Different Ages, Different Rules?

Although the idea of having different rules in your household for your children who are different ages might seem self-evident, the actual implementation of those rules can be troublesome. Any parent who has tried, for example, to institute an earlier bedtime for their 6 year old when they have an 8 year old who stays up later will have heard the popular refrain "It's not fair!" more than once. In fact, the uprising that can occur when younger ones rebel often causes parents to crumble, allowing their younger children to have more flexible, lax or lenient rules than the ones they had originally conceived of for their older kids. But is this a good idea? Should children one, two, three or more years apart in age have different rules or not? And how can parents handle the "it's not fair" chorus that inevitably arises in households with more than one child?

When deciding whether the rules should be the same or different for different aged children, parents can effectively use the following guideline:

"The more responsibility you take, the more privileges you earn."

Thus, as children get older and take on more responsibilities -- like chores, homework, scheduling demands, travel, etc. -- more privileges should be given to them: amount of television allowed, later bedtime, and more allowance being a few of the privileges around which rules are often developed. Let's see how this looks in two real life situations:

Sarah has two children. Matthew is 10 and Lucy is 7. Lucy's bedtime is 7:30 p.m. Matthew's bedtime is 9:00 p.m. Recently, Lucy has been getting out of bed after lights out, complaining that the family is having "family time" without her, and that it's not fair because she feels left out. Understandably, Sarah feels torn. It's true that between 7:30 and 9:00 she and Matthew often read together, play games or talk, and she can see how Lucy might feel left out. At the same time, when Matthew was 7 he had to go to bed at 7:30. So to allow Sarah to stay up later would be unfair to him. She's considering perhaps not interacting with Matthew during that time so that Lucy will feel better.

Peter and Miriam have a similar problem. Their eldest child, Jonathan, is 12 years old and their youngest child, Sam is 9. Sam has been complaining that Jonathan gets more allowance than he does, and that it's not fair because when they go on vacation Jonathan always has more money to spend on souvenirs even though he wasn't as conscientious about saving his money as Sam was. Peter and Miriam are conflicted about what to do. They want Sam to reap the benefits of having saved his money, yet Jonathan does have more expenses (he's required to pay for lunches out during the school year) than Sam. They're considering raising Sam's allowance, even though he's getting the exact amount Jonathan did at that age.

Both of these families would benefit from the more responsibility = more privileges guideline.

In Sarah's case, her son Matthew has more responsibility in terms of the amount of chores he must do. In addition, he has more homework than Lucy does. Although Sarah and Matthew do have some time together in the evenings, a good portion of the time that Lucy is in bed is spent by Matthew on his schoolwork and / or chores. In this case the different bedtime rule is appropriate. Therefore, rather than change the rule for Lucy, Sarah should focus on Lucy's feelings of being left out of family time. She might ask her what would help her feel that she, too, had "special" or family time before she went to bed. Maybe they could develop a different routine for Lucy that included playing a board game so that she felt more "included." Finally, it would probably help if she asked Lucy immediately before lights out whether she felt satisfied with the way the evening had gone, and what, if anything, she'd like to change to make her feel more satisfied tomorrow. Often when children complain that "it's not fair" they simply want to feel listened to by the parent, and asking for Lucy's input about her routine would satisfy that need.

In the case of Peter and Miriam, their oldest son Jonathan clearly has more things that he is responsible for buying out of his allowance, hence a greater sum seems appropriate. However, Sam is acting in a responsible manner by saving his allowance instead of squandering it on things he doesn't need. Peter and Miriam are right in feeling he should benefit from this responsible behavior.

One possible way to address this effectively would be to have a family meeting. This is an opportunity to bring up the concept of "discretionary needs" vs. "real needs." "Discretionary needs" are things like souvenirs, toys, candy, etc. "Real needs" refers to things like shampoo, lunch, deodorant, bus fair etc. As children get older they need to be given responsibility for buying necessities out of their allowance in order to learn effective budgeting techniques. (Allowances should be raised whenever a parent asks the child to take on more "real needs" responsibility. So if you ask your child to buy his own shampoo, make sure that his "budget" is increased accordingly.) Peter and Miriam might also want to bring up the concept of giving a percentage of what the boys "earn" to charity.

During this meeting, Peter and Miriam will want to make their points, as well as say that they'd like to raise Sam's allowance as an acknowledgement of how responsibly he handles his money. But they should also listen carefully and respectfully to what the boys have to say. Obviously their final decision about exactly how much to raise Sam's allowance will have to be determined by the dialogue that occurs during this meeting. However, one possible solution comes to mind even without hearing what the boys have to say, and that would be to raise Sam's allowance to more than what Jonathan got when he was Sam's age as a concrete acknowledgement that Sam is doing a responsible job.

As you can see, the guideline "More responsibility = More privileges" actually transcends age. Although in general older children have more responsibilities than younger children, there are times when a younger child acts in a more responsible manner and should be awarded privileges accordingly. When parents follow this guideline, they wind up with rules that feel fair to the children involved because they can be logically explained.

Finally, remember that the more logically linked the privileges are to the responsibilities your children have, the more fair it feels. Thus, if your child has responsibilities that take up time, it's logical that he should go to bed a little later as his privilege so that he has time to fulfill his responsibilities. Likewise, the more financial responsibilities your child has, the more allowance she should be given. Also keep in mind that privileges can be taken away if a child fails to live up to their responsibilities around the house or at school.