8 Surefire Strategies to Make Rules Work (and 2 Corollaries)

A small boy playing

To succeed at this parenting thing, we need to not only have a set of rules with which to raise our children, we also have to teach those rules to our kids and enforce them evenly.

Children don’t handle inconsistency well; it frightens them and makes them feel insecure. Insecure children will act out endlessly both to see if anyone actually cares and to see if they can get away with it this time, since sometimes they can. Not fun. They also learn to play one parent against the other if you are not a consistent team, because they are smarter than you think they are.

Even if all the grown-ups in a child’s life don’t live in the same house they all have to agree on the basic rules and enforce them consistently, for the good of the children and the sanity of the grown-ups.

Last week’s blog was on why kids need rules; the week before discussed how a child’s developmental age affected rules.

This week’s blog is an outline for a framework of rules that work, and a guide on how to teach them to the kids. And Grandma. So.

The 8 Strategies that Make this Work:

  • The rules have to be reasonable, taking into account the child’s age and abilities. It would make no sense to rule that your one year old must use a fork; insisting that your eight year old do so is reasonable.
  • Try not to outlaw normal behavior. Fifteen month olds are going to climb on the furniture; five year olds will pretend to be lions. The “no lying” rule does not apply when playing pretend.
  • Never punish curiosity – we want that. Inappropriate questions can be answered with “I’m not going to discuss that with you,” rather than “You shouldn’t ask that.” Try to redirect curiosity, not punish it.
  • Try to make rules with your particular child in mind. Think about his personality, her abilities, their style. This combination of you, your child, and their particular environment has never before happened in the history of the world, so you get to decide what is best. Grandmas and books can only give you a general idea. If your child is a musician, cutting him off in the middle of a composition because it’s dinnertime would be failing him. If he is terrible at math, making him sit at the table alone until he finishes all of his homework may be torture. Consider your child when you make the rules.
  • Make sure they understand the rule and why it is important. “The rule is that you must wear the helmet every time you ride your bike, no exceptions.” Speak with authority, even if you can’t quite feel it. “We don’t make you wear the helmet to make you look dorky, we make you wear it because your head is fragile and we love you.” Keep the rules simple and easy to understand.
  • Rules should be consistent and predictable. Your child should be able to generally know what will be allowed and what will not, because all the rules form a cohesive whole. If it is a rule that he is not allowed to smoke or take drugs, and his new friend smokes and takes drugs, then he knows without asking that the answer is going to be no, he can’t hang out with his new friend unsupervised.
  • Rules have to be enforceable. Never fight a battle with a child that you cannot win. Set up the playing field ahead of time so that you do win. They are children; you can outsmart them. If they win, you have given up a lot of power you will need later. If you insist on her eating her creamed corn, what will you do when she refuses? You can’t force her to swallow. What you can do is enforce a “no junk food” policy. Don’t buy it. It’s not in the house. “Sorry kid, we don’t have that, but there’s fruit over there….” A win!
  • Last, try to make rules respectful of the child. Don’t condescend, especially if your child is a tween or teen. Never humiliate your child. It lessens them, when you want them to be more.

Teaching the Rules

So, we have rules. There aren’t too many, they make sense, and all the grown-ups have agreed on them. How do we teach them to the urchin?

First and most importantly, teach by example. You are the center of your child’s world. They see you. They watch and notice. Then they imitate, both because they love you and want to be like you, and because they want your approval. How much easier will parenting be if they copy your habit of honesty? How much more successful will you – and they – be if they strive to control their temper because they see you control yours? If they know it’s unacceptable to hit because they never see it at home?

Second, teach by explanation – making sure they understand – and then by repetition. When they are going to be in a situation that will give them the opportunity to break a rule, remind them that it exists. “Remember, you will get in more trouble for lying than for anything you did.” Repetition will always work, generally by the one hundred millionth time. Hopefully.

Lastly, teach by giving them the option for success within the rules. “You aren’t allowed to go to Jeremy’s house because his parents aren’t there. Would you like to invite him here or wait until his parents come home?” Let your child think of a solution that is within the rules. Kids can be very creative when they want something.

Changing the Rules

If you have not had many rules or have been lax about enforcing them, change will be painful. Expect rebellion.

They will probably act out and may initially become much worse, particularly for the first two weeks. They may even think the new rules make sense and secretly feel good that you care, but they will never let you know. As a general rule, it takes two weeks of absolute consistency to change a habit, be it a junk food addiction or a new curfew. After two weeks, the change becomes the new norm. They might still fight it, but they have gotten used to it, and they won’t put as much effort into the battle.

If you give in during that two weeks, it starts the timer over. Don’t give in.

Gang up on them. Everything will go more smoothly if you can get your children’s friends’ families to use similar rules. Imagine if all the kids had to do their homework, and all the teenagers had the same curfew! If that is not possible, at least communicate with the other parents, teachers, and daycare workers so that you know what their rules are, because your child will likely – um – mislead you as to what is allowed elsewhere.

The Important Stuff

Rules should be carefully considered so that they protect your children’s safety, teach them right from wrong, and help them function in society. Rules should be enforced equally by everyone involved in children’s lives, and need to be reasonable and understandable. They need to provide a framework that will allow kids to learn self-reliance and self-control. Rules, though restrictive and incomprehensible when done arbitrarily, are necessary and good when done with consideration for what is best for the child in the long run.

The Blogger's Pit Stop

3 thoughts on “8 Surefire Strategies to Make Rules Work (and 2 Corollaries)

  1. Pingback: 5 Reasons Why Kids Need Rules, and How Need Decides What Rules Should Be | Practical Parenting Blog

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