Without Rules, There is No Engagement {Printable}

Recently, I met with the boys’ teacher for a quick “first few-weeks” check-in and she said our youngest had trouble taking a daily nap because his big-brother-the-kindergartner doesn’t have to anymore. She said that by the third day, however, he relented. “Because,” she kept reminding him, “nap time for three-year-olds is one of the rules.”

Then, last week, we got our weekly teacher’s note about what they’ve been up to in school. The teacher detailed how the children are “getting comfortable with routines and all the new faces–a good time to begin talking about rules.”

She wrote about how the class was using these early weeks to establish some common rules for the classroom as a community: They take suggestions and talk openly about them, and try to come up with a few that are “easily remembered.” The logic, she explains, is that “sometimes it is easier to refer to a rule than engage in an argument with a youngster.” She says a good example is when you can lean on a rule and simply say, “The rule is that bedtime is at 7:30.”

This woman knows what she is talking about. She’s been teaching most of my life. I trust her guidance implicitly.

When I read that piece about “engaging in an argument” I was reminded of a yelling match I had with Max, our five year old, last spring. I was harping on him about how he was behaving during a meal. I can see myself now, hovering, chirping, barking course-corrections at him. “Sit up straight…Stop wiggling…Don’t play with your food…Stop singing.” (Stop singing? Seriously…that’s just stupid.) Finally, he looks up at me, draws in a big breath and yells, “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE AREN’T EVEN ANY RULES?”


That same night, we brainstormed some meal-time rules together. A few days later, I wrote them out on Kraft paper with a Sharpie and hung them on the fridge. Every night before dinner for the last six months, we have ceremoniously read them the same way a ref reminds boxers how to conduct themselves at the outset of a bout.

Before long, the kids had committed them to memory and started to say them with us. And, then we’d catch them saying them to each other. Within two weeks, there was no more hovering, no more chirping and, most importantly, no more yelling.

That is not to say that every meal for the last six months has been a breeze. We have our share of tears and tantrums and there are definitely some attention-seeking antics and violent games of “footsie.” We also sometimes have to remind the grown-ups that the rule  “No toys at the table” includes technology. But, for the most part, these rules have allowed us to establish a framework for conduct and expectations that we’re not making up on the fly. Game changer. Here’s why:

When in doubt, refer to a rule. Let the rule be the bad guy. The rules are there for anyone and everyone to lean on. Everyone knows what is expected  — we don’t have to keep talking about it. 

Which, in turn, totally frees up space for conversation. I cannot tell you how heartwarming it is to hear your three year old turn to your five year old and say, “So, how was your day?” Particularly at breakfast.

I thought you might like to try out a set to try at your house so there are some printables below. Let me know how it goes. And please, share your own house rules and hints with me in the comments.

Mealtime Rules 8×10 White on Chalkboard Black: PDF | JPG
Mealtime Rules 11×14 White on Chalkboard Black: PDF | JPG
Mealtime Rules 8×10 Black on Plain White: PDF | JPG
Mealtime Rules 11×14 Black on Plain White: PDF | JPG

P.S. You may notice that we don’t have a rule about open-mouth chewing. That is because we have an inside joke about it that works like a charm. We’ll lock eyes with the person chewing out loud and say in a gentle, teasing voice, “You know…when you eat, it sounds a little bit like spaghetti.” Giggles. Sheepish grin. Eating resumes. Crisis averted.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Jamie December 22, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Sometimes I read things and it is like walking into a wall. Posting the rules is so simple. Like you said, we post them and review them in school every single day. I live that life and it works really, really well. However, I NEVER considered doing this at home. Thanks for the inspiration! I needed to walk into this wall.

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