What If We Replaced Family (and Classroom) Rules with Core Beliefs?

There are quite a few things about being a former elementary school teacher that come in handy as a parent of two school-aged children. One of my more recent discoveries relates to reinforcing the right things and getting kids involved in determining exactly what those “right things” are.

In my second grade classroom, where I was a devout follower of the Responsive Classroom model, we started every school year without classroom rules. We came together and talked about how we weren’t just a loose collection of individuals but rather a community of learners. Although it was intentional on my part, the conversation often organically led to the children determining that we’d need rules or laws as they sometimes called them, in order for our community to feel like a happy place that everyone wanted to be. (Their description of a “happy place to be” was their version of what I knew we’d need to create for the environment to be conducive to learning.)

So, I’d start by asking them what rules we needed and on our dry erase board I’d list out every single item they came up with – no rule was too small. We’d get the usual “raise your hand if you need to talk” and “don’t hit people” then really specific things like “if you see a pencil on the floor you should pick it up and put it back in the pencil cup” and “if you have to blow your nose you should try to be quiet when you do it then put your tissue in the trash.” Sometimes by the end of the exercise we’d end up with 50+ rules! Then I’d tell the kids it was time to memorize them all. And I’d always get the same shocked looks and open mouths!

That’s when I came in with “Hmm…What if we focused on what we should do instead of what we shouldn’t do? Do you think there would be fewer things? Can we organize these into some big ideas and try to get down to just two or three rules that we can all agree upon?”

It is not by accident that our classroom rules always landed on the same three big ideas:  I will take care of myself, take care of others and take care of my classroom community. Every little “don’t do this and don’t do that” fits neatly under one of those categories. And suddenly our classroom was transformed into a place where we had high standards for taking care of our community and the people inside of it instead of a long list of rules that were not connected to any real purpose. We’d also spend some time talking about how approaching our rules as these big ideas just “felt better.”

So, what does all this have to do with parenting?

In my grand experiment of applying principles of teaching and learning in my classroom to principles of teaching and learning in our home, about a year ago when our daughters were 6 and 3 we decided it was time to set some expectations for how things could work better to make everyone happier at home.

I launched a similar exercise with the girls. “Papa and I have been noticing that sometimes we’re all getting confused about how to talk to each other or how to clean up after ourselves and stuff like that. Do you notice that too?” This quickly turned into the girls listing off things that bugged them about parts of their day. I asked, “Do you think it would help to make some family rules that all of us – even the grown-ups – would all agree to follow?” They loved this part – family rules!

We started the same way by me letting them list all the rules they thought we would need. And, just as I suspected there were some very specific details – “When I eat cereal, you shouldn’t get mad if I eat the marshmallows first if I still eat the other parts too,” and, “I shouldn’t have to wear long sleeves if I don’t get cold in my classroom.” The adults had some specific ones too –  “I don’t like when I have to ask three or four times before you stop playing and get dressed,” and, “Even if you’re reading a book, I’d like you to respond when I ask you a question.” We rattled off a whole bunch of rules. There were in fact so many that I stopped this part of the exercise even before they ran out of ideas!

I dramatically presented this problem: “I was hoping we could make a poster to hang in our house that had all of our family rules on them. But there are so many of these rules that the poster would have to be as big as our whole house! What should we do? Maybe if we came up with ways we should act toward each other instead of all the things we shouldn’t do our list would be shorter.”

It was our big-hearted, creative problem-solving extraordinaire who thought for a minute and then said “What if instead of rules we just came up with our family beliefs!”

Yes! Yes! Yes! After all, this wasn’t about rules this was about our values – the things we believe as a family.

The whole energy of the conversation shifted quickly from airing our grievances to determining how we could each act to make our home a happy home. And while I highly recommend that anyone who wants to do this activity goes through the full exercise instead of just hanging these up on your wall, I wanted to share our family’s list:


While this list is longer than the short list of three that we landed on every year in my classroom, we’ve found this longer list that breaks things down a bit works well for younger kids. We’ve also found that, just like in the classroom, it feels better (and you’re more likely to make the change) if you’re reminded to, “Please be more loving,” instead of, “Stop hitting your sister or else!”

And while these beliefs hang in our kitchen as a daily reminder, we’ve also incorporated these meaningfully into a weekly routine. On our family calendar that lists our daily school, after school and social activities, we have a “Words of the Week” section at the top where we rotate through each of these fifteen beliefs as a way to focus in on one, remind each other what it means and generally boost our awareness of whatever the focus may be.  When I can, I’m intentional about matching up the words of the week with current events, calendar items, etc. So when the kids were off of school for Martin Luther King Day, we focused on, “Be a peacemaker” that week.  We focused on “Be giving” during the holidays and “Be gentle” when I observed we were all talking to each other with harsher words that we knew we should be.

Overall, I’d encourage every family to use an exercise like this to recalibrate expectations and reframe “house rules.” If you’re a classroom teacher, consider dedicating a half-day of that first week of school or first week back from holiday break to generating a list of community values to replace existing rules. Both at home and at school, I’ve observed that taking this approach transforms the environment from one of compliance to one of collaboration.  What better place could there be to learn and to thrive than that?

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject “Smart Parents.” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

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1 Comment

Juli Thompson

Thanks for this thoughtful article. How easy our family slips into bad patterns of treating each other and ourselves poorly. I appreciate these easy suggestions on how to shift our response from 'don't do something' to bringing our positive strengths to the situation.
Plus I am relieved to hear that your daughter also forgets to respond to questions when she is reading, I thought that only happened in our house!

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