Larry Nucci, a research psychologist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, says parents' rules fall into four categories: safety rules, moral rules, social rules and personal rules. Safety rules are those such as wearing a seat belt. Moral rules teach children to do the right thing such as share. Social rules remind children to follow manners and treat others with respect and personal rules are those that tell a child who to play with to what to wear. Nucci observes that most children want to exercise control over personal rules.
Explain the rules clearly even to very young children. For example, tell a crawling baby: “We don’t touch outlets because they might hurt us.” Even if she doesn’t understand the words, she will understand the tone as you pull her hand away from the outlet. This gets you into the habit early of explaining rules.
Expect the child to follow rules. Pediatrician William Sears, at AskDrSears.com, points out that children take their cues on how to behave from parents. When parents make excuses for a child’s misbehavior, they are giving permission for the child to continue. On the other hand, parents who clearly expect the child to follow rules take charge of the child’s behavior. These parents establish authority. Sears points out children want limits. When children don’t know who is in charge or what the rules are they can become anxious in a world that seems chaotic.
Set a good example. Children follow rules easier when they have parents who follow rules. This means wearing a seat belt in the car. As the child gets older, it is important to obey laws and demonstrate respect for others.
Recognize that rules change. As your child matures, the rules need to mature with her. At 2 years old, she can’t choose what to wear or who to play with. By 12 years old, your child should be able to make these decisions and she should want to. As a parent, it’s hard to let go of the control, but internalizing the rules is an important part of growing up. So when your daughter wants to wear a sundress in January, be ready to talk about it with her. Listen to her reasoning and remind her she might be cold then let her go. She will learn firsthand why people dress for the weather.
- Consider using a rule chart. Children can put a sticker next to daily rules such as picking up their room or brushing their teeth. When the chart is full, the whole family gets to do something fun.
- If your child's behavior changes radically or you suspect drug or alcohol abuse, contact the child's pediatrician.
- James Woodson/Photodisc/Getty Images