Keys to Obedience: Getting Kids to Follow Rules

Got a rebel on your hands? Here's some help dealing with your kid that likes to test boundaries.

From the time they’re tots, kids like to test boundaries. Parents, meanwhile, have rules – ones they’d prefer their offspring to obey. But that gets tricky, especially if guidelines are vague or parents vacillate on rules and discipline. Being clear and consistent can make a big difference in straightening your little angel’s halo.

Speak in specifics

Expectations are everything. And making them concrete is crucial.

“Most children have trouble translating terms like ‘behave’ or ‘be good’ into specific conduct, so it’s important to state your expectations clearly,” says John Baylin, a psychologist and family counselor in Delaware. “Positive words help too. Directives such as ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’ suggest what not to do but don’t explain what to do.” Instead of saying, “Don’t jump in that puddle,” say, “Jump over the puddle,” for instance. Yes, this positive recasting takes a bit more thought and energy – but it gets easier and becomes a habit with practice.

Kids also are more likely to comply if parents explain why a rule exists. This also teaches critical thinking and helps hone internal regulation. By age 5, most kids can begin to understand why some rules exist. Give simple, concise and age-appropriate reasons.

Choices and consequences

Another trick? Give your child the freedom to make choices or suggest alternatives within the framework of your limits. This will give him a sense of power and control and may reduce resistance: “Do you want milk or juice?” or “You can’t have a cookie now, but you can have ice cream after dinner.”

And if rules are still broken? “Natural consequences can be potent in teaching children lessons,” says Baylin. “At the same time, parents need to consider their child’s personality and tailor the consequences accordingly. Some kids accept limits easily. With others, you have to take a firmer approach.”

Also, talk with your child about what he learned from the situation. If he can tell you, you’ve made progress.

Top takeaways

Keep your cool. “Part of what we’re trying to teach our kids through limits is self control, so parents have to model it,” says Baylin. “If you’re upset, step back and collect yourself. Or tell your kids you need time and will talk with them later.”

Equally important is to offer unconditional love. When missteps happen, remind your child his behavior doesn’t change how much you love him.

Finally, be more firm than flexible. When rules and routines get wishy-washy, kids continuously challenge parents and may resort to manipulation tactics – begging, whining, arguing or temper tantrums – to get their way.

Art by Mary Kinsora


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