House Rules for Kids
Military life is full of changes, which is hard on military kids and their parents. It’s especially difficult when your service member is away, leaving you as the solo parent. For us, the first weeks of a deployment or after a PCS move are very loud. When I am the only parent, surrounded by my five kids, discipline and order can get a little overwhelming! I get tired of repeating things. I get frustrated trying to make decisions on the spot about what is “fair” and what should be our normal routine. Sound familiar?
People have often asked me how I handle deployment with so many kids on my own. How do you go through the bedtime routine as the only parent? How do you get anything done? The answer is structure. When kids know the expectations and rules, they are more likely to form healthy habits and routines, and follow them on their own. One things that saves my voice and my sanity is writing down the house rules. We have had to do this multiple times over the years, whenever kids get older, my husband deploys, or we move to a new place. I have found that just writing down the house rules and posting them on the wall makes it a lot more likely that they will be followed. When your spouse isn’t around to back you up, the rules on the wall have their own authority, so you can point to them when kids start to argue with you or do unacceptable things. Here are some effective ways to use a family rules list or chart to help your military kids keep routines at home.
1. Get the kids involved in writing House Rules.
House rules should be like a contract that the whole family agrees on together. Of course, if you ask a 3 year old for rules, they are going to recommend ice cream every night! But… you may also be surprised to learn that they already know some of the rules you plan to write down, because you have been repeating them daily. So sit down with your kids, and ask them for their suggestions for rules the whole family can follow. If they can’t think of any, ask them for problems they are having again and again— “my brother always takes my toys,” or “I don’t like when she makes fun of me.” Then have them work together to suggest a rule that will solve that problem. Kids are more likely to remember and follow rules if they help come up with them!
2. Make a separate list just for meal times.
Our little ones can make meal times difficult for me. Five of them, ages 11 to infant, and just one of me. I like having family dinner together, but I want us to be able to have actual conversations, and I can’t shout out rules and reminders when I am chewing! So we made a separate list with all the things I usually have to repeat at dinner time: sit on your bottom, don’t rock your chair, try the food before you say you don’t like it, ask to be excused, etc. Our kids now sit down as soon as I remind them, “Rule #1.” Sometimes I resort to sign language and pantomime because hey, I gotta eat too! You can read more about getting the kids involved with mealtime here.
3. Write down Family Expectations along with house rules.
When we started brainstorming with our kids, I discovered that some of their suggestions were actual rules, like “don’t interrupt Mom on the phone” or “don’t touch other people’s food.” But some of their ideas were more like virtues, such as “Don’t lie” (honesty), or “speak kindly to each other” (respect). I realized that virtues would be disciplined differently than the household rules. For example, if someone is rocking their chair at the table, you just remind them not to. But if someone lies or hits, there is going to be a more severe response. So, in addition to the house rules, we made an extra list of what it means to be a member of our family. Again, the kids helped to develop it. Their ideas include things like respecting each other, forgiveness, telling the truth, helping each other, doing chores, and talking kindly. These are important values to our family that will apply at any age.
4. Have positive AND negative rules.
No one wants to always hear, “don’t do this, don’t do that.” So make sure your list of rules includes behavior your kids SHOULD do, like “share your toys,” “say please and thank you,” etc. When my kids were younger and couldn’t read, I printed out pictures of good behavior (sharing) and bad behavior (hitting). I put the pictures on the fridge and put a big X over the negative behavior. I discussed it with my preschooler so she knew exactly what was expected.
5. Keep the lists short.
It may sound like we have tons of rules at our house, but we keep it to less than 10 per category, to make them easy to remember. If you have more than 10 rules for dinnertime or 10 household rules, then consider grouping some together to be a little more general. Kids will get overwhelmed and forget the house rules and expectations if there are too many. You can use a simple magnetic chore chart like the one featured here:
6. Designate punishments and rewards.
A rules list is only effective if it is enforced. Discipline and reward methods vary per family, but try to include these in the family discussion. Let kids know that breaking a dinnertime rule (after a warning) will get them excused from the table, or breaking a family value will mean loss of allowance or early bedtime. However, also remember to include REWARDS on the rules chart. What do the kids get out of this deal? Will they earn allowance? A special toy? Staying up late? One of the best rewards for little ones is time together. So we have often used sticker charts to help track their rewards. After so many stickers, they earn a trip to the park, or the ice cream shop, or a Saturday with Mom. We have also used a Dimes for Disney jar so they could earn dimes from good behavior during deployment. Help them get excited about following the rules!
7. Display them in a visible place.
Post the kids’ house rules and expectations where they are needed most. For us, this is the dining room wall. We spend time around the table, not just for meals, but for homework and games too. Where do you do the most yelling or disciplining in your house? Where do the kids need a visual reminder of the household rules? Is it in their bedroom? The kids’ bathroom? Post the rules in these places, at their eye level.
8. Keep the service member involved, too.
If your spouse is deployed, it can be difficult to change household rules and routines. Don’t do it the first week of a deployment. There will be too much stress and change right then. Either try to do it a few weeks before they deploy, or at least a week after. When your service member is away, you can still keep them in the loop by sending a picture of the rules, and emails or letters to inform them of the kids’ progress. Even if there is no communication, you should let the kids know that their other parent is involved.
When my oldest turned three during a deployment, she was a bit wild and needed sticker rewards to help her stay on track. Once she earned 10 stickers (this could take a week!) she would get a special surprise ‘from Daddy.’ I would put a little gift bag with stickers or art supplies on the porch during her nap. When she woke up, she was thrilled that Daddy had sent her something. He was in Afghanistan and actually had nothing to do with it, but it was a good way to keep him involved and let her know that he cared about her choices, too. If he is aware of the rules ahead of time, it will make the household adjustment easier after Homecoming.
9. Repeat and review until everyone knows the rules!
Rules won’t mean anything if they aren’t enforced. So it comes down to you, to remind the kids of the rules and help keep them enforced. Not only do you have to follow through on any punishments listed with the rules, but you also have to follow through with any rewards that were promised! If you aren’t giving out allowance or taking them to the treats they were promised, the kids will lose interest or become discouraged. It will take a lot of reminding and work the first few days or weeks, but it WILL get easier as they form better habits. So stick with it, because in the long run it is totally worth it!
I would love to hear some feedback from you. How do you handle rules and rewards in your house? Do you find that you change things during deployment?
If you found this helpful, you may also like reading about our Bored Jar to keep the kids busy when they complain they are bored!