Why Having Household Rules For Teens Is Important
In a session recently, a couple confided that the only household rules for teens that they had were to do well in school. No chores or curfews. No screen limits. Their three teens ate what they wanted and left the mess. They didn’t have jobs–that would interfere with sports and school–but they regularly went to baseball games and concerts–in Ubers, no less!
These parents came to me because their kids were becoming, in their words, “complete a$$holes.”
I’ve worked with many parents who forgo household rules because they focus solely on achievement. This is the snowplow parent that this year’s college scandal exposed, a lesson in what not to do. They groom their kids for a life of success, removing every barrier that would impede their success. While these kids look amazing on paper, in real life, they lack agency and independence. When they go off to college, they don’t know how to navigate anything that hasn’t been curated for their liking.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve met many of these kids. They are driven and motivated, with impressive resumes at age 18 and connections to influential people. But they are not the kinds of people I’d want my daughters to hang out with. In short, the lack of household rules for teens makes them entitled and spoiled.
Household Rules Teach Teens Life Skills
What these parents miss is the connection between household rules and self-control. As children mature, so does their ability to resist temptation and impulsivity. But along the way, it’s our role to protect them from themselves.
According to Dr. Meg Meeker, “Teens…need to learn self-control by setting rules for themselves, but the only way they learn this is by first having rules imposed on them. Over time, they learn to impose rules on themselves. If your [teen] refuses to obey your rules, he will never learn self-discipline, and he can’t be happy without this.”
In other words, even if it’s uncomfortable or challenging to stand up to your teen and assert household rules you are doing him a huge favor in the long run. You are helping him construct the ability to self-control, and your rules provide scaffolding.
If you want proof of kids’ lack of self-control look at their screen use. Without limits, teens will spend up to 9 hours a day on their phones. While the research is unclear about the impact of this excessive use, we know that they impact sleep. During these years, while they lack the self-control to extricate themselves from their screens, it’s the parent’s job to provide rules to save them from themselves.
In addition to self-control, household rules provide kids the chance to learn accountability. A teen who willingly obeys the family rule about no screens in their bedrooms and no screens at the table gets more access to his phone over time. He learns that abiding by the rules earns him more responsibility. Likewise, if he chooses to break the rules, he suffers the consequences of having his phone taken away.
Denying teens the chance to practice being responsible, while it’s relatively safe to mess up, is a mistake. Let’s say a teen misses curfew and suffers the consequence of being grounded. Over time, in a relatively low stakes environment, he learns that there are rules he cannot break. Isn’t that better than going off to college and plagiarizing a paper because he didn’t know the rules applied to him?
Accountability to other people is a life skill. It’s what makes someone a valuable partner, boss, and employee. Imagine your teen as an adult–having come from a house where there were boundaries that were respected makes him a better person to employ or marry. Doing this now is a gift to his future self. (Of course, you shouldn’t mention that. It would only cause additional communication problems.)
Rules Give Structure
In addition to all this, having household rules for teens during this chaotic time of development is a gift that they will never thank you for. Rules give them a sense of the edges. Though they will never ask for impediments to their freedom, teens can use them to justify themselves to their friends (I can’t go–my mom will kill me if I sneak out to the city!) when they lack the courage to take a stand. While they are full of “becoming energy” as their brains and bodies change, it’s somewhat of a relief to have some few but firm, dependable rules.
How do I implement household rules for teens who never had any?
I would start by figuring out which boundaries you want to implement. Sagari Gongala at MomJunction.com came up with this great list of household rules for teens that can get your wheels turning. My suggestion is to consider three rules that will have the most significant impact on your teen’s health and safety, ones that’ll improve your relationship, and ones that teach them to be independent.
Please know that this will not be a linear process. If you’ve never had rules, and suddenly you choose to, expect pushback. Lots of it in fact, until your teens realize that you are serious and will hold to your boundaries.
Plan to have a conversation with your teen. This is necessary for cooperation. If you really want this to go well, I suggest starting by acknowledging that you made a mistake. If this sounds like a bad idea, trust me on this. Teens appreciate our honesty and trust us more.
You can simply say something like, “I want to get your input about something. I realize that I made a mistake by (not having any boundaries for screens/chores) or (prioritizing schoolwork over responsibility). I am frustrated, and I love you too much to be frustrated with you. So I’d like us to work together to create better boundaries.
I would offer firm boundaries when it comes to health and safety (screen time and curfews are in this category). For improving your relationship and creating independence, you can have more of a dialog. You can focus on building trust, working on listening, or improving how you communicate. For independence, this means being clear with your teen that his help around the house matters and is helpful to the family. Here you can list some chore ideas, and let him pick the one he thinks he could actually commit to.
You will have to remind your teens about their chores. Next time they ask you to do something, hold out until the chore is done.
I recently recommended this process to a family with 3 boys. Mom had become the “maid and the chauffeur” and she was tired of it. On a Sunday, she sat down with her husband and her three sons and did exactly this. She made some universal household rules about screens and guests and listed the 10 weekly chores. She framed everything in the positive–about how much she appreciated her son’s help and how thorough they were in other areas of life. To her surprise, they agreed to do one thing around the house each, and the younger two chose another chore each shortly afterward.
Even if it feels like a dreadful task, household rules are a good thing for teens. They help teens to grow their self-control and improve their sense of responsibility and accountability. Plus, they are an easy out for the moments when your teen can’t stand up for himself. Have a conversation with them today and start moving towards establishing household rules that’ll keep your teens grounded and you sane.
If you want some help talking through the process of boundary setting, schedule a free 30-minute consultation here.