We don't have a lot of rules in our house for Sam. Mostly, we correct inappropriate behavior when it arises. We don't have a "rule" about speaking kindly to each other - when Sam yells or whines we just remind her that she is more likely to get our cooperation if she uses kind words and a friendly tone. We don't have a "rule" about bringing dishes to the kitchen when finished - when she forgets, we just remind her. If she doesn't want to do it, I tell her that I'll have to do it for her, and that if I have to keep doing things for her, I might start to think she is not ready for so many responsibilities. (Responsibilities are a positive thing in our house - I guess almost the positive way of stating rules - and Sam does not like to lose them.)
When we do have rules, they tend to be transitory. We use them to move Sammy along from one set of behaviors to the next. For example, we have a rule now that she must look both ways and check with an adult before crossing the street, but the rule used to be that she had to hold an adult’s hand. We also have a rule that she can’t jump on the couch. She only needs a “rule” because she used to jump on it but now she is too big and that’s a tough transition to make. The rule makes it easier for her to deal with.
One set of rules we have is The Dinnertime Rules. We had to make rules because dinner was becoming an unpleasant nag-fest every night: "Sam, stop banging your fork. Sam, don't spit your food in your milk. Sam, don't pour your milk on your plate. Sam, stop interrupting." Seriously, this would be the entire conversation every night and I realized that it was my most dreaded time of day instead of the idyllic family time that I had always envisioned.
So I wrote up The Dinnertime Rules on a whiteboard:
We started with the first five and added the rest as they became problems (the last one is mostly a joke – we do all of this with some humor – but yes, she was biting the table). We explained that, in order to enjoy our meals together, we all needed to follow some rules (and yes, Adam and I ask to be excused if we leave the table before the others). Sam understands this and she loves the rules. In this case, clear structure and guidelines were necessary to break her old habits. I mean, she did all of these things when she was younger and it was developmentally appropriate. It was really hard for her to understand that she couldn’t keep spreading mashed potatoes in her hair forever. We had to send Sam to her room quite a few times in the beginning, but now we mostly just have to remind her. Come to think of it, it’s probably time to get rid of these rules. A whiteboard is a parent's best friend!