All great and lasting institutions have a legal system, and a good family is no exception. When there are clear and simple laws in a family, parents can be less emotional and more matter-of-fact, and obedience becomes more about keeping laws and less about a power struggle and parents trying to get kids to obey them rather than laws.
Give your children the chance to have inputs as to what your family laws are and what punishment goes with the violation of each law. With hindsight, we can see that our own first effort to set up family laws was rather comical. As young parents with our three young children, we tried to create a list of family rules by nomination. (I think, back then, we still thought a family was a democracy!) The kids chimed in with everything from “Don’t hit anyone,” to “Never plug in plugs—you could get shocked.” We dutifully listed every one on a big chart and we soon had 37 “family laws.” No one really remembered them or paid much attention to them, and one day our 7-year-old complained, “Dad, even in the Bible there’s only ten rules!”
Over the years we figured it out. We needed a small number of very simple rules, each with a clear consequence for breaking it, but with a provision for repentance by which apologetic children could avoid the consequence or penalty.
It finally came down to five one-worders: Looking back now, over more than 20 years of trying to establish and live these five family laws, we find that some of our most cherished memories are wrapped up in them (from heated curfew discussions to everyone pitching in to help a child get his room cleaned up so he could go out without breaking a law). Some of our most interesting memories center on the law of PEACE and the “repenting bench.”
Somehow we ended up with incredibly strong-willed children, and “sibling rivalries” is a pretty mild term for describing the competing, arguing, and outright fighting that crop up so predictably. We came to the “repenting bench” idea because there was no way that we, as parents, could resolve everything. Trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong—being the judge and jury, trying to decide who to punish and how—was exhausting. And we wanted (needed) the kids to learn how to resolve things for themselves. Our “repenting bench” is a short, uncomfortable pew that we got out of an old church.
The rule is simple: Any two family members who are fighting (arguing, yelling, disagreeing) have to sit together on that bench until each can tell what he did wrong (not what the other person did) and can, with a hug, say to the other, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” We stressed that both of the “fighters” are always partly to blame. Oh, the “repenting” we’ve seen! From kids who had to sit there for half an hour trying to figure out what they did wrong, to kids who repent on their way to the bench so they won’t have to sit there at all. The hugs and the “sorrys,” even if their main motivation is to escape the bench, have blunted bad feelings a thousand times and contributed to our children’s love for one another and to their capacity to work out their own conflicts.
Each of the four other laws has an equally interesting history and has become a part of the fabric of our family. Family laws need regular discussion and recommitment. Setting them up in the first place needs to be a highly communicative process. Kids need to understand that the purposes of laws are safety and happiness, and that they show an increase, not a decrease, of trust and of love.
Laws and rules—lovingly set, explained, and implemented—provide children with security and with a clear manifestation of a parent’s love and concern. Emphasize repeatedly that laws are about safety and happiness in living together. Compare them to traffic laws, to civic laws, to school rules.
Tell them that laws show our love and concern for one another and show our desire to have a good, orderly family in which the family members care for one another—a family that gets us ready for life on our own. Tell children that the reason you have so few laws is that you trust them and know they will always try to make good decisions.
Explain that a few good rules can keep a family safe and strong and give its members more freedom. Your own laws and rules in your own family may be different from ours, but the principles behind them should be the same: simplicity, consistency, “natural consequence” penalties, and a provision for “repentance” to avoid the penalty.
As children get older, other rules (like curfews) can be added. The rules should always be discussed, understood, and agreed upon and you should constantly emphasize that the rules are about safety and about concern for each other, not about a lack of trust or confidence in each other. As your own family laws are developed and refined, you will be giving yourself and your family a great gift, and you will make your job as parent much easier and more pleasant!