Quirky Mom Rules

Do you have a rule that works for you?  Please share it.

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 laun­dry or 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, 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 you have only your­self to blame if it’s not enforced.

Rule #3: You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit 

Goal: No more hag­gling  — over which pret­zel has more salt or who gets their milk in the prized red cup and who in the cursed green, or which cast mem­ber of Blue’s Clues adorns whose paper plate

My friend Joyce, direc­tor of our town’s preschool, told us about this ter­rific rule, now repeated by every­one I know on play­grounds and at home. Not only does it have a boppy rhythm that makes it fun to say, but it does good old “Life isn’t fair” one bet­ter by spelling out both the essen­tial truth of life’s arbi­trary inequities and the only accept­able response to the world’s unfair­ness: You don’t throw a fit.

When I first heard this, I was skep­ti­cal. It seemed too sim­ple. But to my utter sur­prise, not only did it do the trick but kids seemed to rally around it almost with relief. They must have seen that if it applied to them today it might apply to some­one else tomorrow.

Why it works: It’s irrefutable  — it almost has the ring of runic or pre­his­toric truth to it  — and rather than focus­ing on an abstract notion like “fair­ness,” it speaks directly to the sit­u­a­tion at hand.

Rule #4: Take that show on the road 

Goal: Peace and quiet

Is it just me or does some­one say­ing “one-strawberry, two-strawberry, three-strawberry” over and over in a squeaky voice make you want to smash some straw­ber­ries into a pulpy mess? I want my kids to be glee­fully noisy when they need and want to be. But I don’t feel it’s nec­es­sary that I be their audience/victim past a few min­utes or so, or that I should have to talk (shout?) over their, um, joy­ous clamor when I’m on the phone. So once I’ve shown atten­tion ade­quate to their dis­play, I tell them that they’re free to sing, bang, chant, or cat­er­waul to their hearts’ con­tent, just not here. The same goes for whin­ing, tantrums, and generic pouting.

For the irra­tional and long-winded whin­ing jags some­times used by her 4-year-old son, my friend Denise has turned this rule to a pithy dec­la­ra­tion: “I’m ready to lis­ten when you’re ready to talk.” She then leaves the room.

Why it works: It gives chil­dren a choice rather than a pro­hi­bi­tion and does so with­out reject­ing them.

Rule #5: We don’t argue about money 

Goal: Short-circuit beg­ging and plead­ing for stuff

This rule has to be enforced con­sis­tently to work, but the basic deal is that you can tell your child yes or no on any requested pur­chase, but you don’t dis­cuss it. If your child protests, sim­ply repeat, calmly, like a mantra, that you won’t argue about money. The key to suc­cess is that you have to have the courage of your con­vic­tions and not argue. Thus the calm repetition.

It cuts both ways, though: When your kids want to spend their “own” money, point out poten­tial mis­takes and give advice on the pur­chase if you’d like, but at the end of the day, don’t over­rule them unless it’s a mat­ter of health or safety. After all, you don’t argue about money. They may make some bad choices, but they’ll learn. And you’ll all enjoy shop­ping together a lot more.

Why it works: It shifts the focus from the whined-for treat to finan­cial pol­icy. You’re almost chang­ing the topic on them, no longer debat­ing why they should or shouldn’t have gum or some plas­tic play­thing and, instead, invok­ing a reasonable-sounding fam­ily value.

Rule #6: I can’t under­stand you when you speak like that 

Goal: Stop­ping whin­ing, scream­ing, gen­eral rudeness

This one requires almost reli­gious con­sis­tency of appli­ca­tion to work effec­tively. But, essen­tially, you sim­ply pro­claim incom­pre­hen­sion when your child orders (rather than asks) you to do some­thing, whines, or oth­er­wise speaks to you in a way you don’t like. Whis­per­ing this helps; it takes the whole thing down a notch on the carrying-on scale. This is a de-escalation tool, so calmly repeat the rule a few times and don’t get lured into rais­ing your voice. A child who’s whin­ing or being rude is clearly seek­ing atten­tion and drama, so use this as a way to pro­vide neither.

Why it works: It empow­ers your child by sug­gest­ing he has some­thing valu­able to say (if he says it nicely) and allows you to com­pletely inval­i­date (i.e., ignore) the rude presentation.

Rule #7: There’s no such thing as boredom 

Goal: Pre­vent your child from say­ing “I’m bored”; teach her to enter­tain herself

A friend of mine says this is one of the few things he got right with his kids. The first time his older daugh­ter claimed she was bored he sim­ply denied that the thing existed. Now he some­times adds: “There’s no such thing as bore­dom, only fail­ure of the imag­i­na­tion” or “…only men­tal lazi­ness.” Sur­pris­ingly he’s never got­ten the “There is too bore­dom!” argu­ment, only an exas­per­ated “Da-ad.” Regard­less of the phras­ing, the result is the same: The bur­den of amuse­ment lands directly on your child, which is pre­cisely where you want it.

Why it works: By the time your kids have fig­ured out the puz­zle of how some­thing that exists can also not exist, they won’t be bored. Also, it changes the terms of debate, from a chal­lenge for you (list all my toys, then cave in and let me watch TV) to one for them. Besides  — if your child learns how to enter­tain her­self, there truly is no such thing as bore­dom. And that’s a gift that will last all her life.


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