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Why do we make rules for our kids?
There are a variety of reasons, if we’re honest.
1) Their own safety
We want to try and minimize the frequency and severity of injuries. We also want to protect them in other ways, by teaching them about stranger danger, bullying, and breaking the law.
2) Our own convenience
Let’s be honest. There are probably one or two rules in your household that really have more to do with the sanity of the parents than the kids. For instance, “No playing your trombone before 7am”.
And just to be clear, I’m not judging you for those kind of rules. They’re just as necessary. Mama’s sanity is vital to making good parenting decisions. You know you’re not at your parenting best when you’re stressed out and angry.
3) Build good character
Rules such as “Your homework must be done before you can watch television” fall into the build good character category.
This is (in my opinion) the most important reason we create rules. The way we shape children when they’re young sets them on a path that continues through the rest of their life. It’s important that we really think about what character traits we’re promoting or discouraging by the rules we set.
Obstacles to good rule creation
Too many rules
I touched on this a little bit in my previous post Who’s In Charge? Putting Authority Back into the Hands of Parents.
When you make too many rules, they become too difficult to follow and too difficult to enforce. Not only is it tough to remember all those rules (and if you’re struggling, you know your preschooler can’t manage that), but is it really worth it to be doling out consequences every five minutes? Kinda starts to make you feel like the bad guy all the time, doesn’t it?
Ideally, you only want to be dealing with a couple behaviors at a time that you’re trying to extinguish. If you follow this method from the beginning (when they’re infants), it’s easy to handle new behaviors as they come up. If you don’t let it become a habit, you don’t have to continually battle with it.
That being said, maybe you didn’t know this when your kids were young and now they’re a little older and have multiple behaviors you’re trying to change. Focus on 1-3 at a time. That’s a manageable number for both of you.
Pick the behaviors that bother you the most, and hold off on the ones you can live with for a few more weeks. Make a rule (and consequence/reward system!) for each behavior, and enforce it.
Not age appropriate
Nothing is hard and fast when it comes to age appropriate rule setting. Children comprehend on different levels, even within the same age group. Some children hardly need any rules at all. They understand what is expected of them, and they behavior accordingly. Some kids need very specific rules set for them or they will behave like crazy people. It just depends.
For a toddler, some basic rules might be:
- No hitting
- Stay in your bed during the night
- Finish eating before you get up from the table
Now, for a ten-year-old, those shouldn’t be rules anymore. Those should be expectations (we’ll talk about the difference in a minute).
For a ten-year-old, rules might look like:
- No disrespectful backtalking
- Don’t leave your Legos in the living room
- Finish your homework by 9pm.
I rarely see parents setting rules that are too difficult for children to follow. Usually, it’s the opposite. I see parents making excuses for why their older child cannot possibly be expected to follow higher level rules.
For instance, we all know that mom on the playground with the five-year-old who goes around hitting, who insists that her child “doesn’t know what he’s doing” or “can’t control himself when he gets overstimulated”. (More on that in this thoughtful post from Pint Sized Treasures)
Consider what your child really is capable of. Look at the other children his age. What are they able to do? Work with your child to achieve those goals.
Too general or too specific
Sometimes the problem isn’t the rule itself, it’s the wording or breadth of expectation.
This goes along with age, oftentimes. A toddler doesn’t understand what “backtalk” is. Instead, you want to phrase the rule more specifically: “You cannot say ‘no’ to mommy or daddy when they ask you to do something.”
Contrarywise, when you make rules too specific, you start to need a lot of them, and we’re back to problem #1. A ten-year-old shouldn’t need a list of phrases they’re not allowed to use towards mom and dad (though it may be necessary to give a few examples if they aren’t sure what you mean when you say “that attitude”). They should have a general idea by that point of what does and does not constitute respectful talk. Consequences should still be delivered even if the disrespectful phrase they used wasn’t one of your examples.
Gauge your child’s comprehension and create rules accordingly. Typically, it’s better to err on the side of specificity, so your child understands exactly what you want from them.
Unnecessary rules (what really matters?)
Here is where we talk about expectations vs. rules.
Remember a minute ago when we discussed how a ten-year-old shouldn’t need the same rules as a toddler? When a bad behavior is extinguished or a good habit is developed, over time that behavior becomes an expectation rather than a rule. For instance, you expect your ten-year-old not to be hitting anymore.
But what about when they’re younger? Expectations are kind of like extra rules that don’t necessarily have consequences attached. In example, you may have a rule that your toddler has to stay at the table to eat. But you have an expectation that she use her spoon. Is she going to be disciplined if she doesn’t?
That’s up to you if that’s a battle you want to fight. In my household, that would be a behavior I encourage, but don’t necessarily discipline for failure. Children are still learning how to do these basic tasks. You’ll probably get better results from positive interaction and encouragement than from punishment.
Potty training is another example. Set the expectation for your toddler to do her business in the toilet, but recognize that she’s not going to make it 100% of the time.
Ideally, you want to have a lot more expectations than rules. Children do better with expectations. They want to please you. They want to learn how to do things like the grown-ups do.
When you show your child that you trust them to act correctly, without having to create a rule and consequence for every behavior, you build up their confidence in themselves. “Mommy thinks I can, so I can!”
Don’t set a rule unless there is a specific behavior you’ve noted that needs to be dealt with. Instead, set an expectation.
Hey, maybe your high school student will do their homework on their own? Who knows?
Obstacles to good rule following
We just talked about the difference between expectations and rules. Now let’s talk about what happens when you don’t set expectations, or you have low expectations.
It’s pretty simple. Kids get their cues from you. If you don’t expect them to behave, they won’t. They might not even believe they’re capable of it.
At a young age, you know better than they do what they are able to do. Tell them.
Some people have this idea that children are happiest when they don’t have to follow adults’ expectations. Let me tell you, this is a myth.
Kids are more secure when they know what they are and are not allowed to do. They are still being introduced to the world! It’s our job as adults to let them know what is expected of them so that they can adjust their behavior accordingly.
At the end of the day, we want to raise kids who thrive as children and as adults. Preparing them for the rest of their lives is one of the best things we can do for them.
No set consequences
If you don’t set consequences for negative behavior, or if they know you’re not going to follow through with those consequences, children probably won’t be sufficiently motivated to change.
We see this in adulthood too, don’t we?
It’s once we’ve put on 40 pounds that we realize the gym might be a good idea. It’s only when we get reprimanded at work that we decide to start leaving ten minutes earlier. It’s only after we lose that friend that we think about the way we ought to have treated them.
The world operates on a punishment system, not a reward system. While I’m not saying that rewards aren’t a good motivator for children, or that they should never be used, it’s a serious oversight to ignore the importance of consequences for negative behavior.
Be clear about the behavior you expect. Be clear about the consequences they will incur should they fail to behave appropriately.
Consistency is SO important in parenting! It is by far the most overlooked resource you have as a parent. Use it!!
When you set rule, enforce it. Follow through with the consequences.
Don’t make excuses for your child. It’s easy to think “Well, they’re just hungry” or “They’re just tired”. The truth is, your job as a parent is to prepare them for the rest of their life. They have to learn to behave correctly yes, even when they are hungry and tired.
Obviously you need to consider when you set the rule if it is something your child is developmentally capable of (expecting your toddler to never have a meltdown in the store is outside of the realm of logic). But there is a difference between your toddler crying because they are overwhelmed and your toddler hitting you because they got upset.
Be consistent in your disciple. You will see results, but you gotta stick with it for a while.
Consequences that don’t fit the transgression
I’m going to lose a bunch of you right here, but in the name of honesty, I have to tell you that I’m not against spanking. It was by far the most effective punishment I was given as a child, and I plan to use it on my children.
But my parents were smart about spanking. It wasn’t the only consequence they used. It wasn’t even the primary one.
I got put in timeout for minor things. Sometimes I lost a privilege, such as going to a friend’s house or having dessert that night.
There were a few things I got spanked for, and they were spelled out to me beforehand. I knew that if I committed those actions, the consequence would be a spanking.
See, some parents I know threaten to spank their kids for everything. Even when it doesn’t fit the action. It becomes a less effective consequence, because it doesn’t make sense to the child. And honestly, here is what actually happens: Most of those threats don’t get followed through.
Because it’s exhausting! No one wants to spend that much time spanking their child (I hope!).
But here is the opposite end of the spectrum… The parent that begs, and whines, and cajoles and ultimately does nothing. That consequence doesn’t fit either. Because it isn’t really a consequence. You aren’t doing anything to prevent the child from repeating the same negative behavior.
Ideally, you want consequences to be swift and sure. This way, the child associates the consequences with the behavior (especially when they are very young), and the quicker you administer the consequence, the more likely you are to actually follow through with it.
I’m not here to tell you which consequences you should use for your child. That’s not a war I’m willing to get involved in at the moment. 😛 You’re the parent. You make those decisions for your own family. But put some thought into why you believe your set consequences will be effective. Sometimes you have to get creative.
Punishing in anger
I love what Rachel over at A Mother Far From Home has to say about this in her post about parenting with a plan.
She talks about what often happens when we punish in anger, and the consequences that result.
You’ve probably been there. You’re stressed, you’re getting frustrated, and your child sends you over the edge. You dole out some crazy punishment you would never have come up with on a good day and … now what?
The rule of consistent parenting says that you have to follow through with it. But if you do, you’re definitely the bad guy. Without a doubt. The consequence doesn’t fit the transgression, and you and your child both know it.
But if you don’t follow through with it, you become to wishy-washy parent that doesn’t do what they say they will. So now your child is twice as likely to think they can get away with that behavior in the future.
The solution? You need to plan ahead of time.
Minimize the amount of gut-reaction parenting you have to do by setting up your rules and expectations.
If the situation does arise where your child does something completely unexpected and naughty, take a minute to calm down and come up with a logical consequence. Maybe consult your *calmer* spouse. Don’t put yourself in the awkward situation above.