Family Rules (1/2)

By Wong Suen Kwong, Centre for Fathering

Human beings are rule makers and rule followers. Rules make it possible for us to live in communities without getting in each other’s way or violating each other’s rights and boundaries. A family rule refers to any behaviour pattern that is indigenous to a family system or relationship. For example, if Mom and Dad want their kids to excel in their school work, they may enforce the rule that they must do their homework before they are allowed to watch TV.

This rule is consciously intended to produce a repetitive behaviour pattern towards school work. In another case, when John gets upset and leaves the room every time his wife screams, he is following an unconscious rule that requires him to vanish whenever he thinks his spouse is angry.

There are four categories of family patterns each with their respective polarities:

Overt – Covert

Appropriate goals fit the ages of family members for whom they are intended, and foster developmental goals like trust, autonomy, initiative, and competency.

Inappropriate goals, on the other hand, reinforce dysfunctional behaviour patterns and ignore the ages and development of family members. For example, if every time John and his wife step into his family home, his parents treat him like their “boy, boy”, then he is not allowed to ‘grow up’ despite having a family of his own.

Appropriate – Inappropriate

Overt rules are openly communicated and highly visible to the family members so that they encourage ownership, participation and negotiation. They help to explicate family goals and expectations held by the parents.

Covert rules are unspoken and tend to be rigid because they are not open for discussion or negotiation. As a result they can develop into family “secrets” that govern behaviours. For example, a covert rule maybe: If you want to do this or that, and you want a “yes” answer, ask Mom first. No one ever sat down and laid this rule but you worked it out through ‘experience’ in your family.

Flexible – Rigid

See Part 2.

Healthy – Toxic

See Part 2.

“Rules make it possible for us to live in communities without getting in each other’s way or violating each other’s rights and boundaries.”Wong Suen Kwong

Action pointers… 

Divide a sheet of paper into 3 columns with the headings Family Rules, Overt or Covert, and Intensity 1-10.

List the rules that are governing your family to date, get your spouse and children to do their lists and then have a family time to share and compare.

It is important to do this with openness and with a view to discover how your family works things out.

Criticism and judgment are prohibited; meaning all are encouraged to share without the need to justify or explain their views.


No part of this publication shall be reproduced without permission from the author and Centre For Fathering Ltd. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Centre For fathering Ltd.