Families Need Rules

By Dr. Thomas Gordon, Founder of GTI

All groups, of whatever size or nature, need laws, regulations, rules, policies, and standard operating procedures. Without them, groups may very well fall into confusion, chaos and conflict. The functions that rules and policies can serve are indispensable. They can prevent misunderstandings and conflicts between people; define rights and privileges; legislate what is considered appropriate, fair and equitable in human relationships; and provide guidelines to help people know what limits they must set on their own behavior.

The issue is not whether groups need rules. They do need them. The real issue is how to motivate all group members to comply with them.

At some time in our lives we all have felt unmotivated to comply with some rule or policy that we had no voice in making. Denied the opportunity to participate in establishing a rule, most people feel imposed upon and resentful of the new rule. But when people actively participate in setting a rule or making a decision that will affect them, they are more highly motivated to comply with it. We call this the Principle of Participation, and it has proven its effectiveness in numerous research studies.

When children are given the opportunity to participate in setting rules or making decisions that will affect them, several good things happen. Children feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem and self-confidence. Most important, they feel they have gained more “fate control”–more personal control over their own lives. They also feel they are equal members of the family with an equal voice in making decisions and establishing rules–they’re part of a team, not second-class citizens. This means that families that function collaboratively and democratically will have closer and warmer relationships than those in which the adults act as bosses or authorities expecting the children to obey the rules made for them.

Another important reason for encouraging the full participation of family members in decision making is that it often produces higher-quality solutions to problems. Two heads (or three, or four) are better than one; shared decisions will be based not only on the knowledge and experience of the adults but also on the knowledge and experience of the children.

The admonition “Father knows best”, which implies that father knows better than son or daughter, should be challenged with the more reasonable, “Yes, but does father know better than father and children?”

Enlisting the participation of children in rule-setting results in important benefits:

  • A higher motivation on the part of all family members to implement or comply with the rules
  • Decisions of higher quality
  • Closer, warmer relationships between family members
  • Higher self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of control over fate on the part of the children
  • More personal responsibility and self-discipline
  • Less need for parents to enforce compliance

Obviously, not all decisions that affect the family are open for participative rule-setting and decision-making. These will be issues that don’t affect all the family members or issues that are not negotiable (because they’re against the law, etc.). In other words, some issues will be outside the Area of Freedom for family rule-setting and decision-making. For example, how the family income gets spent, whether one of the parents looks for another job or if and what kind of exercise family members get are probably outside the Area of Freedom of other family members to decide.

The most important rule of thumb is that family rule-setting and decision-making meetings should include all the members who will be affected by the rule or decision, and only those members.

It’s important that your family agree on which issues, situations and tasks are within the Area of Freedom of the family members.

The list of items that potentially can be handled by participative rule-setting or decision making are many and vary from family to family.

Here’s a list of just some of the issues that lend themselves to family rule-setting and decision-making:

  • Bedtime
  • Household chores
  • Ownership and care of pets
  • Yard work
  • How to spend family vacation time, holidays or other free time
  • Use of car/s, bicycles, etc.
  • Allowances
  • TV watching
  • Use of computer

Please Note: Participative Rule-Setting requires some communication skills that you will can learn in the P.E.T. program. These skills are:

  • Expressing your needs and problems
  • Hearing others when they have needs or problems
  • Solving problems and conflicts
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