Rules provide a road map for helping family members get along with each other and with others in the outside world. They fall into several basic categories. First and most crucial are rules that keep children and teens safe. Protection is the reason for teaching small children not to get in cars with strangers and for creating serious consequences when teens drink and drive. If you are trying to change a global pattern of permissiveness, start with basic safety rules and go from there.

The second area for rules has to do with respecting other people’s boundaries, which include physical space and touch, sensitivity to needs and feelings, and respect for property and privacy. This is a particularly important theme for families with strong-willed kids. Some common examples: knocking on the bathroom door, not hitting or name-calling, and asking before borrowing something. Some of these standards of good behavior become long-term projects, requiring intervention in different ways depending on the child’s age.

Most families run more efficiently with a clear set of expectations about maintaining a neat and orderly environment. What rules do you have about putting things away, having chores, keeping rooms tidy, noise and activity levels, et cetera? Far too often, we see families where both mom and dad work full-time jobs yet they are still doing all the housework. What message does it send the children about the importance of sharing responsibilities or pitching in to help, or about everyone doing their part? Parents are constantly teaching their children values, whether consciously or not.

Another arena where most families have rules pertains to personal responsibilities. Once children begin school, we generally expect them to attend faithfully, to participate as best they can, and to complete whatever tasks or homework they are given. Most parents tell kids that school is like their “job,” and just as mom has to be at work on time and dressed appropriately, they have to go to school having had a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast.

If you are implementing this program for the first time and were one of those families with few or no explicit rules when you started, go slowly. Start with no more than three of the most serious or difficult behaviors that you want to address first before moving to some of the other areas mentioned above. Examples include hitting, talking back, or open defiance. The first step is to slow down the runaway train. If you try to change too much, it is more likely you will get burned out before the program has the chance to take effect.