Back to School: House Rules That Work

by Carol Band

It's a clean slate, and this year, you think, things will be different. Homework will trump TV, the piano will be practiced daily, and everyone will be on the honor roll. This is the year that you will lay down the law and your children will listen. It's not easy - especially as kids get older.

"Parents have to clarify their expectations while their children are young," says DeBroff. "If homework is a priority, lay down ground rules about when it will be done. If there is practicing or chores that must be completed, work out a schedule with your child. Setting priorities is important."

"Homework comes first," says Sara Faust, the mother of two boys, ages 13 and 10. "Unless there is a conflict with Hebrew school or another activity, they do their homework immediately after school."

It sounds so easy. But how do you enforce those rules - especially if you're working and your older children come home to an empty house?

"Ideally," DeBroff says, "parents and children should build a relationship built on trust - not force."

"With older kids, you want to let them have a degree of freedom - but with limits," she explains. "If it's 9:15 and the child is cranky and the homework's not done, it might be time to reevaluate the rules."

Increasingly, rules for kids have to do with limiting time spent on computers and video games.

"We've tried to limit computer time, but it's hard when the kids claim that they need it to do homework," says Will Matlack, a father of three kids ranging from 8 to 13. What he has done is install filters and place the computer in a central location where it's possible to see what's on the screen. Other parents have taken more drastic measures, including one father who unplugs the computer keyboard every morning and takes it with him to work.

The goal is to make rules that make sense and make life better for everyone in the family. Charts, rewards and consequences, and consistency of expectations all help kids understand and obey the basic rules.

Tips for Making the Rules, and Sticking to Them:

  • Keep them simple. "No friends over if I'm not home," "Homework before TV" - These are concepts that kids can understand and that you can enforce.

  • Be positive. Instead of saying, "No ice cream until after your homework," say "When your homework is finished, you can have ice cream."

  • Keep computers in a central location and TVs out of the bedrooms.

  • Plan with your child what TV shows are important. Record them to watch later if homework isn't done.

  • Talk to other parents about what their rules are. Work together so that kids know that there are certain rules that their friends must obey as well. "No phone calls after 9 p.m." and "No friends over without a grown-up home" are easier to enforce if all parents are on board.