Just this week, I encountered a delightful couple working hard to raise their two children with limits. They presented me with a beautifully typed-out list of rules for their home. Yet, as both parents acknowledged, these rules were the source of constant conflict as their boys simply seemed to ignore them.

In last week’s article, I wrote about the importance of setting limits, and there was a couple striving to set some limits…and yet these efforts were producing more conflict. What is the problem here?

Three Requirements for Rules that Work.

1. Keep Things Simple.

There is often too much complexity in rules, and writing them down just amplifies the idea that all those words will actually change behavior. It doesn’t. Words alone are rarely effective at changing or managing behavior. Spewing out lots of words does create the illusion that we are doing something, but the futility of all those words usually becomes self-evident. Add to that the fact that often parents continue talking and talking about the rules…it creates a disaster. The take-away for kids is that rules are all about lectures and getting yelled at. This won’t work and only creates conflict.

Part two of keeping things simple is to limit the number of rules. A list of 38 rules is not going to work. Make sure the list is under ten rules. This is the key.

Stick to what is important, and keep the wording simple. Focus on the basics that maintain good, healthy habits.

2. Rules should be a pointer to limits, that will support healthy habits.

The ‘rule’ should not just be a wish list of wanted behaviors or actions from the kids, as these are not effective. Any effective rule will have a clearly stated limit attach, such as ‘do your homework first, when you get home’ or ‘all electronics put away before coming to the table for any meal.’ Those are simple examples, but you see that there is a limit related to the rule/habit we want to support.

3. Consequences bring rules and limits to life.

So far, we see that a rule points to a limit, and the limits are in place to support healthy habits. How do we make sure kids honor those limits?

The secret is with the consequences that enforce any violation of the limits. Without consequences, the rules are only a ‘wish list’ and nothing more.

Thus, please understand that a rule, pointing to a limit, is generally worthless UNLESS a consequence is associated with violation of that limit. In practical daily life, it sounds like this; “Sweetheart, here’s the limit. Step over it, and here’s the consequence that happens automatically.”

There should be no negotiation, no constant reminders, and no argument. The consequence must be clearly stated in advance (to be fair) and then honored with impeccable consistency. Thus, the secret juice here is making sure that you have a simple, clear, and immediate consequence to any violation of a rule. So, for a few examples, the effective rules would read like this:

  • “Electronics put away before any meal. If brought to the table, in any way, you lose the device for 48 hours starting immediately.”
  • “All homework is done before any play. Show me your work, and if okay, you can begin play. If you cheat this system, anything you play with goes in the penalty box for 48 hours.”
  • “If mom or dad is driving, voices and actions will remain calm and peaceful. If we get distracted by your negative behavior, the car will pull over and remain so until there is completely quiet for five minutes.”

Those are three simple examples, of having a rule with the three critical pieces: the first simplicity, the second a clear limit included, and finally a consequence is attached that will enforce the importance of the limit.

All of this is worthless without consistent follow-through with the consequence.

Keep in mind, talk is cheap. Very cheap when it comes to changing behavior. Thus, if this is to make any difference, you must ensure you maintain the consequence each time. Otherwise, if open to negotiation, you will end up constantly negotiating. With a bit of time and incessant negotiations, the limits completely erode. Don’t let this happen. Just be calmly consistent in maintaining the limits, and more ease will evolve (after a few weeks of predictable complaints and resistance). And then, life is better.