Guidelines for setting effective rules

Do you find that your children are constantly pushing the boundaries? Do you find yourself exhausted after trying to get your child to cooperate? While it is normal for children to test the boundaries set by parents and other authority figures, it is important for children to learn that boundaries are set for a reason. This set of guidelines for setting clear rules for children aims to help you to clearly communicate what the limits and boundaries are for your children and to give you strategies for effectively reasserting the boundary when rules aren’t followed.

What are the rules going to be?

The first thing that needs to be done when setting up rules for children in the family is to consider ahead of time what the most important rules are. The most important rules may vary from family to family – but there are a few guidelines for setting effective rules, to help ensure the rules are followed.

Guidelines to keep in mind when generating rules:

  • State rules simply

Rules are put in place to make sure that the boundaries for what is acceptable are clear. To ensure that the rules are really clear and easy to understand, it is important to state the rules in simple terms. This will ensure that children know what behaviour is acceptable and what behaviour is not ok.

  • State the rules positively

Rules work best when they are positively stated – this is because rules are a way of clearly telling children what is expected of them. By stating rules positively – the rules themselves state exactly what you expect the children to do. This way, children know what to do, rather than simply being told what not to do. When rules are stated in a positive way, you can use the rule to redirect the child’s rule-breaking behaviour by reminding them of the rule.

For example, instead of responding to a child’s name calling by simply saying ‘don’t be mean to your brother’, you could say ‘That wasn’t a nice way to speak to your brother – in our family, we treat each other with respect’. This is a much more positive way to communicate exactly what is expected of the child, and outlines which rule needs to be followed.

  • Have just a small number of rules

Children find it hard to keep multiple ideas in their awareness at any one time, so keeping the set of rules to just a few key points is ideal. Ideally the amount of rules should be limited to 5 or less. This way, children will be able to remember them all.

  • Discuss the rules with all involved in the parenting

It is a good idea to make sure that everyone involved in the parenting is involved in deciding on what the rules will be for the children in the family. By making sure that all the parents and carers are on the same page, they are able to be consistent with what they tell the children. It is really important that the children get a clear and consistent message from all the carers – otherwise they will quickly figure out how to get their own way.

  • Ensure that rules are enforceable

When setting rules and expectations, be sure they are enforceable and that you are prepared to stand by your word.

Once the rules have been decided on:

Once you have considered the expectations that you want to communicate to the children in the family, it is a good idea to sit down with the whole family and discuss the rules.

  • Explain why each rule is being set

One of the key reasons for this discussion is to communicate why the rules are being put in place. This is not simply as a means of stating, ‘I am the parent, I make the rules’, rather it allows you as the parent to explain why the rules are important. It is helpful to explain why a rule is important when setting the rules – because often, in the moment when a child is already upset or frustrated, it may be difficult for them to listen effectively to a logical explanation that they haven’t heard before.

For example, to explain the rule ‘Pack up after yourself’ you could state ‘It is important to pack up your toys when you aren’t using them so that no one trips over them and hurts themselves’. Helping children to understand why they are expected to behave in certain ways helps to increase their motivation to follow the rules.

Remember to explain the rule in an age-appropriate way – a three-year-old will likely need a simpler explanation for a rule, compared to a six-year-old.

  • Ask children to be involved in setting the rules

Asking children to be involved in setting the rules can improve their cooperation with the rules, because they can understand the rules better, and feel that they have had a say in setting the rules. By having children involved in the process of setting rules, they have the opportunity to clarify their understanding. They might ask why it is important to have a certain rule, or try to push and question the limits set by the rule – this gives you the perfect opportunity to explain the reasons why a rule is important, and clarify why you would set the boundary in the way you have.

For example, involving children when deciding on a reasonable bedtime means that there will be less to negotiate at night when it comes to bedtime, when everyone is already tired.  This would make it easier for a parent to firmly say, ‘We agreed that bedtime will be eight o’clock, so that you aren’t tired in the morning. That’s our rule on school nights, so it is time to brush your teeth and go to bed.’

Some useful examples of rules to consider:

  • Treat each other with respect by keeping your hands and feet to yourself
  • Speak to each other with respect
  • Follow instructions from Mum and Dad the first time they ask
  • Clean up and pack up after yourself
  • Be gentle when playing with others
  • Help Mum and Dad keep the house clean by helping out with house-work
  • When you need Mum or Dad’s attention, come and let them know and wait patiently for them to finish what they are doing

Stand by the rules

  • Be consistent

It is important to be consistent over time, so that the boundary is clear and the child understands what is ok and what is not ok. By following up on the rules, by showing that there are consequences for not following the rules, children learn that when a rule is stated, the parent really will follow-up and enforce the expectation.  Remember that setting rules is all about communicating expectations, and if parents don’t show with their actions, that they mean what they say, then the child very quickly will learn that sometimes they can ‘get away with it’.

It is also crucially important that all the parents involved in setting the rules are consistent with each other in how the rules are enforced. This is important so that the boundaries for acceptable behaviour are clearly set – and are not contradicted between different parents – this becomes confusing for the child, and very quickly they will start testing the limits to the rules again.  Also – remember to set a good example by following the rules yourself!

  • Enforce the boundaries so that they know that you mean what you say

Children are more likely to follow your instructions when they know you will follow up, and show them that you mean what you say. If you are not consistent about enforcing the boundaries you set, children are more likely to test or try to push the limits.

For example, imagine that I tell my 4-year-old son to stop playing with a photo frame (which he knows he is not allowed to play with) and I tell him to instead play with his own toys.  If he ignores my instruction, and keeps on playing with it, then it is very important that I immediately show him that I meant what I said.  One way I could do this is by walking over to him and gently taking the photo frame out of his hand and leading him away from it towards his own toys.  If I were to simply repeat my instruction after my 4-year-old son ignored it, he would learn that I don’t mean what I say, and that he can get away with ignoring my instructions.  In this scenario, it might be useful to remind him of the rule to follow instructions from Mum and Dad the first time they ask, and let my son know that he has until the count of 3 to follow the instruction, and then walk over to reinforce the rule.

  • Implement consequences

Implementing consequences is about showing that what the child has done is not ok. It is useful to show the child that their actions have consequences – some will be things they want – like praise for good behaviour, and some will be not what they want – ‘negative consequences’ or ‘punishments’.

Punishments are most likely to be effective in reducing the undesirable behaviour when they are:

  • Targeted towards the behaviour
  • Promptly implemented
  • Proportionate in response to the level of rule-breaking behaviour
  • Not unintentionally reinforcing the rule-breaking behaviour

Punishment is not effective when the child’s sense of self is targeted. So it is much more useful to label the undesirable behaviour and let the child know that this is not ok. On some occasions, simply ‘calling the child out’ on exactly what you did not like and redirecting them to what is expected of them, is punishment enough. However, in some circumstances, it is useful to follow this with another consequence.

Some useful examples of consequences include,

  • Removing a privilege (for instance TV or games) from the child for a specific period of time
  • Reducing ‘pocket money’ by a specific amount
  • Putting the child in a time-out (note that this should be unstimulating and ‘boring’)

Note that smacking your child is not recommended, as this can unintentionally undermine the child’s sense of self-worth, and may result in the child feeling resentment towards the parent who smacks the child. There are always alternatives to smacking which are better suited to targeting the behaviour, and do not undermine the child’s sense of self-worth.

  • Acknowledge, encourage, praise

Show you appreciate children’s efforts in meeting your expectations by praising and thanking them. Your approval is a great encouragement for children. Using an incentive plan for a short period of time can be useful for providing more tangible encouragement for children to comply with the rules you set.

  • Encourage the behaviours you want to see more of

It is often much more powerful to label the behaviour that you want to see repeated, rather than simply praising the child.  For example, instead of simply stating to my son ‘Good boy!’ when he follows an instruction, or adheres to a rule without a reminder, I could also add ‘I really like the way you followed the instruction the first time – Good job!’. This style of encouraging the behaviour, lets the child know exactly what they did, and why they are being praised.

  • Review

Setting effective rules is not about having lots of strict rules and punishments. It means making your expectations very clear and being consistent in following through.

Useful points to remember:

  • Don’t assume your children know family rules until you’ve talked about them.
  • Be sure your children understand why these rules are being made and that there will be consequences for not following the rules.
  • Try writing out your family rules and posting them on the refrigerator.
  • Be willing to discuss the fairness of a rule and the reasons for it.
  • If a change needs to be made to a family rule, talk about it before the ‘new’ rule is broken – this is important so that the child knows what is expected of them.
  • Help your children learn to talk with you about feelings.
  • Encourage your children to come to you when they need help.
  • Express respect and faith in your child through your words, gestures and tone of voice.
  • Praise your children when they follow your family rules, especially when they do what’s expected of them without reminders from you.
  • When a rule is broken, criticise the action and not your children.
  • Follow up swiftly when a rule is broken; stay calm and carry out the consequences your children have come to expect.
  • Make sure the consequences are appropriate for the broken rule.
  • Respect your children’s rights, such as the right to privacy.
  • Let your children know you expect positive behaviour, like honesty and fairness.
  • Set an example of honesty, fairness and social responsibility for your children to follow.
  • Promote your child’s sense of self-respect.

Finding assistance

Would you like further, tailored assistance in addressing your child’s behavioural issues? Our trained child psychologists offer support and individual counselling to assist in addressing many difficulties of life – no matter how small. If you feel stuck, contact Strategic Psychology to make a confidential appointment. No referral is required unless you intend to claim a Medicare rebate.

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