Using Rules for Discipline that Works


A Common Scenario

Recently, a parent at one of our programs, who was very frustrated after a recent visit to a family friend, recounted:


“Last week we took our four-year-old Jessie and six-year-old Alexia to our friend’s house. She specifically asked us to bring the kids since she hadn’t seen them in a long time.  While we were there, they behaved very badly. 

About an hour into the visit, they started going through my friend’s cabinets, pulling things out so they could see better what was inside each.  They took food from the refrigerator without asking.  And they created a mess and wouldn’t clean up after themselves.  They didn’t even properly thank our friend when we left.   

My husband and I were so frustrated and embarrassed and angry with them that we said we would take away television for the next three months!”


One of the things that this parent eventually came to realize was that Jessie and Alexia had not been told in advance of the visit how they should behave when they were in someone else’s house. 

This is a perfect example of how having rules in place would have been very helpful. 

The Basics of Rules

Without clearly communicated rules, chaos can reign.

Parents can resist setting rules based on strong reactions they have from their own childhoods. 

  • If you were more on the rebellious end of things, you may find rules to be restrictive.  You may immediately think of ways to get around the rules, and as a parent, may chafe at the idea of having to set such limits for your children.

  • Conversely, if you were a more rule-abiding child, you may find it difficult to understand why your own children do not obey the rules and why it can be such a struggle to get them to respect authority.

The Benefits of Rules

Rules do have an important place in your parenting arsenal.

Rules help you to:

  • maintain a calm environment.

  • be ACTIVE leaders in your  home rather than  REACTIVE. Because rules are pre-set, they force you to decide what is important to you.

  • provide structure for your family, which helps your children feel safe and cared for.

  • instill in your children some of the long-term traits you would like them to have, such as being:

    • Independent

    • ResponsibleRules

    • Respectful of self and others

    • Loving and caring

    • Appreciative and grateful

    • Empathic and generous

    • Able to solve problems

  • pass on your values to your children. The things you make rules about indicate what you feel is important.

  • let children know what you expect and, thereby, enables them eventually to monitor their own behavior.

Setting Standards

Rules are an important element in raising children to become responsible by creating structure and imparting your values.  They set standards, hold children accountable, let them know how they are expected to behave, and typically have consequences for compliance and non-compliance. 

By expecting children to live up to your expectations, you show them that they are capable, which in turn, builds their self-esteem.

Building Trust

By pre-thinking the behaviors you want to see and by clearly communicating your desires, you can build trust with your children and a sense of security in them. When there is a problem, rules can help you to alter the behavior, while preserving your relationship, which is the foundation of all parenting.

Ultimately, your goal is to raise children who are independent, responsible individuals who can create lasting relationships and contribute to society. The rules you set in your family should help you to assist your children to reach this goal.

Using rules can help you to maintain your children’s self-esteem and your connection with them even as you discipline them.


Rules can be made about different topics:


Read the following comments made by a child and how the parent responded using a rule about values such as respecting people and property and helping others.

Child: “I don’t want to help deliver this dinner to your friend.  I don’t care that she just broke her leg. I want to have a play date.”

Parent: “In our family, we help those in need.”


Child: “I don’t want to give some of my allowance to charity.”

Parent: “In our family, we help those in need.  You must give a small portion of your allowance to charity.”



Rules can also be made around health issues, such as the food you eat, exercise, and sleep. Again, see how this parent talked to her child about health rules.

Child: “Why do I have to go to bed so early?  You get to stay up late.”

Parent: “We need to take care of our bodies.  When you are older, you can stay up later.”


Child: (ON THE VERGE OF A TEMPER TANTRUM) “I want to buy this candy.  I have the money.  You are so mean.”

Parent: “We need to take care of our bodies.  Candy will not help you to grow strong and healthy.”



This parent used rules about possessions, such as putting away items. For example:

Child: “Mom, I’ll clean up my Legos later.  Just push them to the side on the floor.”

Parent: “In our family, we take care of our possessions.  Clean up your Legos now before pieces get lost or broken.”


Child: “I left my jacket outside at Billy’s house.  Oh well.  You can buy me a new one.”

Parent: “In our family, we take care of our possessions.  You can either call Billy and ask him to bring your coat inside for you, or we can go over there for you to get it yourself.”



Here are comments by a parent about responsibilities, such as chores and homework:

Child: “I’ll do my report later.  I want to watch this cartoon now.”

Parent: “In our family, you need a plan for getting your work done before you can play.   What is your plan?”


Child: “Yeah, yeah.  I’ll take the trash out later.”

Parent: “In our family, you need a plan for getting your chores done before you can go and play.   What is your plan?”


You may have noticed, the parent used the same general rule in various scenarios.  It is better to have fewer, more general rules than to have lots of specific rules.  It is easier for your children and for you to remember the more general rules. 

Also, many parents complain that their children are like “little attorneys,” finding loopholes in the rules. It is harder to fight general principles.

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Two Types of Rules: Non-negotiable and Negotiable Rules

Non-Negotiable Rules

When you set a non-negotiable rule, you are setting the rule without any discussion.  These are rules that you insist upon.  Parents quite naturally set non-negotiable rules when it comes to safety – you don’t ask your children if they want to use a car-seat, you tell them they have to. 

Non-negotiable rules teach children eventually how to keep themselves safe because over time, they begin to use these rules on their own without your having to monitor them.

Other examples of non-negotiable rules include:

“You must wear your helmet when riding your bike.”

“You may not cross the street by yourself.”

“You must be home by 5:00 pm.”

“Bedtime is at 8:00 pm.”

The younger the child, the more you need to set these non-negotiable rules.  As your children mature, you hand over more of the power for self-governing to them and they can have more of a say.


Negotiable Rules

Use negotiable rules to allow children to have input, keeping in mind their age and maturity level so that the amount and type of input is appropriate. 

Negotiable rules teach children to think and give them practice in making decisions.  They learn to advocate for themselves, express their ideas, and develop arguments for what they want. 

For example, if a growing child feels that an 8 PM bedtime is too early, you can ask him why he thinks so, what time he thinks makes sense, how he plans to handle getting up on time in the morning, etc. 

As children mature and are able to handle more control over their lives, more and more areas become negotiable.

Parents often create negotiable rules around the following issues

  • Bedtimes:
    “Let’s decide together what bedtime should be on the weekends.”

  • Snack choices:
    “We can talk about what snacks you would like in your lunchbox.”

  • Chores:
    Here is a list of chores that need to be done. You can choose 2 that you are willing to do.”

  • Clothing:
    “What do you need to buy to wear to school this year?  Here is a budget you can work with.”

Children’s Self-Esteem Rises

Children’s self-esteem increases as they see that their parents are willing to consider their input and their ideas. 

Their cooperation usually increases as they have a say in the rules.  They are less likely to resist and there is less conflict in the home when children are involved in the decision about the rule.


It’s and Art, Not a Science

It is an art to decide when a rule can be negotiable.  It depends on the child’s maturity level, judgment, and history with being able to handle increased responsibility. 

  • At certain times in development, such as adolescence, parents may need to reign children in by switching back to a non-negotiable rule if that is what it takes to keep their children safe and to instill their values.

    For example, computer or cell phone access and curfew are all areas where you may hand-off the baton, but if your children are unable to handle the freedom, you may need to retake control of the baton and set non-negotiable rules.

  • Remember that just because a child wants to re-negotiate a rule, you don’t have to change it, and that you can use the opportunity to teach your child about compromise and negotiation.

  • Furthermore, what is negotiable in one family may be non-negotiable in another and not important enough in a third family to even have a rule about it.

  • For example:

    Family #1 – Negotiable: “Let’s discuss when you should do your homework: right after school or after dinner.”

    Family #2 –Non- negotiable: “The rule in our family is homework must be done before dinner.”

    Family #3 – No rule: “You decide when you do your homework.”

    Another example:

    Family  # 1 – Negotiable: “Let’s come up with a plan that we can all agree to about bringing food into the family room.”

    Family #2 – Non-negotiable: “All food is to be eaten in the kitchen.”

    Family #3 – No rule: “You decide where you want to eat.”

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Seven Key Elements to Consider when Setting Rules

Be clear yourself about the rules you want.

This refers to being clear about your values and what you consider important.  Do you really care about this behavior enough to follow through?  If you don’t care enough or have the energy to follow through, perhaps this rule isn’t important enough to keep as a rule.

Communicate the rule before you enforce it.

What is expected, when, by whom?  Sometimes you realize that a rule needs to be in place only as something goes wrong.  

Whenever possible, let your children know beforehand what the rule is going to be and how you intend to enforce it.  Sometimes you may assume your children know what the rule is, but they don’t – it is important to be clear with them. 

And it is helpful if possible for the consequences to be known in advance.

Decide if the rule is reasonable.

Does it take into account your child’s age, maturity level, temperament, and abilities?  As you decide on the rules and their consequences, you need to remember that fair does not always mean equal.

Assess whether the rule is enforceable.

As parents, you can hope to guide and direct your children, but your control is incomplete. 

For example, wanting your children to eat a healthy lunch at school can be a guideline, but not a rule since you will not be there to supervise.

Similarly, you can have a rule in your home, such as “No ‘R-rated’ movies;” however, you cannot hold your children to that standard when they are in someone else’s home.

What can you do if you cannot enforce the rule?

  • You can choose to have the play dates in your home,

  • you can share your values with the other parents,

  • you can hope that your children will limit their behavior,

  • you can let your children know they can always call home if they are uncomfortable with the rules in a home they are visiting.

Be sure that you adhere to the rule.

It is easier to have your children follow the rules if you follow the rule yourself. 

For example, it will be harder to convince your children to clean up their rooms if you do not keep your bedroom or the house in general in good order.

As adults, the rules may look different – you may have more things to keep in place, a later bedtime, or your choice of certain TV or movies.  Adults (and older children) may have certain privileges because of increased maturity and responsibility.

Although it may look different at different ages, the underlying principles can be the same – respecting your possessions, getting enough sleep, and respecting your body.

Have a plan in place in case the rule is broken.

While it would be nice for your children to follow your rules simply because you have created them, it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.  In part, children test your rules because they need to test the limits.  Sometimes children need to experience the consequences first-hand.

Consider if you really care enough to follow through.

If you don’t care enough or have the energy to follow through, perhaps this rule isn’t important enough to keep as a rule. 

Since each family has different values and different temperaments, each family will decide which rules they are going to enforce, such as in the earlier examples in deciding when children must do their homework or where they can eat.

It is okay to choose to NOT focus on certain behaviors at certain points in development.  

For example, a child who comes home from school tired and stressed may need to play before he can face his homework.  In that case, the family may choose to put aside their “work before play rule.”

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What to Do When Children Don’t Follow a Rule

One question that parents usually ask is “What can I do when my children protest and resist obeying a rule?”

You can state the rule

“The rule in our family is homework before television time.”

You can repeat the rule

“Remember our rule – Homework gets done before watching television.”

You can be a broken-record

Continue to repeat the rule: “Turn off the TV.”  “The TV needs to be off now.”  “Turn off the TV now.”

You can counter complaints with:

  • “Nevertheless…”

  • “That may be….”

  • “I expect……”

  • “You need to….”

You can stay on topic

“We aren’t talking about……”

Which leads to the last step:


You can take ACTION

This can include having discussions about inappropriate behavior and what the children can do instead, separating children who are fighting, and imposing consequences such as using time-outs, withdrawing privileges, and having children make amends if someone was hurt by their actions.

For example:

  • If children are fighting over a toy, you can take the toy away until they decide how to handle the situation.

  • If they are fighting over the TV, you can turn it off.

  • If they don’t put their bicycle in the garage at night, the privilege of riding it can be suspended for a short time.

  • If they don’t complete a chore, then they don’t get to have a play date or other privilege until it is completed.

Throughout, you want to use the simplest and clearest consequences to get your point across.  It is not the severity, but the certainty of the consequence that re-enforces your rules.


A Common Scenario Revisited

The parents in our opening vignette took some time to think about what was important to them when they visit someone’s house. 

  • Once they were clear about their expectations and what they could reasonably require of their four- and six- year-olds, they decided to teach certain manners, practice using “please and thank-you,” and asking permission before going into other people’s possessions.

  • Additionally, they showed the kids how they would like to have their grown-up conversation interrupted.

  • Prior to the next visit, they reviewed with their kids what the family rules were about proper behavior when they are guests in someone else’s home.

  • They had the girls bring a game so they could have something to keep them occupied.

  • And finally, the parents limited the length of their visit so they could leave on a high-note – long before the children’s behavior fell apart.


All was not perfect. However, with a few reminders of the rules, the children were able to exhibit the type of behavior and be the kind of guests that the parents had hoped for.

By establishing firm rules in your home, you can eliminate some of the conflict that occurs as you discipline your children. 
The rules also will help you to keep a long-term perspective in mind as you raise your children to become people whom  you will enjoy and respect as adults.


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For more information about discipline check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through 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

<recommended books about discipline

<all our recommended parenting books


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