How to Make Rules and Gain Cooperation
Making and reinforcing rules is a primary parenting task that all of us must attend to throughout our children's growing years. This is because rules play such an integral role in helping our children learn how to conduct themselves in various situations and participate as a social being in one's community or culture. Equally important, rules help us govern our behavior toward each other to promote mutual growth and wellbeing. Ultimately, rules are the tools we use as parents to teach our children values as well as develop self-discipline.
As such, the methods for establishing rules need to be very thoughtful and deliberate. We must carefully consider how each rule fits into our overall system of discipline, and specifically what the aim and intent is of the rule itself. For starters, lets look at the types of rules and their specific functions.
Types and Functions of Rules
There are three basic categories of rules that parents use. These are (1) rules for how to conduct oneself in specific situations, (2) rules for how to behave toward others, and (3) rules regarding one's responsibilities.
These are the rules that govern what you're supposed to do under a particular set of circumstances. Staying seated at your desk in the school classroom, raising your hand to ask a question, or listening when the teacher is speaking are all rules of conduct in a specific situation (the classroom). Other examples might be the teen's curfew, asking permission before going to a friend's house, calling in when there is a change of plans, and so forth. These rules describe specific modes of communication between parent and child as well as set boundaries around types of activities.
Situational rules function in these two important ways:
(1) They establish rules of conduct in social situations by spelling out what is expected as well as what is unacceptable.
(2) They set up boundaries and limits within which children and teens can operate safely while moving forward with developmental tasks.
For example, we allow our teen to stay out later with friends than we would our 10-year-old because our teen has developed a greater capacity for making complex decisions, and we expect that he or she will use good judgement. At the same time, we give our teen a curfew (a boundary) because we know that he or she is not yet ready to always make appropriate decisions about activities that occur in the late night hours.
Rules for Behavior Toward Others
Rules regarding behavior toward others might be included under the heading of "situational rules," but because they are so important in developing one's conscience and sense of morality, I have separated them as a distinct category. These rules include things such as being honest, considering another's feelings in our actions and communications, or avoiding hurting or harming another.
Sometimes these rules are stated in negative terms such as no lying, no hitting or kicking, or no deliberately hurting the feelings of another with harsh words or actions. In the teen world some of these rules might be not talking behind a friend's back, not flirting with a friend's boyfriend or girlfriend, not divulging secrets, not squealing on a friend, and so on.
These rules not only spell out how individuals are expected to conduct themselves, but also capture the accepted behavioral norms of the peer group. In other words, rules for behavior toward others specify individual behavior while also promoting the accepted social criteria of the group's values.
Rules of Responsibility
These are the rules that pertain to caretaking activities, chores, and work-related/organizational expectations. Brushing one's teeth daily, dressing for school, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, washing hands before dinner, and maintaining general hygiene are examples of caretaking rules.
Chores are activities that contribute to the overall care of the home and family such as washing dishes, emptying the dishwasher, setting the table, taking out the trash, doing laundry, vacuuming and dusting, cleaning the bathroom, and keeping one's own room clean.
Work-related and organizational expectations cover things such as keeping track of and doing homework, taking the right materials to school, planning ahead for activities and events, showing up for soccer or volleyball practice on time, and perhaps maintaining a part-time job.
These rules outline performance expectations as opposed to conduct.
How To Establish Rules
As you think about the three categories of rules, you become aware of the fact that some of these are more likely not to change over time whereas others will change a great deal. The rules governing behavior toward others are those that are least likely to change. They might be expanded as new situations arise requiring guidance as to the correct behavior, but overall these rules will reflect certain unchanging values you uphold and that govern your family relationships.
Situational rules are very likely to shift as children move through various stages of development. Your four-year-old will not require a curfew as will your 16-year-old. Conversely, your 16-year-old will already know how to deal with friends and peers whereas your four-year-old is just beginning to learn basic social skills.
Rules of responsibility will increase and become more complex as children get older. Chores for young children focus more on self-care whereas an adolescent's chores include more family-related tasks.
With that in mind, I would suggest you begin by making a list of the all the rules you have used or would like to establish in terms of the three categories. If you have more than one child, you would make separate lists for chores and perhaps some situational rules. You might feel that this is an unnecessary task, however, you will find that it helps you think carefully about the goals of each rule as well as how the rule fits into the overall values and habits you wish to instill. Here are some guidelines to use in assessing your lists:
Consider your values.
Measure your rules for behavior toward others against your value system. Also, be sure that these rules reflect your own behavior toward your children and spouse. (Don't make rules you can't follow yourself.)
Be clear and thorough.
Check to see if your situational rules adequately cover the various kinds of situations each child encounters. In other words, are these rules clear and adequately stated? Sometimes parents have difficulty in reinforcing rules because they have not been adequately formulated or stated. Other problems with situational rules are that they are sometimes made up arbitrarily as situations arise, but are inconsistent over time.
Consider your child's developmental age.
Make sure that situational rules take into consideration your children's ages and levels of maturity. For example, your ten-year-old should have a later bedtime than your seven-year-old, even if it's only a fifteen minute difference. You will have greater compliance if your rules reflect recognition of different levels of maturation.
Be fair judicious when assigning chores.
Chores should likewise reflect different levels of ability and responsibility. Just as the older child has greater privileges, they also have greater responsibilities. Be careful, however, to spread chores across the family so that one child is not overly burdened with caretaking and work responsibilities. Very often the oldest child lands in this role, particularly if they are competent and parents are overly stressed themselves. You want to be fair to all of your children while still recognizing limitations in terms of age.
Clearly define what you mean.
Be very specific in the statement of rules. For example, if one of your rules is "be honest," you are likely to run into trouble when reinforcing it. It is too vague. It would be better to state the rule in terms of both what's required and what's not acceptable. "No lying" is a better beginning. Next, specify your definition of "lying." You might include not telling the truth when asked a direct question, as well as omitting information when responding. If you ask your daughter how she's doing in school this semester and she tells you about the A average in history but leaves out the fact she's almost failing in math, she has lied by virtue of omission. Make the rules very clear.
You as the parent have the final word regarding rules, and it is your job to take the lead in establishing and reinforcing rules. There are times, however, when negotiation can be a valuable tool for making new rules and adjusting previous rules to encompass new situations. Negotiation is particularly helpful with children who tend to be power-driven or defiant, or with teens. By engaging their participation in making rules, you have a greater chance of successfully reinforcing them.
How to Use Negotiation
Negotiation consists of a two-way conversation between you and your child where each is allowed to state his or her point of view. If for example you have set an 11 p.m. curfew for your 16-year-old son, and he thinks the curfew is too restrictive, give him a chance to state his case. Allow him to tell you the reasons why he believes the curfew is too early. Ask questions as he speaks to help him elaborate and show your interest in his point of view. If he makes a case of any kind, consider a compromise that takes into consideration his needs and desires and your concerns for his safety. State your case to him also pointing out why you believe a curfew is necessary and remind him of your concern.
You have the final word, of course, but you might find that your teen has some points that make sense, and your ability to be flexible in view of his arguments will go a long way in being able to reinforce the curfew.
Many parents feel that this type of negotiation is "giving in" to their children. Certainly negotiation conducted when a rule is in the process of being reinforced is a dangerous practice because it sends the message that rules and limits are not really real. However, this is very different from setting aside a time for revisiting and negotiating rules based on logical and well thought out arguments. The first situation teaches kids that they can manipulate. The second situation teaches kids to formulate ideas and thoughts, present them in a socially acceptable manner, and develop skills of negotiation and problem solving.
Generally, you will find that rules work best when they are carefully and clearly stated, negotiated where possible, and reinforced consistently over time. Your careful consideration and use of rules will help your children develop self-discipline, empathy toward others, and independence built on responsibility.
Now that you've successfully established the rules you want to reinforce as well as developed a protocol for negotiation and following through, you need to give some attention to how to deliver requests to your children. Here are some pointers:
DO state the request in the form of a statement as opposed to a question. Say "I would like you to turn off the television and set the table now." Don't say "Will you please set the table now?" The latter implies an option when there really isn't one.
DO be very clear and detailed in your delivery. In the above example, the inclusion of "turn off the television" leaves no room for delay. The statement includes both what is necessary to make the transition from one activity to another, and exactly what new activity is required.
DON'T make a request twice. Follow up failures to meet requests with consequences, and if at all possible these should be consequences that have been delineated ahead of time. For example, in the above situation you may have made it clear that for every minute the child lingers in front of the television before turning it off and coming to set the table, five minutes will be taken off of bedtime.
DO allow for transition time. Instead of repeating commands, you can allow a child some mental time to make a transition from one activity to another by announcing that you will be making a request in the near future. Again using the above example, you might say to your child five or ten minutes earlier "I will be asking you to set the table in five minutes. You need to prepare yourself." Then in five minutes give the actual command which is "I need for you to turn off the television . . .
DON'T negotiate a rule or request while in the process of reinforcing it. If you feel there is room for negotiation, do it at a later time.
DO make requests and reinforce rules when you are calm and thoughtful. It is always better to withdraw temporarily and get your emotions under control before dealing with a problem. Your effectiveness depends on maintaining your equilibrium.
DO have your consequences ready and thought out ahead of time.
Always keep your goals in mind.
Remember that your overriding goal is to help you kids internalize self discipline, as well as to learn how to successfully operate in the world. At school, and later as working adults, kids will need to follow rules. They will also need to know how to structure their time, behave in socially accepted ways, and show consideration for others. Home is where these things are learned first and best.