On Psychology

Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2000 /16 Adar 1, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

House Rules Can Help Blended Families Adapt

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: My fiance and I each have a son from a previous relationship and are discussing plans to move in together. I believe we should set up household rules before we do, but we don't know where to start. What advice do you have for us in terms of establishing household rules?

A: I have two pieces of advice. The first you may like. The second you may not.

First, you are correct, it is very wise to establish household rules clearly defining what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not. This is important because children who learn to respect and follow reasonable rules do better in school, get along better with peers, and develop higher self-esteem compared with those children who do not. The best training ground for learning to comply with reasonable rules is the home.

Econophone Establishing a clear set of household rules is especially important in the case of blended families. That's because prior to becoming a blended family, the two households likely had different rules and expectations for behavior. Humans tend to be creatures of habit, so determining which rules and expectations will prevail in the new, combined household will not be easy. But it will be even harder if this is not done beforehand and instead the family attempts to "wing it" after the two households become one.

Exactly what household rules to establish can vary considerably from family to family. Certainly you should have a rule that hitting is not allowed. You should also have a rule that your children are expected to comply with parental instructions regardless of which parent gives them. And you should establish the expectation that both children will participate in household chores.

But other than that, there is great room for individual family variation when it comes to household rules. Some families, like mine, limit TV watching; others don't. Some families require proper table manners, others don't. Some say homework is done before dinnertime, others say after. The point is, the two of you need to determine how you want your children to behave, and then set household rules that will encourage that behavior.

Trakdata Setting household rules while necessary, is not sufficient. You also have to be willing -- and able -- to enforce them. Enforcing rules is essential if children are to learn that they are to respect and comply with reasonable rules. An important rule for parents, then, is this: If you are unwilling, or unable, to enforce a rule, don't set it in the first place.

One mistake some families make is setting too many rules. It is much better to establish a few rules you are willing and able to enforce, then to have lots of rules which you are not willing or able to enforce consistently. In fact, inconsistent enforcement of rules can be very anxiety-provoking for children. Conversely, clear rules, consistently enforced, give children a sense of security and safety.

When you do enforce rules, it is important not to lose your temper. I know this is difficult; I am, after all, a parent too (and of teenagers, no less!). But discipline is about teaching, not venting your anger. One key to keeping your temper is for parents to work as a team. That way, if one parent begins to lose it, the other parent can step in and give the first time to cool down.

It is also helpful to give short explanations when enforcing a household rule. Giving explanations helps children internalize the reasons behind the rules. Once a child has internalized the rules, you won’t have to be around as much to enforce them.

Keep in mind, too, that enforcing rules is not just about punishment when children break the rules. It is also about praising children when they follow the rules. Praising children for complying with the rules is another effective way of encouraging children to internalize them.

Finally, when it comes to complying with household rules, be a good role model yourself. The difficult truth is that children learn much more by watching their parents than by listening to them. That means if you are rude to others or curse in the home, you will likely have children who are rude to others or use swear words, no matter how many times you tell them they shouldn't. Conversely, when children see their parents obeying household rules, they are much more likely to obey the rules themselves.

Now, on to the part of my advice you may not like. I don’t encourage you to cohabit before marriage. Cohabiting before marriage is rarely a good idea. In fact, research consistently shows that couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to get divorced than those who do not. A good set of household rules won’t matter very much if your marriage falls apart.

Rather than moving in together, you should use the time between now and the wedding to work on such things as future household rules. If you find this difficult to do, it may signal deeper issues in your relationship. If, instead, you find the process fruitful, it will help validate your decision to get married and set you on a path toward a life-long and mutually-satisfying marriage. Now, isn't that worth waiting just a few more months?

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn