Some Rules about Rules

You’ve taken the time to think about the rules in your home.  You feel good about clearly communicating your expectations, establishing a sense of order in your children’s lives, and providing direction about those things that are important to you.  Having set the limits, you might think you can now sit back and watch your children incorporate your values and use the rules to guide their behavior. 

But wait a minute!!  What’s this you might be hearing from your children?

“Why do I have to do that?  In Sally’s house, she doesn’t have to clear the table and do all these chores!”

“Brian is such a jerk!  I’m going to ruin his Lego fort because he just hit me!”

“I know I have a test tomorrow, but I don’t want to go to bed yet.”

To some degree, this kind of resistance is inevitable when children come up against rules.  The truth is that establishing expectations is often only a first step in actually having them be accepted by your children and applied in your home.

 

WHY CHILDREN RESIST FOLLOWING THE RULES

As a parent, you might wonder how many times you have to tell your children the rules, why it takes so much effort to enforce them, and why children don’t just obey the rules that you set.  Part of the explanation has to do with the very nature of children – they are impetuous and therefore they often can’t stop themselves from doing what they want to do.  Your children’s temperament also plays a role in how much, how often and with what intensity they protest rules.  A very persistent, intense, and expressive child may resist longer and louder than a child who is more compliant, milder and reserved. 

 

A POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE ON OPPOSITION!

Even though the objections and arguments can be annoying to you, your children may be practicing important skills that will benefit them as they mature.  They are learning to question, to assert themselves, to express their opinions, to defend their positions, to negotiate, and to oppose what they consider to be unfair.  As much as you may desire obedience in the short-run, most parents do want to raise children who stand up for their beliefs and rights and fight injustice as adults. 

In addition, children frequently test the edges of rules to determine what the “real” limits are; their opposition to your rules can be a way for them to feel secure in their world and be assured that there are firm boundaries established that will protect them, often from their own impulses.

Children learn gradually over many years to control their impulses.  Helping them to obey rules can assist in developing self-control in your children over time.

 

HOLDING YOUR GROUND

Your children’s opposition to your rules can take many forms:  arguing, debating, yelling, tantrums, crying, procrastinating, ignoring, rudeness, or insolence.  Remember that as the parent who is ultimately in-charge of the household, you have the right and the responsibility to be treated with respect, even when your children disagree with you.

As you consider the rules in your home, take a step back and make sure that the rule is still appropriate for your child’s age and level of maturity and that it is something that you still care enough about to enforce.  Assuming that a particular rule is one that you stand by, then how can you manage your children’s objections?  Some tools you can use are to:

  • Be confident in your judgment – just because your children are not happy with a rule does not mean you need to alter it.
  • Give short explanations for the rule – when your children are calm enough to listen.
  • Respect the child’s point of view – listen for a brief while.  You can hear that they think the rule is stupid, unfair and so on AND still insist that the rule be obeyed.
  • Stay focused on the issue at hand; don’t allow yourself to be taken off track.  Bring the conversation back to the rule.  You can respond to complaints such as: “If you loved me you would buy me this shirt” with “We’re not talking about whether I love you; we’re talking about your using your money to purchase this shirt.”
  • Don’t ask questions if you really don’t want an answer: Instead of “Do you want to clean your room now?” say, “It’s time to clean your room now.”
  • Repeat simple phrases: “That may be .  .  .” “Fair does not mean equal.” “In our family, we .  .  .” “The rule is .  .  .” 
  • Keep repeating the rule or the request: “You need to take out the trash.”
  • Use non-verbal communication such as making direct eye contact and speaking and moving slowly and deliberately. 

All of these tools can be used in a calm way that communicates respect and love for your children as well as determination and a willingness to be the in-charge adult in your home.

From time to time, you may need to revisit the rules you have established to check that they are still appropriate for your family.  Your children may need more leeway as they grow and mature, such as giving a teen more autonomy over bedtime.  At other times, the rules may need to be more stringent when you see that your children are not managing the freedom your rules have allowed them, such as giving a preteen less or no computer time if she cannot limit her use of social media sites. 

Expecting some complaints and opposition to your rules can often ease your anxieties and frustrations.  It is in children’s nature to test the limits.  It can also be reassuring to know that to some degree these episodes of disagreement and objections can enhance your children’s growth toward maturity as they struggle to incorporate your values.  However, when you have determined that the rule must be followed, it becomes an important part of your job as a parent to enforce the rule and to help your children learn to live by it.  And that is a rule about rules.

By Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator 

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For more information about discipline check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through Amazon.com supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Growing Up Again by Jean Illsley Clark Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso Kids Can Cooperate by Elizabeth Crary Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

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