6 Steps to Creating House Rules That Your Children Will Follow
Let's talk about rules!
Are they important? They SURE are! Our society is governed by rules - so it's important to start helping our young children understand how rules work, what happens when you follow them, and what happens when you break them.
Also, there is research that suggests that our kids actually desire rules and boundaries (Read: How to Create Boundaries for Your Children). However, like many things related to our children, there is big misunderstanding on how rules work and the best way to approach rules with your own kids.
What is a Rule?
RULE: A verbal description of a behavior-consequence relationship.
For example: "If you don’t have nice hands, you will go to your room with no toys."
One of the biggest mistakes that I see parents make is that they simply state the first part (We don’t hit people), but they fail to state the second part. This is mostly because they don't really have a consistent consequence for breaking the rule.
When I ask parents about their rules for their kids, I often hear consistency with what the rule is, and inconsistency with what the consequence is.
"Hitting is not okay in our house"
So, what happens when your child hits?
"Sometimes he goes to time out, sometimes we give him a warning, it sort of depends."
6 steps to creating effective rules that your children will follow(and that will help to shape your child’s behavior in the process.)
Rules Must Be Clearly Defined
In order for a rule to be effective, it needs to be clearly defined for your child. There is the expectation of behavior ("We use nice hands with our family."), and the clear consequence for breaking the rule ("When you hit, you go to your room.").
Unless there are meaningful consequences that follow the breaking of stated rules, that behavior is not going to change. All of the rules in our lives describe CONSEQUENCES (e.g., If you drive above the speed limit, you’ll get a ticket. If you don’t show up to work, you won’t get paid. If you break the law, you could go to jail.)
The rules that you are establishing with your child now are helping them to learn about the consequences of breaking rules for life. You’re doing them a favor!
No Empty Threats
Rules are only meaningful if the described consequences are carried out when the rule is broken. If you've told your child repeatedly that when they hit, they will go to their room, but you have never followed through with actually sending them to their room, you are wasting your breath even talking about the rule (and probably teaching your child that you don’t mean what you say). Side note: all of our kids’ misbehavior is communication, so beyond establishing an effective consequence and following through, it’s imperative that you work on teaching your child a more effective and appropriate way to get their needs met. (Read: Misbehavior = Communication)
Your child’s behavior will not change with threatening a consequence and never following through. Consider this scary thought: If your 5-year-old child doesn’t take your threats seriously because you very rarely follow through, can you imagine what she will do when she is 14 and wants to go out with friends but you have told her no? GOOD LUCK!
Your Children Need to Know the Rules
Your kids should know the rules long before they have the chance to break the rule. Once the rule is broken and you are following through with the consequence, your child will likely be upset.
That is not the time to remind them of the rule; tell them what they need to do better next time.
Being in an emotionally escalated state does not lend itself to being available to learn. Can you imagine if you were very upset, crying, and someone tried to talk to you and tell you what you should do differently? Not only would it likely make you more upset, but you’re not in a state to be open to receiving the teaching. Save the teaching for a time when your child is calm (Read: The Curse of Overexplaining)
Asking them to tell you the rule doesn’t help to change their behavior.
Once a child has broken the rule, asking him, “What’s the rule about throwing in the house?” does nothing more than provide attention and delay the (hopefully) meaningful consequence. If he knew the rule, remembered the rule, or if the rule was strong enough to control his behavior, he wouldn't have just thrown his block across the room.
Rules (with consequences) work!
Rules work even with very young children that don't have complex language. The only difference is that young children typically need to experience the consequences a few times before learning to follow the rule. Older kids with better language might follow the rule just because they have heard what the rule is, and what will happen for breaking the rule.
For the younger children, it's important to reiterate the rule as you are following through with the consequence. For example, the rule for our daughter is that if she hits, she has to go to her room and spend a little time in there on her own.
The first few times that we implemented this new rule, after she would hit, we would say, "It's not okay to hit; you need to go spend some time in your room."
At this point, sometimes she will hit and with just a look from one of us, she will walk herself into her room on her own.
State Your Rules in a Positive Manner
State your rules in a positive manner, describing the expected behavior (e.g., “We use nice hands”) rather than the misbehavior (e.g., “No hitting”), especially for young children that are just starting to learn about rules. Most rules that we see parents using just describe what not to do – no hitting, no screaming, no jumping on the furniture. But it doesn’t actually tell our children what we expect for them to do instead.
So phrase your rules in a positive way, and then don’t forget to include the consequence for breaking the rule.