Establishing a Family Code of Conduct
Last Tuesday was the worst day we have had in a long time.
Last Wednesday was the best.
Since then we have swung wildly from one extreme to the other, learning and forgetting and learning again.
Owlet has been developing an out-of-control side that generally only flares up when she is triggered by being tired, hungry, needing to go to the bathroom, or not getting her usual amount of parental attention. Most of the time Thor and I do a decent job discovering and addressing the underlying cause, but occasionally her needs pile up and explode out. Not a big deal, this stuff happens with kids, right?
Yeah, except that, for a month or two prior to last week, the triggers were getting to be increasingly minor complaints. And Platypup was trying on more and more of her behaviors. Thor’s and my tempers were fraying, and much shouting was becoming the norm.
It was far from peaceful.
We tried drawing up a contract a few days before the worst day. Yes. I am serious. A written contract, where we all agreed to a few basic things, such as no hitting, no grabbing out of people’s hands, etc. We all signed it, even Platypup. And it made a slight impact, certainly. But it was not enough; just a bandaid where a splint was needed.
(Yes, this has our names on it. No, I am not super concerned about that. Just keep Thor, Owlet, and Platypup’s names out of the comments, please, and I’m sure it’ll be fine.)
I can’t even remember all of what made the worst day so bad. A bunch of run-of-the-mill fights and boundary-testing without respite, mostly. Plus a frightening moment when a fun game rapidly soured and Owlet started to push down on Platypup’s head which was buried under a blanket.
Thor had to work that evening and it was certainly a great relief for me to reach bedtime without great trauma.
I brainstormed furiously while nursing their exhausted little bodies to sleep. Thor brainstormed furiously while working. We talked it over, untangled one another’s emotions from the grip of irrational fear, and assessed what our true concerns ought to be. In the end, we agreed a more formal set of rules was needed, and ones that focused on what TO do rather than what NOT to do. We began to weed them down to the most vital ones and tried to find the simplest words possible for easy repetition.
The next day, I talked it over with Owlet, and she wrote them down for us in her (almost) four-year-old scrawl.
Her version says:
1. Stop, step back, breathe, talk
2. Want it? Ask, wait
3. Don’t want share? Put away
What they mean is:
1. Stop when someone says no/stop/gets upset. Take a step back right away to give them some space. If you are feeling angry or upset, take three deep breaths to help yourself calm down. Then you can talk about what happened.
2. If you want something someone else is using, ask, then wait. (We try to emphasize that it might make sense to find something else to do while you are waiting.)
3. If you own something (in our house, most toys and other items are common property, but the kids own their clothes and a few special toys, and Fiona owns her violin) and you don’t want anyone else to use it, you need to keep it in a drawer/cupboard/higher shelf. If it is left out and someone finds it and begins to use it, they can, and you need to follow rule #2 (ask and wait). This was my genius idea to help us navigate the ownership vs. turn-taking grey area while getting a cleaner house in the bargain.
The rules were a smashing success that first day. Even though Thor was working the entire day, Owlet, Platypup, and I had a game plan and we stuck to it.
It was magical.
Of course, in subsequent days we have slacked off from time to time. The difference in using the rules is striking when compared with relying on our old habits. We’ve learned a few things:
– We simply cannot doze off on the couch in the mornings anymore. They definitely are more prone to disagreements when we are not watching, but even when they manage to play well together the whole time, it seems to use up their reserves and they are fussier and clingier the remainder of the day. This is a shame, because Thor and I really would prefer ten hours of uninterrupted sleep and, failing that, could use a bit of catnapping. Ce la vie.
– Despite how it may seem, the rules are mainly for Thor and I. We no longer have to search for the right words, creating rules on the fly that are only tailored for a particular fleeting situation. We are required to stop and take deep breaths to demonstrate how one does such a thing. Consequently, we are far calmer, far less likely to yell, and instead of our tension feeding theirs feeding ours times infinity, the feedback loop stops cold.
– Thor and I also need more rules than the kids do. For the kids, those three rules cover most important situations, and my personal refrain “if you make a mess, clean it up” takes care of pretty much everything else. Of course we have other minor rules (no spitting in the house except the sink or shower, no eating in mommy’s studio, etc.) but those are neither hugely important in the grand scheme of things nor a major source of conflict.
But Thor and I need more rules, rules that are lengthy, nuanced, and constantly in flux based on the specific situation and people involved. Rules about when shouting is ok, how much adult supervision is required, whether special treats (less healthy food/screen time) are permitted, so forth and so on. One I use to help myself determine if a limit needs setting is the “it’s ok if it isn’t hurting people or property” maxim from It’s Ok Not to Share by Heather Shumaker. That one clears out a lot of potential sources of conflict by establishing a benchmark between “big deal” and “let it go.”
– As long as we maintain a clear idea in our heads about what is acceptable and what is not, things go fairly smoothly. If we waffle, fail to follow through on our rules, or are not paying attention, things get out of hand, sometimes in a matter of seconds!
– The three rules Owlet wrote down are still useful even after a situation has disintegrated. We can use them to help heal hurts and soothe our own tempestuous nerves in the process, even when grownups and kids alike have begun to tantrum.
– The calmer and more matter-of-fact the of delivery is, the better. If we can squeeze a little empathy in, the effect is big.