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

5 Reasons Why Kids Need Rules, and How Need Decides What Rules Should Be

toddler with toy-01Random 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? Check out 8 Surefire Strategies to Make Rules Work.

The Blogger's Pit Stop

To Each Their Own… Rules Custom Fit to Every Age Child

kidsfighting

Children may look sweet, but in reality they are cute little barbarians, and it is our job to civilize them. Their brains are not tiny adult brains. They start out with little more than primitive reflexes (breathe, cry, wave my arms around when I’m startled), wander through childhood and adolescence (when they really can’t see the long term consequences of their actions), and don’t actually think like adults until, well, they’re adults.

At all these ages parents have to take into account their child’s personal style, intelligence, and talents when they make rules, but there are developmental stages that are universal, and understanding them will help a parent better resolve problems.

When babies are newborn, they can focus their vision well at about a foot away—just the distance of your face when you are holding them. They look at everything, learning at an unimaginable rate. By two months they recognize a smile and smile back. By four months, they will recognize your voice. Their thoughts aren’t well organized enough to allow them to become spoiled until about six months – so no, you can’t spoil them by holding them all the time. You also won’t do them vast harm if you need to put them down for a while.

At about nine months, they start to recognize words—“no” is generally one of the first. In baby language “no” means, “Smile at the parental units and keep doing what I’m doing. They will come play!” Saying it louder will only make them cry in confusion. Go over, distract them, and take away whatever they shouldn’t be playing with.

Curiosity rules for the first few years, and we want this. Babies look at and touch everything, often while putting everything in their mouths. They explore and, consequently, learn. Your job is to let them explore while keeping them safe. This is a lot easier to do by baby-proofing your house than by saying no every minute or two. Put all of the breakables out of reach, tuck away the electric cords, add padding to some of the more solid objects, and block off the stairs so you don’t have to follow Baby around all day. She’s not going to fully understand rules now anyway.

Between eighteen months and two years, most kids can begin to understand some rudimentary rules. Keep them simple, please—no complex commands. Saying, “You can’t play with that because Mommy needs it for work tomorrow” will elicit a blank stare. “No going near the road”  is more their size. Of course, they will do it anyway because they’re new at this whole rule thing—and because they finally have some control over their arms and legs, and there is neat stuff to play with. When Mommy or Daddy stops them, it’s terrible! The universe just ended! Tantrum Time!

Two year olds live at the center of their own universe; everything and everyone exists just for them. This can be seriously confusing for them when things don’t go their way. They really cannot understand why they can’t have and do what they want, because the world is theirs. They also have no idea how to regulate their emotions. We they are angry, they are consumed by that anger. Sadness is world destroying. Disciplining a two year old is aimed at teaching them to not hurt other people and to regulate their emotions. This is where the No biting and No kicking come in, along with the You can sit in your room alone until you can stop screaming.

Three and four year olds are still learning to modulate their emotions, but are also developing self-sufficiency… and opinions. Discipline at this age is mostly about consistency and endless repetition. They do know they can’t take that juice away from the table, but they think that maybe this time they will get away with it. At this age we want to reinforce the fact that bad behavior never gets you what you want. That juice is gone.

Enter the kindergartener. Have you ever noticed that most kindergarten teachers are young? They burn out quick. This is the age when kids start to learn about responsibility, and to feel guilt when they mess up. We make sure they understand the rules, remind them when they might bump into one, and enforce discipline immediately when they break one. At this age rewards work remarkably well, because kids are learning to feel pride when they do well.

The grade school years are your reward for making it through. Kids are very logical, not extremely emotional, and are focused more on learning and developing their skills and talents. They also at this age learn to deal with their failures, to discipline themselves  within their own internal framework of right and wrong. Where a kindergartener might hit another child and then feel bad, we want our third grader to feel like hitting another child but stop themselves.

Drum roll please… Adolescence. During these years teens break down and replace large portions of of their brains – the part would have given them a view of the future and the long term consequences of their actions, had it been there. They can be very impulsive and sometimes indulge in very risky behavior. Parenting in adolescence mainly consists of making sure they get enough sleep (a sleep deprived teen brain is a scary thing), keeping them alive, and protecting them from mistakes that will follow them forever. The most effective way to do this is to stay involved in their lives (even when they don’t want you to), know where they are and what they are doing, and keep communication open.  Discipline at this age is largely making sure they take responsibility for their actions because after adolescence you won’t be there to rescue them. Don’t save them from the small stuff (flunking grades) but make sure to protect them from the biggies (drugs, pregnancy, death).

The goal of discipline at any age is not to punish the child, but rather to  raise an inspired, responsible, self-reliant adult. Keep the long term in mind when you seem to be disciplining the exact same infraction over and over: you’re not aiming for a well behaved 2 year old or a teen who never screws up. You’re aiming for an amazing adult.

Want more specifics on how to make which rules? Check out 8 Surefire Strategies to Make Rules Work and 5 Reasons Why Kids Need Rules, and How Need Decides What Rules Should Be.

 

Work/Life Balance

CinemaUsher-01Since Patrick Pichette announced his retirement from Google to spend time with his family, work/life balance seems to be a popular topic of discussion.

So what is the proper work/life balance? Mr. Pichette decided on 30 years of working like a maniac followed by unknown years of maniacal relaxation. Sounds a little familiar to me.

Is there a correct percentage? 50/50? 60/40? Does it change over time, perhaps allowing for more hours of work when one is young and unencumbered, fewer when one has young children at home?

Money matters, because bills have to be paid, so time must be allotted to obtain it. Variables change if you have a partner to share the load.

Do you devote more time to work if you consider your work to be important, or if you like your work? Is some time apportioned to work necessary to teach responsibility to your children?

How do you solve this puzzle? Is it possible to assign a value to each part of your life, start with the things that have the highest value, and throw in as many as will fit until you run out of day? Are your eyes crossing yet?

The currency that you spend for the things that you do is your life. You pay for time with pieces of your life, and the lives of those important to you. Four hours rearranging papers equals four hours of life gone. The same four hours hiking with the kids? Definitely a better cost/benefit ratio.

Unfortunately, if we spend all of our time on our family and friends, somehow arranging the bits and pieces by degree of importance, we risk failing in our responsibilities. Eating by candle light is less romantic when you can’t turn on the lights.

These choices have to include what those you love value as well. You may not want to make mud pies, but if your 3 year old does, and you value her, those mud pies have value for you too.

When you sign up to have a partner and children, you have by unwritten contract agreed to value them. Being a member of a family, a group of friends, and society also demands it’s share of your time. We live in this world and depend upon each other. We need to contribute.

There are not enough hours in each day.

Solving the puzzle

The solution to this puzzle is impossible because we are asking the wrong question. The question is not “What is the optimal work/life balance?” The question is “What can we do so that we do not consider time spent at work the equivalent of death?”

If we are alive at work, we don’t need to squish all the meaningful time in our lives into a few short hours in the evening. If we find work that we love and take pride in, we will be more productive and we can feel fulfilled. Productive, fulfilled people are happier, have more energy, and are better able to deal with expectations at home. They have more to give back. They also usually have more money, because people who love their work will do it better, and money will follow. The balance improves.

There is no omnicient statue holding a scale above our heads to judge how well we spend our time. I am a small town, solo practice pediatrician: I have been on call for 17 years, every day and night. My daughter is a homemaker, currently chasing a two year old while making my granddaughter. That hypercritical statue would put us on opposite ends of a scale, but both lives have equal value. My children and hers both know that they are gems beyond price, and that we would give our lives for theirs. Adding up and checking off the hours spent at home and work is just silly.

Work

We need to find work that is worth spending our lives on. We need to know ourselves, explore what is valuable to us, and relinquish our lives to that. Happiness is possible when our reality aligns with our dreams. If your dream is dedicating your life to service to the exclusion of family, then live that life. If your vision means devoting yourself to your children, then that has equivalent value, because it has the equal cost of one life, true to itself.

Whether we produce food, teach children, work on cars, or get thrown up on for a living (my choice), we need to live at work, because we spend our lives doing it. The question,”What is the right work/life balance?” is meaningless. We live every minute of our lives and need to give consideration to how we do it, not let circumstance blow us in random directions.

What is valuable is different for each life, and for each day in that life. Know why you do the things you do; take that first step toward where you dream of being. Achieve not so much a work/life balance, as a balanced life.