The Count (Family Rules, Part 1)


I had thought this post would be easier. After attending a Nurturing Parenting training at work last week, I wanted to write about the importance of establishing Family Rules. According to the training, it is valuable for a family to identify their own Morals, Values and Rules, to have them written down and displayed somewhere for reference, and for parents and children alike to understand what they are and be able to recite and follow them.

My family has not done this. In thinking about what our Family Rules might be, I came up empty. Surely we have them, right? But I wasn’t able to say what they were. I looked to some of my coworkers, parenting educators all, and asked if they knew what their Family Rules were. No one was able to tell me. No one had written them down.

I’m an advocate of being transparent about these things in my own work with families. When a parent recites the Count—you know, when your child is not listening and you start that mysterious Count (by “you” I’m including “me,” because I have been known to initiate the Count): “One. Two…”

I ask, “Does your child know what this means? Do they know what they need to do? Do they know what will happen when the Count is over?” Most likely, the parent’s response will be that the child does, in fact, know. So I ask, “What will happen?” And the parent cannot tell me. “I usually don’t have to finish counting.” The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. No rule has been established, no consequence agreed upon.

The answer, in that there is no answer, turns out to be the answer. Don’t worry, I understand that this makes no sense. And that’s the answer. It’s unknown. Fear of the unknown is what gets the child’s attention. And in that sense, it does work, because it is based on fear of the unknown. The child knows instinctively that finishing the Count is not a good thing. And the behavior may change, at least for the short term. At least for right now.

You can probably see what’s wrong here. This is the opposite of establishing a Family Rule, something that the parent and the child understand and have agreed upon. It implies, rather, that if it the Count does not achieve the desired affect (for the child to stop doing what they are doing, or to do what the parent has asked, possibly several times already), then we are going to go outside the Rules. All bets are off. The child does not know what will happen, and possibly neither does the parent. This is scary. And no one is learning from it.

I cannot criticize a parent for breaking out the Count because I understand where it comes from. It stands in for an absence of agreed upon rules. And it is usually a good place to have the conversation: what are the Rules in your family?

I have asked myself that very question. Next time, I hope, I will have an answer.