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Setting Rules and Limits for Your Stepfamily

I Kid You Not!

What's the difference between family values, family rules, and limits? Family values are a general set of behavior guidelines that apply to everybody in the family: "We solve our problems with words." Family rules are more specific: "Homework must be finished before TV is allowed." Limits are specific behavior boundaries for each child: "Annie cannot cross the street without a grown-up," and "Sherry must have the car back by 9:00 each night."

When deciding on your family's approach to discipline, ask yourselves this question: "How do we want this family to function, and what should we do about it when things break down?" In Stepfamilies: Defining Values you read about ways to establish family values. Rules and limits are more specific than values; they're how the family values, which are general, are expressed.

In any family, but especially in a stepfamily, kids need to understand specifically what is expected of them (the rules), and they need to understand their boundaries (the limits).


A unified front is an agreed-upon approach to an issue. In disciplinary matters, it's best to at least have the appearence of total agreement.

The Family's Rules Discussion

Here's a tool for setting your family's specific rules of behavior.

Any disciplinary approach and action works best when it comes from joint decisions made by you and your partner. If you're not consistent, the kids are going to play you off, one against the other. They also need the security of seeing the two of you as a solid unit. The couple, as the keystone of the stepfamily, should provide a unified front, even if you are still struggling with each other about some family matters. When two families combine, providing consistency and a unified front become even more challenging. There's more on this later.

Sit down together with your partner (yes, just the two of you for this discussion) and go over the list. You may need to talk about it in several sessions. As you work on developing your family rules, write down what you come up with. You may want to use the table here to get you started. Discuss the questions on the left, and jot down your answers and thoughts on a separate piece of paper or right in the book.

Rule Notes
What kinds of household
responsibilities should family
members take (chores, messes,
breakage, and so on)?
What specific activities are not
allowed in our house?
What kinds of participation in
family functions do we expect
from the kids?
What food- and mealtime-related
behaviors are important to us?
Who takes responsibility
for pet care?
How does our family approach
money issues (allowance, savings,
and earnings)?
Are visiting stepkids welcome at any
time? Do they need to call first?
What's our policy on guests? If kids
are having friends over, should they
ask first?
What are our feelings of modesty or
immodesty. (Whoa! Incest taboos!)
In what ways do we respect each
other's privacy?
Do we impose limits on the TV,
computer, car, VCR, phone?
What are our rules about
Do we believe in curfew?  
Do we have feelings about
when dating should begin?
What other dating rules do
we have in our family?
What are our feelings
about teenagers being
sexually active?
What kinds of religous
practices does our
family participate in,
and how much involvement
do we expect from the kids?
What's our policy, beliefs,
and feelings about drugs,
drinking, and smoking?

Family Limits

Before you decide on a limit, make sure it passes the "limit test." Review your family values and rules, and make sure that the limit fits within your value system and agreed-upon family rules. Make the limit explicit: The child should be informed exactly what the limit is.


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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