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Making Rules, and Breaking Rules

This article is excerpted from “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book” the last book Fred Rogers worked on before his death in 2003.

Making Rules:

  • Choose a few rules that matter most. Children are more likely to know what’s expected of them when we tell them the rules simply and clearly, like "hold hands with a grownup when you’re crossing the street". . . "no hitting". . ."no name-calling". . ."ask before you take something."
  • Try to provide some structure to everyday life.  "Bedtime at 8:00” is a lot clearer than bedtime whenever your child seems tired,.or "a little after your dad gets home,” whenever that may be.
  • Children are more likely to go along with a rule when you give a reason for it, even if they don’t like your reason or understand it completely.  You could say something like “No running here. I want you to be safe,” or “You cannot hit. No hurting in our family,” or "You have to be in your car seat. That’s the law.”
  • When you talk about a rule, be clear with your child about the consequences for breaking the rule.  Some families set up consequences like, “if you hit, you go to your room”. . . "if you throw a toy, it gets taken away.”
  • Let your child know that children don’t have to like the rules, but they still have to follow them. When children know you care about their feelings, they are usually better able to manage within the rules.
  • When possible, offer choices.  Children test the limits out of their own need for  independence.  When they’re allowed to make some of the decisions, they're more likely to go along with the decisions that their parents make.
  • If you're taking your child into a new situation or one that you feel may be difficult, let your child know what to expect and what you expect of him or her.
  • Be sure to give praise when your child follows the rules.   That's a caring way for your child to hear how important the rule is to you.  By praising your child, you're strengthening the foundation for self-discipline.

When Children Break Rules:

  • When your child seems ready to break a rule, get down to your child's eye level, and talk right to him or her. Ask your child to repeat the rule after you.  Then you know your child has heard you.  Your child is more likely to hear what you say if you use a firm but kind voice rather than if you yell.
  • If there's a misbehavior, try to make the consequences follow right afterwards.   Young children can't hold things in their memory for long, and if you say, "Wait till we get home!"  they're less likely to understand the connection between what they did and the consequence.
  • If you're in public and your child doesn't follow a rule you've made, like staying in the cart, firmly but kindly take your child out of the store, even if you have to leave behind what you intended to buy.  That lets your child know that you're serious about the rule.
  • When your child starts to hit someone or throw something but then hesitates and holds back, it’s important to say, “I’m really proud of you.  I know you were mad, but you found a way to stop.”  When children are angry, it takes a lot of self-control to stop from hitting or throwing.  Any time we can applaud them during a moment of control, we’re strengthening their ability to stop when they’re about to do something they know is wrong.
  • Make a clear distinction between the behavior and the child.  It’s so easy to say, “You’re a bad boy,” but that’s not what we want the child to understand.  It's the behavior that's bad, not the child!!   Children need to learn to feel good about who they are, and self-discipline (checking the bad things they may feel like doing) helps greatly in the development of that good feeling.
  • If you don’t discipline your child for breaking a rule, your child may think that you don’t care about the rule, and may just keep breaking the rule to see what you will do. If there are times when you need to give in, let your child know you’re changing the rule, but just for that time.

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