Dear Dr. Debbie,
We have two children, ages two and four, who split time between my home and their Dad’s. The older one is starting to argue about things like eating vegetables, sharing, and bedtime by saying, “But at Dad’s house . . .” How important is it that rules are the same in both houses, and maybe even at their grandparents’?
A Reasonable Ruler
Overall, it’s best to agree on one set of rules and on a schedule that is in the best interest of the children, according to their ages and needs. There can be some differences between households, such as what constitutes a dessert, or whether dessert is even a requirement for dinner, but for the most part, it is much easier for children to learn that a rule is a rule no matter where they are and which of their grown-ups is on duty.
A Caregiver is a Caregiver
Parents have the primary responsibility for their children, and by extension are responsible for helping other caregivers do what’s best for the children in their absence. Ideally, both parents, all grandparents, all regular childcare providers, and even eventual step-parents, should follow the rules and routines jointly set by the parents.
If the children attend a preschool or childcare program, you’ll find that these operate with a set of rules for the whole class or even the whole school. Teachers are happy to share their rules with parents. Teachers have rules for such behaviors as sharing: when a child tries to take a toy from another child, the teacher steps in to help them make a trade or to set a timer for taking turns. If parents are using the same rule at home, the children learn pretty quickly how it works.
When establishing rules, it’s good to set them according to normal expectations so the children acquire behaviors that are acceptable whether they are at home, at school, at a grandparent’s home, or at a friend’s home. There could be minor house-to-house differences; for example, some homes have a leave-shoes-at-the-door rule while others do not. However, it’s a generally agreed upon rule that soccer balls – or any objects that could cause harm if thrown or kicked indoors – are only used outside. Rules about toys typically limit where they are kept – whether in containers or on shelves in a shared family room, or in a play room, or in each child’s bedroom. Typically there is a “clean up time” for the toys when play is over, especially before a meal, or before bedtime.
Find opportunities to chat with other parents to see whether your expectations align with those set by other households with children in this age range. (This will get easier when Covid-19 no longer restricts visits in other families’ homes.) You’ll also learn how much help a typical two-year-old needs (a lot), and how much help a four-year-old needs (you might have to get the job started) in order to successfully put all the toys away.
Nutrition standards are easy to reference – your children’s pediatrician, the Mayo Clinic, or other respected authorities are very eager to share this information with parents. All would say that children need to eat vegetables every day. If one caregiver is lenient about following this rule, i.e., allowing French fries with sugary ketchup to qualify, a child would naturally infer that eating a green vegetable is not that important. He or she would be ready to argue with the next adult that tries to enforce this rule.
Bedtime similarly is dependent on a child’s age and the corresponding number of hours for a good night’s sleep. Whether a child is at one parent’s home or another, whether it’s a school day or a no school day, bone and body growth can happen, mental activity is supported, the immune system is at work, and emotions are easier to manage, when sleep occurs in a daily pattern. This includes nap time.
Routines, Routines, Routines
One way to look at house rules is to work them into blocks of time that repeat daily. There are the routines for coming into a home for a short visit – hang up your jacket here, vs. coming for an overnight stay or longer – put your stuffed animal on your bed pillow.
There are routines for playtime, including how to get a toy from the other child and how to effect a reasonable clean up. Routines for snacks and meals can include SOME menu choices, keeping nutrition requirements uppermost in mind when offering a selection. When it comes to unusual personal preferences, such as cutting the crust off of a sandwich, ALL caregivers should agree to do it or not to do it. Keep in mind that a goal of shaping behavior is so that a child will fit in in many settings beyond home. As the child’s fine motor skills develop, the task of cutting off crust can literally be handed over to the child’s hands. (You can sauté the cubed crusts in olive oil with Italian seasoning to make croutons for tonight’s salad!)
Bedtime routines are probably the most important routines of the day considering that going to sleep feels like a separation for a child. Children with two homes have even more separations to deal with than children with just one home. Discuss how each parent handles the order of tooth brushing, stories, etc. so that your common routines impress the children with their importance. Cleaning the teeth prevents cavities, disease, and bad breath. Stories help to make the mental transition from an active day, to hearing stories about characters doing things, to drifting off to dreamland. Some parents sing lullabies. Others use recorded music. Still others turn on white noise. Does one parent stay until the children are snoring while the other leaves while they’re still awake (only to get called back repeatedly for a drink of water)? Try to find a uniform pattern of helping the children settle into sleep between both houses. For instance, make a routine of offering a sip of water before the last song. Remember the goal is to carry out a similar routine in both houses so that the children fall asleep around the same time, with all their needs met, whichever home they are in.
When all of a child’s caregivers enforce one set of rules, and use similar routines, things are much easier on everyone.
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