There are rules and then there are RULES. Why do children follow some rules better than others?
1. The rule and its consequences make sense to children. I don’t know about you, but I find that some of the rules we live by don’t make sense. “That’s what mom and dad always said,” “What would my friends think?” “It’s only good manners,” are three rationalizations we have for keeping rules which may not fit in today’s world. I suggest you question each and every rule you expect your children to abide by. If you have a curious three-year-old you don’t have to worry, because everything you ask him to do will be followed by the question “Why” anyway. I’ve thrown out several rules just because I couldn’t give Nathan an answer that was good enough for him or me. Another way of making sure children understand the need for a rule is to let them help make it.
2. The rule has mutual benefit to you and your children. If someone asked you to do something which had zero pay-off for you, what would you think? “This guy’s dreaming,” or “Who does he think he is anyway” would cross my mind. Children are like us–they’re more inclined to listen if they can see something in it for themselves. For instance, asking children to be quiet “because the noise is breaking your concentration” will probably not go as far as “because it is harder for them to learn in a noisy room.”
3. The rule is not too hard for children to follow–some rules expect too much from children, more than they are capable of doing. Having a rule like, “Children cannot use the washroom during class time,” is unrealistic because sooner or later an emergency “I-gotta-go” case will come up, forcing you to make an exception. It is better to set a rule you know children can abide by like, “Children can only use the washroom during class time if it’s an emergency.”
4. Only set important rules–too many rules stifle children’s behavior and curiosity, as well as make them feel like “I can’t do anything around here.” It is better to have 10 rules everybody knows off by heart than two dozen nobody can remember.
5. Keep rules simple and specific–tell children what they must do, when they must do it, and what will happen if they don’t do it. Here’s an example, “Children must take off their boots as soon as they come in the classroom; otherwise they have to mop up the water they leave on the floor.”
Also make rules total, grey areas leave children without a clear criterion for making decisions. Saying to your child, “You can only throw rocks if you’re sure you won’t hurt anybody,” is telling your child rock-throwing is okay so long he thinks it’s safe. You and your child, however, may not agree on what is “safe.”
6. Say rules in a positive way–it’s better to tell children what they can do, rather than what they cannot do. A rule like “Do not slap” is emphasizing a negative behavior, while “Keep your hands to yourself,” is telling children what the right behavior is. A second version is to follow up the bad with the good behavior. For instance, you can say, “Boots are not meant for kicking other children with; boots are for keeping your feet dry in the rain and snow.”
7. State rules in an impersonal way–“The rule is no sleeping in class,” invites less resistance than, “I do not want you sleeping in my class.” By taking ownership of a rule, you’re giving children someone to blame when they get caught breaking it. However, if a rule has no specific owner, children have no one to get mad at.
Also, stay away from words that challenge children’s self-respect. “It’s bedtime” is less back-raising than, “You are too young to stay up late.”