I’ve made a lot of bad rules in the decade I’ve been a mom, from irrational threats (“No graham crackers in the house ever again if you eat them in the living room even one more time”) to forbidding human nature (“You may not fight with your sister”). But occasionally I’ve come up with rules that work better than I’d ever contemplated. These made-up rules have an internal logic that defies easy categorization, but their clarity and enforceability make them work. Several of them are not, technically, rules at all, but declarations of policy or fact. And they’re all easy to remember. A few personal favorites, plus those of other moms:
Rule #1: You can’t be in the room when I’m working unless you work, too
Goal: Get your child to help, or stop bugging you, while you do chores
It might seem odd, but I don’t mind doing laundry, cleaning floors or really any kind of housework. But I do mind my kids, oblivious to the fact that my arms are full of their underwear, asking me to find their missing doll shoe or do a puzzle with them. Until recently, this was a source of great frustration, especially when our household grew to five kids when my husband, Taylor, and I became temporary foster parents for two months.
I tried to explain to my expanded brood that if they helped me fold laundry, we could do something together sooner. But they knew I’d be available anyway if I finished folding myself, so the argument wasn’t compelling.
And then one day, as my oldest foster daughter sat and watched me work, asking me favors and waiting for me to be done, I came up with a rule that takes into account two important facts about kids:
- They actually want to be with you as much as possible.
- You can’t force them to help you in any way that is truly helpful.
I played fact one against fact two and told her that she didn’t have to help me but couldn’t just sit and watch. She had to go elsewhere. Given a choice between being with me and folding laundryor not being with me at all, she took option one.
Why it works: I didn’t care which she chose. And it was her choice, so it gave her control even as it took it away.
Rule #2: I don’t work past 8 p.m.
Goal: Regular bedtimes and time off for you
You can’t just announce a rule to your husband and kids that says, “Bedtime has to go really smoothly so I can get a break at the end of the day.” It won’t happen. But if you flip the problem and make a rule about you instead of telling everyone what they have to do, it all falls neatly—and miraculously—into place.
When this occurred to me, back when my oldest was 6 and my youngest was nearly 2, I announced to Anna and Taylor that the U.S. Department of Labor had just created a new rule and I was no longer allowed to do any kind of mom jobs past 8:00 in the evening. I would gladly read books, play games, listen to stories of everyone’s day or give baths—the whole mother package—before then. Then I held firm—I acted as if it were out of my hands. Sort of like Cinderella and midnight.
Suddenly, my 6-year-old (and my husband) developed a new consciousness of time. My daughter actually rushed to get ready for bed just after dinner so that we could have lots of books and time together before I was “off.” My husband, realizing that if things dragged past 8:00 he’d have to face putting both girls to sleep himself, became more helpful. Anna’s now 11, and my hours have been extended, but the idea that I’m not endlessly available has been preserved and integrated into our family routine.
Why it works: You’re not telling anyone else what to do. The rule is for you, so yvou have only yourself to blame if it’s not enforced.