Remember the time when you had a favorite spot, a restaurant, pub, coffee shop, diner, or other establishment you enjoyed visiting?  Hopefully we will all be able to return to these places in the near future. You may not have noticed, but some of them had “house rules,” specific expectations the management set for customers, either to enter, be served, or both. Often you could find a corresponding sign for emphasis, such as “no bathing suits in the dining room” or “no hat, no shoes, no service.” 

As a parent and a family therapist for 20 years, I have found that most cohesive families also have their own “house rules” that everyone can reference and rely on to maintain harmony and avoid unnecessary conflict. They may not be posted on the refrigerator, but everyone knows and does their best to follow them. Take a minute to pause and consider what your family’s “house rules” are, or perhaps what they should be. Allow me to suggest these three:

  1. Be safe with yourself and others (siblings, adults, pets)
  2. Be respectful in your words and actions (towards others as well as property)
  3. Follow directions along with the tacit but established norms (such as “take your shoes off before you come inside”).

The goal is not perfection. We are all imperfect, children and parents, myself included. Instead, we are striving for consistency, to adhere to these rules at a rate of about 80%, or 4 out of every 5 opportunities. As a parent, implementing and maintaining these expectations will require a few important tools. 

The first is to apply the basics of behaviorism. An adult or parent has 3 choices in responding to the actions of a child: to reward, ignore or punish. Your child’s response will tell you if your  method is working. If you’re not getting the desired behavior, it’s time consider a new approach.  Dr. Phil has said that every child has his or her “currency.”  Figure out what that is and apply it to raise their motivation. A key component in this equation is availability. If they have unlimited, daily access, then a reduction is going to have modest, even minimal impact. But setting limits, such as 2 hours of screen time daily, will make this commodity more valuable and provide more leverage in parenting. Incidentally, technology allows for full control of most technology by programming usage minutes or cutting off internet access at a designated time. When all else fails, taking the game controller and locking it up in the glove compartment of your vehicle works too. 

The Latin term “quid pro quo,” or “this for that” is fundamental to childhood, and to parenting. The law of the land requires parents to provide their children with a home that, at minimum, is physically and emotionally safe, with adequate meals, clothing, medical care and school attendance. The extras (snacks, favorite foods and beverages, toys, games, electronics, cell phones) can be viewed as given in exchange for getting up on time, attending school and providing a best effort academically, contributing at home through chores, and following “house rules” for safety, respect and compliance with adult directions and expectations. It’s a simple transaction, this for that. If the child doesn’t hold up their end, privileges can be reduced or eliminated. No parent will ever be accused of mistreating their child for taking away video game privileges for a day. 

Prompting your child or children to follow house rules can be done with the 1-2-3 method. Developed by Thomas Phelan, 1 is a warning, as in “I need you to pick up your Legos before dinner.” After a few minutes of “processing time” for your child to consider and comply, 2 is a second warning, with a consequence attached, such as “This is the second time I’ve asked you to clean up your Legos. If they are not cleaned up in the next 10 minutes and we get to 3, I will put them in a bag and they will go away for the rest of the day.” If your child complies with the request, he should be thanked or praised for his positive response. If, 10 minutes later, the Legos remain strewn on the floor, the parent quietly returns with a bag, scoops the Legos up and places them on the closet shelf. Using 1-2-3 takes a little bit of practice and some foresight to think ahead and develop an appropriate consequence. This method empowers the child as it is truly his or her choice as to whether or not to put his Legos away. 1-2-3 will instill a learned response in your child, where they will develop an urgency to act before reaching 3, reducing your need to remind excessively. In turn, the parent is able to avoid frustration, yelling (a form of punishment) and unwanted stress for everybody. Finally, 1-2-3 can be done with minimal discussion, even silently.  A glance with a display of 2 fingers may be all the communication needed. 

1-2-3 can also be applied to the “house rule” of respect. Sarcasm, name calling, even cursing, can result in 2 warnings and a consequence, such as a loss of 15 minutes of daily electronics time. Safety related behaviors, such as physical aggression, do not require any warning and warrant a more significant response. If a child punches his younger sibling, he or she could lose all 2 hours of electronics time for the day. 

With house rules and 1-2-3, consequences are in place. Quid pro quo rewards positive behavior. Adding the concept a “level system” increases the reward incrementally. If children do more, they can earn more, do less and get less, do the minimum and get the minimum. If a child has an exceptional week or performs a great deed, he can receive and additional reward, like a favorite snack or a preferred activity with a parent. By the same token, refusal or disrespectful behavior can lead to a loss of privileges, even “debt”.  Let me explain. If a child has misbehaved and lost all of his 2 or hours of electronics time, he may believe he has free rein to continue his undesired behavior. But if he persists, his parent can deduct additional time for the next day or beyond.   

Of course, the ultimate reinforcer is praise, sincere and specific. I believe all children want to do their best and please others and can behave in a positive manner if they receive the correct parental response. Praise leads to intrinsic or internal motivation, to do the right thing and please the parent. But keep in mind that some children are motivated more by loss than gain.

There are behaviors that do not require any response, and should be ignored. Whining and complaining can be attention-seeking and a means of “stalling” or avoiding the start of the undesired task. If the behavior escalates to a full-blown tantrum and becomes disruptive, removing the child from the setting may be necessary. “I understand you’re upset about not being allowed to eat ice cream for breakfast, but that’s not a choice, and your screaming is interrupting our family meal. You need to go to your room. You can be upset there, and rejoin us for breakfast when you are calm.”

A few final caveats. First, children are VERY aware of how parents intervene with each of their siblings. Consistency is critical to avoid frustration and maintain motivation. Second, a little goes a long way. Sometimes a 15-minute adjustment in electronics access on a Monday is all that’s needed to eliminate an annoying behavior for the rest of the week. Third, change takes time.  Introducing new parenting approaches will require several weeks for everyone in the family to adjust, including the parents. Finally, behavior can get worse before it gets better. Children may resist and cling to their undesired behaviors, even increase them, before they concede. Patience and persistence are essential. 

Good luck and good parenting!

About the author: Scott Barker is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and has supported families in Chester County for the last 18 years​.  He has worked as a Behavioral Consultant at Child Guidance since 2014, and also sees clients in his own practice, R. Scott Barker Counseling, in Landenberg.