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Setting Household Rules for Children

by Kathryn Walsh

"While you live under my roof, you live by my rules" might have been the law when you grew up, but it won't necessarily work with your children. Children need limits to feel secure and stay safe. Too many rules are suffocating; too few leave kids open to harm. Kids living under your roof do need to follow your rules, but they also have to understand why the rules are there.

Be Reasonable and Flexible

A 4-year-old will be overwhelmed by a list of 30 strict household rules. In fact, a teenager will probably be overwhelmed by such a list, too. Make too many rules and the ones that are important to you might be ignored by little ones. Talk to your partner about what behavior he expects in your children, then create some general rules in various categories. You'll probably want some guidelines about safety, some about manners and respect, and some about general subjects like bedtime and mealtime. Some rules should be more flexible than others, says HealthyChildren.org. Hitting a sibling is always off-limits, but staying up past bedtime can be allowed on certain occasions. You might differentiate between "never break" and "only break with permission" rules so your child understands the difference.

Use Positive Language

"Don't put your feet on the table." "Never leave dishes in your bedroom." Rules that are phrased in terms of "don't" and "can't" seem harsh to a child, and they don't tell family members how they should behave -- only how they shouldn't. Instead, phrase all your rules in a positive way. Rather than saying "No TV on weeknights," say "TV is only for weekends." Use rules like "Smiths use kind and gentle words with each other" instead of saying "No mean language." Using positive language also allows you to give each rule detail. Instead of making a rule that says "Don't be mean to your siblings," use something like "When you're upset with a sibling, use words instead of hands and walk away if you feel like you need to hit."

Explain Your Reasoning

When a rule is new or your child has recently broken it, he might not understand why it's important to follow. Telling a child to be home by 8 p.m. might seem arbitrary to him, so he'll come home at 8:15 instead without thinking much of it. Talk with children about the reasons for each rule, and listen to questions and feedback. Your child might realize that you won't allow him to walk to a friend's house because a busy intersection along the way is too dangerous for him. You might also realize that your rule about checking his homework each night makes him feel like you don't trust him to do his own work, and might opt to adjust your own rule.

Enforce Consequences

Rules don't work without consequences for breaking them, and children have to know what those consequences are. Every time you talk about one of your rules, explain what the consequence of breaking it will be -- then enforce it when necessary. After a long, tiring day, it's easier to just shrug off a major rule violation and shuffle the kids off to bed. Ignore a transgression once and your child will assume he can get away with the same behavior again. Adjust the consequences as your child grows. KidsHealth.org suggests timeouts as consequences for children from toddlers to school-age kids. You might take away privileges, like cell phone use or an extended curfew, from older children. Natural consequences are also beneficial for children of any age, says KidsHealth. A child can't be allowed to experience natural consequences for running into the street, but if he throws one of his toys, watching you toss out the broken pieces will teach him why that's not a smart idea.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

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