The average child receives 17 commands in half an hour. For a child who has behaviour problems this increases to 40 commands in half an hour (Webster Stratton)

Yet 72% of families don’t  live by an agreed set of rules. And 95% of families would like to learn how to live by an agreed set of rules. (Parent Gym)

When the word ‘rules’ is mentioned, many of us think back to our school days with various reactions. We may feel that the rules were punitive, that ‘rules are made to be broken’ or that rules ruin creativity or are made by petty people. And yet our lives every day are governed by rules, and our civilised society would not function without rules. We refrain from stealing, hurting each other and numerous other activities due to understanding the rules, and the knowledge of the consequences if we break the law.

So how can we set appropriate limits for our children? Well, we can start by listening to the sort of commands we are giving to our children. If we are ‘mentioning’ one of our child’s behaviours numerous times a day, chances are our children are not quite understanding the importance of the behaviour. Each household will have different expectations which depend on the values and qualities the parents want to bring out in their children. It is useful to work out what these qualities are and to work out what rule needs to be in place to back up the way we want our children to behave.

Next we need to involve our children in working out our ‘family rules’. It is best if there are just a few to start with. Between three and five is best, and definitely no more than ten. They can always be changed over time, as our children learn what we expect and different actions start causing concern. The rules need to be suitable for our children’s age and developmental stage. They need to be worded positively (so ‘treat each other with respect’ rather than ‘don’t hit’). It is important not to see this as an opportunity to impose control on our children but to have a discussion about the things that are causing difficulties. We can then do some problem-solving until we come up with solutions that both parents and children can agree to.

It helps if we can be specific when deciding on our rules, whilst at the same time not making them too daunting. For instance if there is a rule about mealtimes it may be necessary to expand on the rule to describe exactly the behaviours we want. (I.e. Emily will sit down with her bottom on the chair, for fifteen minutes; use her spoon and fork and try a tiny bit of each food on the plate). If our child then speaks with their mouth full, we can choose to ignore the behaviour and just encourage the ones on the list until they are ingrained. If talking whilst eating is still a problem in a few weeks we can then tweak the rule and include it in the behaviours we want.

Of course, there will be numerous times throughout the day when our child goes to do something that we would prefer them not to. Some actions will be covered by our family rules and some may need to be explained. When we give our children commands it is best if they are positive and polite, and if we clearly state the behaviour we want. Children respond best if they are given one instruction at a time and are given plenty of time to comply. Short commands such as ‘Sam, coat’ or ‘Sophie, homework’ can be more easily understood than lengthy explanations where our children have the chance to ‘tune us out’. It is also important to back our partners when they ask our child to do something – agree in front of the children and discuss any differences in private.

Other ways to help children follow the rules is to ‘beat the timer’ or to do the activity before a song finishes. Having a list of things to do when our child gets up or at bedtime can also take the responsibility away from us nagging. ‘Have you checked the chart to see what you need do next?’ is so much better than ‘How many times do I have to ask you to…?

If we want our children to do as we ask the first time, we need to go to where they are, engage their attention, give our instruction once and then wait for them to do it. So often we shout instructions from another room and teach our children that they can wait until we have asked for the sixth time, and our voice is raised, before they need to act. Alternatively we can ask ‘what do you need to do now?’ If rules are clear, there may be no need for a constant stream of commands, and children can start to use their knowledge of the rules to remember what to do.

It is best if commands are not accompanied by threats. We can tell our children how pleased we are when they do as we ask. And we can plan family treats if rules are heeded. We can also decide the ‘natural consequences’ if children fail to follow the rules –such as doing something nice for the person hurt, sitting quietly for a while to calm down, or not having enough time to do a nice activity.

It may be useful if children have a list of consequences that will be applied if they ‘forget’ to behave, decided well in advance, so everyone is clear about what will happen. This may include a ‘swear box’ for the adults –with money to be used for a treat when there is enough! Where consequences are clear, we can just refer to the list when our children misbehave. It takes the pressure off us as parents to be consistent and fair in choosing appropriate penalties, and allows us to empathise with our children rather than be the ‘baddie’ for punishing our child.

Our list of forfeits can also help to enforce minor rule-breaking if we say ‘if you do that again, (or carry on doing that) what will be the consequence?’ However we do need to carry out the consequences if our children choose to continue misbehaving, or they will have no reason to abide by the rules.

Rules can really help our children understand how to behave, help our children feel safe, help family members get along better and make life at home more peaceful.  Family rules benefit the best families, the most dysfunctional families and every family in between.

I would love to know if you have a set of rules in your family, or what rules you come up with. Please post a comment in the box below to help other parents learn from your experience.

The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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