Random rules are bad.
How would you like it if you were strolling innocently down the street and were attested because the police decided to make the wearing of blue against the law on Tuesdays?
Kids are new. They don’t yet know what may seem obvious to us. They are not born knowing that when the ground turns from green to black suddenly big cars can come at them at high speeds. They don’t know that they are not supposed to just grab a toy they like or bite somebody that makes them mad, until you tell them so.
Chaos and disaster happen without rules. But they need to be good rules! Grown-ups need to consciously think about the rules that they make, agree on them, explain them to the kids, and enforce them.
Last week’s blog was about how a child’s age and development affect discipline. This week is devoted to figuring out what those rules should be.
Rules are important; allocate some serious time and thought to creating them. What do you want to accomplish? You don’t want your future teen to get in fights, so no hitting. You don’t want the parent of your future grandchildren to be dishonest, so no lying. Write the resultant rules down. Make a contract with your partner to enforce each and every rule, every time. Let grandparents and babysitters in on the plan, because discipline problems are usually caused by a caregiver’s misbehavior at least as much as the child’s.
This process will, of course, involve some compromise. No two people will ever agree on the necessity or fairness of every rule. To reach a sensible compromise, think about why we make rules in the first place.
Guidelines for Making Rules:
- First, we make rules to keep our children safe. The easy ones are obvious: don’t play in the busy street, wear your seatbelt and bike helmet, don’t play with matches. Safety rules get more nebulous as your child gets older, though: never talk to strangers, no going on camping trips with people we don’t know, no driving friends around because you’re still a new driver. It’s important when making rules to talk to your kids, think about the risks, and don’t compromise on safety.
- We make rules to help teach children right from wrong. The basics are, again, obvious: no stealing, no lying, and no cheating in school. Others are more nebulous and can vary with culture, religion, and personal preference. The No hitting girls rule comes to mind. Why just girls? What if they’re bigger than you? What if they hit first – can you protect yourself? What about the No eating pork rule, or No working on Sundays? Many rules are religion or culture based, and with today’s mixing of cultures, will have to be discussed beforehand.
- We make rules so that our children will learn self-control. We place the external framework around them and, over time, it will be internalized. Consider the No cursing rule, for example. A curse word is just a combination of sounds. There is no safety issue at stake here, no inherent nature of right or wrong. But if kids don’t learn that cursing is not acceptable, it will affect the way people see them. Teachers will not be happy with them, because cursing is inappropriate at school. They might lose friends. In the end, it could even limit their job prospects. So, if for no other reason than the norms and expectations of society, children need to learn to control their speech.
- A framework of rules will teach your child self-reliance. If they understand the rules, they knows what to do in a given situation. Imagine a child who has not been taught basic table manners. When he is invited to a friend’s home for dinner, he will be confused and scared, and he may act out because he feels out of place or stupid. But if, instead, he knows what behavior is expected of him, he can count on his own abilities to get him through.
- Rules provide the safe, structured environment in which a child can thrive. Painting must be done on the kitchen table translates to your child as, “I can paint on the kitchen table and not get in any trouble for the mess!” Saying You must do your homework signifies that you care about your child and want him to do well in school. Saying You have to wear your seatbelt means that you love him more than life and would die if he were hurt. Kids will roll their eyes at you, but they really do want you to care and keep them safe.
I find it amazing that children actually obey rules set down by their parents, especially when they become older, and sometimes much larger, than said parent. The reason they do becomes apparent when you look at the kids who do not obey their parents’ rules. It is a matter of simple respect and love. If you want to be able to say, “Stop!” to the sixteen year old headed for the door with the car keys and have him actually stop, he has to know you love him and you have to have earned his respect.
Kids cannot be expected to respect their parents simply because they are the Parents, any more than you would respect your boss simply because he or she has a job title. A child’s respect is earned with unconditional love, dependability, and honesty. If the relationship is solid, kids will want their parents respect and approval – a very good thing as they get older, more independent, and our of your control.
Now that we know what rules we think matter enough to enforce (don’t even think about making a rule you aren’t going to enforce!), how do we go about enforcing them? Tune in next week, of course!