Rules for Families with Young Children: Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment

Rules for Families with Young Children: Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment

Key Takeaways

  • Don’t make a rule unless you can stick to it.
  • Kids respond well to rules; they dislike inconsistency.
  • Rules do not make you authoritarian.
  • Kids can help make the rules.

Every family is different. Every person is different. AND, being a parent is tough. If you ask for advice from other parents you know you’ll probably hear anything from, “praise them for doing good!” to “spank their butts for being brats.” Not only that, but you’ll visit your friends’ homes and some of them are getting their kids ready for bed at 6:30 while others aren’t settling down until 10! What’s right?! What’s wrong?! We need to have rules, right? But, our children need our love and closeness too, right? I think this guide will help you. In this post, I’ll talk about why rules are important, how we decide what the rules will be, and share what many of our rules are in the language that we actually use. By the end you should be able to re-evaluate your own rules at home, ditching the ones that aren’t working and creating some new ones that will bring about more peace in your home.

Our rules take a lot of talking through, debating, and revising but we feel the investment is well worth it. We don’t resort to bribery, rewards, time-outs, nagging, and even punishments; that’s a whole other topic! The things I’ve captured below are the principles we credit for our collaborative learning environment. Our children often help us clean the house, prepare meals, work outside, take care of each other, go to bed without argument, and do things without us shouting or nagging them to. They play independently as well as they play together, they often share toys or take turns without being asked, they respect the times we want to be by ourselves or need to get other things done and they invite us to play along too.

We’re amazing, right?! No. We aren’t special. Anyone can do this. None of what we do takes any extra money…in fact, these principles have saved us money and my relationships with my kids are more relaxing than I could’ve imagined. I hope you find these thoughts useful.

Things We Consider When Creating Rules

Is This About Safety?

Talk about hitting a moving target. Safety is not only subjective but children are growing and maturing every day. We are constantly thinking about our rules and finding things that don’t account for where they are developmentally. But safety is extremely important. We try to think beyond bumps and scrapes to the less-likely but scarier extreme illnesses or life-threatening injuries. We’ve seen ample evidence from other practitioners and in our own that children are capable of self-monitoring. If they feel safe doing it, there’s a good chance they’re relatively safe. The only caveat to this is if you’ve been the type of parent that has followed them around at playgrounds and caught them jumping from high places or helped them climb difficult ladders. These activities may give them false security and increases their chances of an accident or getting themselves into a more dangerous position. Bumps and scrapes are just the evidence of a person who’s developing awareness of what they’re capable of.

Is the Rule Clear?

Every rule made by adults makes sense to adults but is it clear to children? That’s even more important. They’re more likely to remember and follow a rule that’s clear. I know this because I’ve seen children who are known to be rambunctious and obstinate become calm and aware when given a clear rule to follow. Not that one rule is going to change your entire relationship, but it shows me that clarity matters.

Ask yourself, “Will they be able to know when they’ve broken the rule? For example: “No goofing off at the table,” is not a clear rule because who really decides what “goofing off” is? If we feel that a rule like this needs to be instated then we try to make sure that the rule is clear like, “kicking each other under the table is not allowed.” That may mean that you’ll have to create several rules to encompass the “no goofing off” rule but your children will be happier with rules that are easy to follow than with rules that are subject to your moods.

Is it Necessary?

We try to think of what the consequences are of not having the rule. Is it truly needed? According to Jewish tradition, God handed down 10 rules for how to conduct themselves under his covenant (However, there were many more added as part of the sacrificial system). Then Jesus reinterpreted all the laws of the Jewish people into two laws: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; love your neighbor as yourself. If God can keep it to 10 then we certainly can keep our number down too, right?

How Might it Impact Relationships?

I think this one might become a bigger part of the conversation as our children get older. I know a lot of families make rules about music, movies, friends, apparel, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those. However, I see evidence from my interactions with families that some of these rules put a strain on a dynamic relationship and may undermine the trust between the parent and the child. In any case, it helps to consider the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario. These are powerful exercises to go through when trying to establish a new rule.

I think the biggest myth about rules is that children don’t like them, especially teenagers. I think this is severely misunderstood. What children don’t like is being treated as if they’re not deserving of respect. Many parents make the mistake of having clear rules but they deliver them from a place full of criticism, nagging, blaming, and complaining. Other parents may be supportive and nurturing to their children but don’t set clear rules so the children don’t understand what can and can’t be done. The parent often feels frustrated and follows the child around to constantly remind of what they can and can’t do. The closest relationships we form in life seem to have the best of both worlds. We all want someone who will listen to us and help us feel comforted while also not letting us take advantage of them either.

Freedom Of and Freedom From?

Does the rule in question involve someone’s freedom? Is the behavior in question impeding someone’s freedom from the behavior? There will be many times that children have the freedom to toss and throw toys, but other children should also enjoy the freedom from being hit in the face with a projectile. Another situation that comes up is creative work; we want our children to have the freedom to explore paint, markers, and glue but we also want to be free from damaging furniture or making an area too difficult to clean. What I want to say about this is that it depends on your personal preferences. I don’t particularly care to do a lot of cleanup so my rules around messier jobs are more conservative than my wife’s rules. I think this is okay. Children grow to understand that different people have different rules. It’s healthier to be honest about the differences between the rules instead of trying to hide the differences to save face.

How Will We Maintain the Rule?

I wrote about how we maintain our house rules without bribery and punishments but this is definitely part of our process for creating rules. If we feel that our follow through will be inconsistent then there’s a good chance we will wait to set the rule. A great example of this is toys in the backyard. We currently hold to a rule that all toys in the play space be put away before bedtime. But, being consistent with this rule indoors is much easier for us. We have not created a rule for toys outside because we know that we won’t be completely consistent with it. However, we are moving in that direction where it’s becoming more important.

What Factors Make a Rule Effective?

I’m deeply indebted to William Glasser for creating the language around effectiveness. He often spoke about not seeing behavior as good or bad but as effective or ineffective at meeting our needs. Our rules can be looked at with the same lens: effective or ineffective.

I often refer to the table below:

Seven Caring Habits







Negotiating Differences

Seven Deadly Habits







Rewarding to Control

We find the rule to be both effective and nurturing to our relationships with our children when our actions are guided by caring habits. Our rules are less effective and seem to put more strain on the relationship when our behavior aligns with the deadly habits.

Have you ever noticed that the parents who are yelling on the playground are always yelling? It begs the question: if yelling is so effective then why are they doing it so much? Or, haven’t you seen the parent who is constantly following and nagging their child to make the right choices? Again, if nagging is so effective then shouldn’t they be listening by now?

If the rule protects them from danger, makes sense, and comes from a place of caring then I can almost guarantee the rule will be effective.

What Should My Rules Be?: Rules as of Jan. 12, 2019

I’m going to include the rules that we are repeating to our children (Ages 5, 3, and 7 mos). They aren’t our only rules but they’re the ones that are fresh in my mind. Please comment below or find me on Twitter: @philipmott1 or IG: @philip.mott to ask if we have a rule for a specific situation.

I may decide to do another post about what our rules are with some explanations of how we hold to them. Let me know in the comments if such a post would be helpful for you and your family! I’m going to put these rules in the same terms I say them to my children too.


I won’t let you drop your food on purpose. When you drop your food you’re telling me that you’re done eating.

You can sit on your knees or your bottom when you’re eating.

We eat at breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. (This one is interesting because I can rarely recall times when one has said, “Dad, I’m hungry.”)

In response to, “I want something else,” I’ll say, “if you’re still hungry after you’ve eaten your food then you can have xyz.”


I won’t let you take a toy that’s in someone’s hand. You can ask for it or wait until they’re done.

I won’t let you push or hit.

I won’t let you tell someone where they can go.

If you want to tickle or wrestle you’ll need to ask permission first.


I’m going to have you hold my hand in the parking lot.

You can look at things on the shelves but ask me before you pick something up.

(We don’t really have any rules around loudness in a store but if it came up a lot I’d probably say something like, “You’re really ready to play! You can play when we get home but it’s a little difficult to concentrate on what I’m doing when you’re loud.)


We can read a book together before bed or we can spend some time talking. Which would you like to do?

I’m going to put toys away and then we’ll get ready for bed. (Most of the time our 5 yo helps with toys and sometimes our 3 yo does too. If we decide that we’d rather not put away as many toys then we’ll just put some away in the basement for a time. This helps keep down on clutter and allows us to remain calm in the process.)

You don’t have to go to sleep but you have to stay in bed unless you decide you need to use the bathroom.


*Children love babies. I don’t think I’ve met a child that’s less than fascinated by babies. We try to give our children as much time as they want with their infant sister while still setting aside times when she can direct her exploration alone, something we’ve protected for the other two as well.

I won’t let you shout at her (infant sister). You can go to your play space if you’d like to play loudly.

Be gentle. Touch her the same way you see us touch her.

I won’t let you take toys from her.

If you’d like her to play with something you can show it to her but she may not take it.

Diaper changes are a time for me to spend with just her so you and I can talk after we’re done.

Rules vs. Boundaries

I think the distinction may be important. I generally think of a rule as somewhat rigid and less subject to whims. Boundaries may be more guided by our personal preferences and can vary from person to person within the same household. We have a rule that all food must be eaten at the table but I have boundaries or limits around what kind of games I’ll play. Those games are not hard and fast rules, they’re just preferences.

If you follow the same principles in this post you’re sure to find times when your rules need some adjustment. Pay attention to the way you feel about your children.  There’s a good chance you would benefit from reviewing the rules of your household if you are feeling agitated or impatient with them. You may believe that being a parent is just awful and you won’t be able to enjoy the relationship until you can finally drink a beer with them on their tab. That just hasn’t been my experience.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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