t give an in-depth lecture explaining each rule because you can’t reason with small children. We simply said, these are the rules, made biblical references when necessary, answered any questions they had, and went forward. As the kids got older and we kept reviewing the rules, we would explain more and more of our reasons for having them. And they of course would ask more questions. Over the years we added a separate sheet of rules named “Table Manners” and within the last couple of years we outlined our screen contract. Before I’m ready, I’m sure we’ll be discussing dating, driving and other teenage concerns.
It’s important to carefully consider what rules are most important. Don’t select rules that you don’t feel like enforcing. Otherwise your kids will come to view all the rules as carrying no weight and will test them constantly, which is exhausting. It is hard when the kids are young and you’re tired or stressed. But I can tell you now, on the other side that it is worth it. My older kids enforce the rules with the younger kids; it’s no longer just my job. And yes, I get back talk and sass from my children, but 90% of the time when I ask a child to do something (walk the dog, complete work, clean their room, get ready to go now) they do it. The habit of right away obedience is ingrained.
Teaching right away obedience in our house began with the rule “Listen to Mama and Papa the first time you’re told to do something without sass or complaint: DO THEN ASK!”. As the children have matured, they’ve tried to ‘ask then do’ but I remind them the time for questions is after my request is honored. We also discuss obedience as it applies to my husband and I and how we answer to each other, bosses, and to God. We are not dictators, we are exercising the authority God has given us to raise them in a way that leads them to heaven and it’s a responsibility we take very seriously. We don’t make rules and dole our consequences for fun, we do it with a much larger picture in mind because we know we will have to answer to God for how we raised our children.
Well known author and homeschooler Laura Berquist makes a great point;
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, teaches that prudence is the cardinal virtue. It is prudence that makes it possible to do the right thing in the right place at the right time. An action that is courageous in one instance may be rash or foolish in another, because the time and place are not right. Prudence puts the actions in the right order.
Children are not capable of prudence. Of the virtues, prudence most of all requires experience. To know that now is the time to speak up, and now is the time to keep silent, is something one learns by doing and observing. To be able to determine that in this case the virtuous action is to stay home and work on a project, but in that case the virtuous action is to leave the project an go to the talk, requires experience and reflection on that experience. Children don’t have experience. But their parents do.
For children obedience takes the place of prudence and that is why it is so central to their training. By obedience children participate in the prudence of their parents.
My favorite Gospel story, for many reasons, is the Miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana. In it, Jesus turns the water into wine at the request of his mother Mary. Jesus, who is God, was obedient to His earthly mother. If Jesus obeyed His Mother, who are my children to think they can treat me with disrespect?
As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said,”Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.” Jesus was obedient to His Father in heaven the whole way to the cross. If Jesus could obey his Father into death, who are my children to refuse my simple request?
God made ‘Honor thy Father and Mother’ the fourth commandment, above not killing or committing adultery for a reason, and we have His son’s faithful example to follow.
More recently, we have started talking about when it is appropriate to not be obedient, for example if the government were to pass an unjust law or if we were demanded by someone in authority to commit a sinful act. If you have reviewed materials from your diocese regarding the safety of children, you know they cover situations where children do not need to respect the authority of the person making the request because these requests are dangerous and/ or sinful. These are appropriate times to question authority, to ask before doing, or to exercise outright defiance. However, it is not appropriate to for young children to question their parents and talk disrespectfully to them over trivial matters such as chores, school work and meals.
Up next; what to do when the kids don’t follow the rules. Comments, disagreements, and questions welcomed in the combox.