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

the Pope, and the Smacking of Children

So, I haPrintd great hopes for this Pope. He was a man of the people, a decent human being, and truly seemed to care and connect with his community. Then he said that birth control would never be allowed by the Catholic church, and followed a few hours later with: This does not mean you have to breed “like rabbits!” Sigh.

Now, he has commented that it’s OK to smack your kids, as long as you don’t humiliate them. Yes, I will admit he was talking about spanking, which seems to be a blind spot, but the only place he outlawed for said smacking was the face, and hitting is hitting.

I am not happy, and when I am not happy I make lists. Below is an even dozen tips on how to discipline kids that, while not ordained by God, is based on common sense and a lot of experience with children:

  1. Don’t hit your children. It is not possible for a big person who is four times the size of a small person to immobilize them and hit them, without frightening and humiliating them. It can’t be done.
  2. Before you discipline, make rules that make sense, and inform your children. You shouldn’t punish them for breaking a rule they didn’t know about.
  3. Decide on the manner of discipline before they break the rule. Never decide on the punishment when you are angry; you will do things you later regret. Involve the children in the decision. “What do you think would be an appropriate punishment if you break this rule?” Kids can come up with some very creative punishments. Don’t listen if they want to be burned at the stake, or shot into outer space.
  4. Be consistent in your discipline. They knew the rule, they broke it, they get the punishment each and every time. Don’t even think of issuing a warning for a rule they already knew. Kids are smart; they will figure out that they can break any rule, once.
  5. Make the discipline appropriate for the crime. If they broke a toy, they loose the toy. Mean to another child? Being made to appoligize is harder than any spanking, and the memory will make them consider before they do it again. Look at porn on the internet? “I guess you get to do your computer homework in the kitchen where we can see you. Dude.”
  6. Make the discipline immediate and short term. None of that “Wait ’til your father gets home!” stuff. If you wait too long, your child will disassociate the punishment from the crime. The same thing is true with punishments that last more than a day or two. Three months of grounding for that, umm, incident, will loose its effectiveness after a while.
  7. Hold out hope for the future. Your child needs to know that you still love him and he may someday get his tablet back. The stick doesn’t work without the carrot in place. “Pick up that mess you made and we can sit and read that book you love!”
  8. Don’t tower over your child when you enforce discipline. Start with the respect any human deserves, get down to their level, look them in the eye, and explain the problem.
  9. Alternatively, don’t allow the discussion to devolve into excuses. Your child needs to take responsibility for his actions, not try to talk his way out of trouble.
  10. Make sure you squeeze in more rewards than punishments. Forever. How long would you go to work if you didn’t get a paycheck? Hug that child when he shares his toys. Play ball with her when she finishes her homework. Be astonished and happy when they clean their rooms. Rewards will always work better than punishments.
  11. Teenagers are, as always, a special case. Their brains are not fully developed yet, and they will not be able to see the consequences of their actions far into the future. They are also not always rational: a teen once asked me if it was true that a girl could not get pregnant if she put a yellow skittle in her vagina when she had sex. They need freedom to make mistakes, but they also need to be protected from mistakes that will kill their futures. Watch them, without blinders. Know where they are and what they are doing. Contracts work: if they know you will come and pick them up anywhere, anytime, and not freak out in front of their friends, your child will call you. You can discuss the consequences with them in the morning.
  12. Again: Never hit your child. Not only is it disrespectful and humiliating, it also simply doesn’t work.

Realize that the goal of discipline is a well adjusted, self confident adult who has a good relationship with his or her spouse and children, and a good reputation at work; the goal is not a well behaved thirteen year old. Have patience and keep the long view. Your child is worth it.

I do have hopes for this Pope, but if you are going to tell people that they need to control their birth rate, it is unkind to outlaw the most reliable ways to do that. It is poor parenting to tell your child to do his homework and then remove all the books, paper and pencils from the house. And perhaps an unmarried man with no children, who has never been faced with the possibility of that 2 AM phone call from the emergency room, is not the man to discuss the intricacies of child discipline.