“I love rules!” said no child ever. Said no adult ever for that matter! But here’s the thing-kids need rules for a hundred reasons. Rules keep us safe. Rules promote social norms. Rules allow us to know where boundaries are. Rules are guides for how to act in situations. They do a lot for us and get a bad rap! Here’s my take on it- from the time your child is about 2 years old, their job is to figure out the world around them and our “stupid-adult” rules just get in their way. It is what it is. No turning back now-let’s get to work!
First, I am a HUGE believer in praise and positive reinforcement to encourage the behavior we want to see and the only reason I’m not going to talk about it here is because I talk about it so often in my other blogs. There has to be a balance so please keep that in mind when you’re reading this! Also, please don’t spank or use physical punishment. There are other things that work well when implemented the right way!
~ Until your child is about two, you likely don’t need rules as much as you need damage control. Children are naturally impulsive at this age so rules won’t really be effective because they are literally “stuck on go”. Your role is to manage their environment and prevent them from climbing on that entertainment center, or putting things in electrical sockets . They are usually easy to distract and redirect, it just takes a LOT of following their every move. If your child is a hitter or a biter, a simple “we don’t hit” followed by removing them from the situation and directing them to another activity should suffice.
~ Toddlers can tolerate a few rules, but not a whole list! Start with 1-2 and see how they do before adding more. They need to be specific and clear. Toddlers also HATE the word “no” and don’t yet fully understand the concept of “don’t” so try positively framed commands. For example- “hands to ourselves”. “Walking feet” “mouth closed, eyes open”. Here’s some more. Positive commands work for kids as they grow up too, so as a parent, it’s useful to practice this now. Removal from a situation or taking a toy away continues to be an effective consequence.
~ Preschool aged children (4-5) are able to tolerate more rules but still do better when the rules are clear and specific. They can begin to generalize rules, and understand cause/effect of their actions. Time outs are often used at this age and the general rule is age=minutes in time out. Create a specific space for this so that it provides your child a true “reset”. (Side note: if you have a child that’s been through trauma or is overly anxious, time out is not recommended). It’s also effective to put a toy or other item in “time out” when it creates problems. If your child struggles with time out, read on. There are other things to try!
~ School aged children are constantly getting exposed to new environments and sets of rules. If the rules seem to work somewhere else, borrow them! Personally, I’m a fan of using natural consequences at this age. For example: “Oh you left your bike outside, after I asked you to put it away. I guess that means you can’t ride it today”. “I asked you not to fight with your brother at the dinner table. You’re showing me that you need some space in your room”. They are sometimes tricky to come up with on the fly but I think they teach the best lesson. Removal of privileges is also common at this age. Maybe a tablet gets taken away for the day. Or the switch gets “switched off”. The most important thing is to be consistent. If there is a stated rule and a stated consequence, try to stick with it as much as possible so that kids know what to expect. Also, don’t remove yourself or time with you as a punishment. Maybe they don’t get to go to the park this weekend because they broke a rule, but they can still hang out with you doing other things like homework help or cooking dinner.
~ And finally-teenagers. Teens are not likely to respond well to “Because I said so”. I’m actually a believer in having teens help come up with rules and consequences. It meets their developmental need to know why and discover what they see as right and wrong. Natural consequences and removal of privileges continue to work well. Adding some chores can also work. The important thing to keep in mind with teens is that it might seem reminiscent of your two year old, fighting you on everything. Toddlers and teens share one major thing in common-they are fighting for independence and autonomy. It’s just what they do. Stay calm. Stay in charge.