By Mary LoVerde
Technical as the concept may sound, family policies can be effective ways to calm chaos, manage expectations and behavior, and instill important values.
We already know how to use policies. We have them at work, at church or temple, and in the organizations to which we belong. We accept retailers' return policies, insurance policies and IRS rules. Webster's defines policy as "wisdom in the management of affairs." And, thus, we can wisely manage our family life by using guidelines that reflect what is most important to us.
I've surveyed thousands of parents over the years, asking them what worked best in their families. Here are some of their creative family policies:
No one is allowed to say "shut up."
"This demonstrates that our family believes we must show respect for each other. Interestingly, this one simple policy has helped set a higher standard in general, and we've become much more polite to one another."
Thursday is Mom's night out.
"This models that everyone, even moms, need time to be alone, enjoy friends, try new things and renew themselves. When my children grow up I want them to know how to take care of themselves, so they need to see me taking care of myself."
Schoolwork comes before electronics.
"A policy like this teaches my children how to set priorities, follow through with assignments and efficiently organize tasks, including having fun with the techie toys they love so much."
We always fill up the gas tank when it's 1/4 full to avoid a panic when I am running late.
"My kids love that Daddy drives them to school. So I make sure our short time together is spent happily, not racing to the gas station. I believe this teaches my children to anticipate the stresses in life and how to build in some strategies that will help life go smoother."
I do not sign permission slips in the morning.
"We go over any field trip requirements the night before. This policy acknowledges that we all have our quirks. If you know you're not a morning person, establish policies that honor that fact."
The car does not move until everyone is buckled up.
"I love this policy because I do not ever have to say anything. I just sit there until everyone is clicked in and then we go. I like to think this will become such an ingrained habit that my kids will always do it, even when I am not in the car. This policy says, loud and clear, 'I expect you to take responsibility for your own safety.'"
Creating Family Unity
Many family policies center on creating unity. One mother told me that she values dinnertime as a fun, special part of the day: a time everyone should look forward to. So she set some policies. No one discusses bad behavior or manners during supper. Instead, the question every night is, "What nice thing happened to you today?"
She designs mealtime to help the family reconnect and relax. She has ingenious tricks to meet this goal. When occasionally her small children get cranky and start bickering with each other before dinner, she announces, "Tonight is costume night! Go into the playroom and get dressed up for dinner!" In just a few minutes she sees the smiling faces of Batman in his cape, a bunny hopping to the kitchen table and a diva in pink lipstick with a red boa around her neck. This mother could have insisted her children all go to their rooms until they stopped whining, but her costume strategy works a lot better.
The beauty of a policy is that it sets clear boundaries. A mother wrote to me describing the "Mom's Private Time" policy that keeps her family on track in the morning: "This is 10 minutes to be alone to put on my makeup and style my hair. It was always extremely annoying to have someone knocking on or loitering just outside the bathroom door. With this policy, I no longer even have to shut the bathroom door. The kids know I will be available to answer questions, tie shoes or fix a ponytail when I am ready for work."
Recognizing the Benefits
When my children were younger, our family policy was, "If you want something 'big,' you must earn it." For example, my daughter wanted her ears pierced. The "cost"? Read 100 books. Whatever the big request - a new video game console, a bike, or a trip to camp - my children knew to make a chart and start reading. When they were small, I read the 100 books to them. As they became better readers, they read out loud to me. And, as they got older, they selected chapter books to read.
This policy has so many benefits. It gave them the satisfaction of working toward something and the joy of reaching their goal and being rewarded for their diligence. Because they had "paid the price" by reading 100 books, I knew they really wanted their requested item, not simply because it was the latest fad or that their friend had just purchased one. That made me happier to provide them with what they truly appreciated.
This policy also modeled that our family values reading, and I am delighted to say they are all avid readers to this day. We saved some money on items we might have purchased immediately, but were spared the expense when the enthusiasm ran out before the reading chart was completed. That became a good lesson for all of us as well.
Making It Stick
Many times it does help children to know "why" a policy has been established, so explaining your values may help them buy into it. Still, resistance is normal. If a policy is grounded in good values, stand firm. You may not get a standing ovation for insisting on compliance, but it is much easier to follow through when you know you have carefully thought about what is important to you.
Perhaps it's time to review your family policies. As parents, we can powerfully communicate to our children what we value by establishing policies. They are not orders, demands or refusals. They are clearly stated guidelines that keep us from having to nag, remind or defend. Most important, they help us stay connected to the people and the ideals we hold dear. They are truly wisdom in management.