The day (or night) you get a call for a placement waiting for you will be full of excitement, anxiety, and fear- but don’t worry you’ll probably have at least 1 hour before the kid(s) arrive. Coming up with House Rules and schedules during all of this is complicated and will be the furthest thing from your mind as you are trying to show them their room, wash their clothes, get them fed, receive all the updates and paperwork from your caseworker, and get to know this child who just appeared in your doorway.
Before your world is changed with a flurry, it’s important to have already figured out your house rules. Make sure all the adults living in your house are aligned with these expectations and it is critical for all kids already in your home (biological, adopted, or foster) to know and understand these in advance to avoid more “move-in surprises”. Thinking about the impact the rules and norms have on your new foster children is also important so they feel comfortable adjusting to your home.
Before you start drafting the Bill of Rights of your house you have to keep some basic concepts in mind:
How Old Are the Kids?
Infants and toddlers will do whatever they want and older kids will have a hard time adjusting suddenly to rules that guide their every move. A teenager can mostly take care of themselves and they don’t need to have a rule dictating their t-shirts be sorted by color in the top left drawer of the dresser but they should know if they aren’t allowed to call their mom at 1am (yes, they will have cell phones). If you have children of a wide age range in your house explain why things may be different and always make sure biological children don’t appear to be “getting off easy” as that will make foster kids feel separate and could make it seem like you don’t trust them.
Do Rules Really Matter?
How many rules can a kid honestly remember? Think about all of the changes they are going through right now and all of the feelings they are processing. If you don’t really need a rule for it, see if you can scrap it. Rules are best served for things that are safety-related or essential for their schedule.
How Clear is Everything?
Are the rules posted in a place where the child can see them? Can your kids read? Are the details too much for someone who just moved in? Simplify what you can and keep descriptions of concrete things. “Bedtime is at 8” might mean that is when they start getting ready for bed where they come from but you might mean “lights out at 8”. Be as clear as possible to avoid misunderstandings.
What Can be Added Later?
Day 1 needs rules… but not all of them. Once you get a feel for how things are going and what your relationship is like you can reassess the rule situation. Don’t do this every other week or the kids won’t remember what system is in place at any moment but it’s fine to do an occasional reset if you find new things that are specific to the child.
When you have these moments, don’t position it as a punishment or retaliation for their behavior or they may resent your rules. If you can involve the child in the rules it can go a long way in them feeling like they are part of the family and that their opinion matters. Ask them how things are going and what they think would work better for them.
How Are You Recognizing Them?
Your rules are new to them: don’t expect them to perfectly adhere to everything. They also might be pulled in several directions at once and not know what rule they should follow. For example, if you set a rule of “no phones after 8” and their parents ask them to call them when they are off work at 9, what is a kid supposed to do? Be patient when they forget something and listen if they try to explain why it happened. When they are doing a great job, celebrate those victories and let them know you see their effort.
Ultimately, your house rules will likely change depending on the needs of the children in your home. But thinking through these situations ahead of time can help things go more smoothly for you and your foster children.