Insights

Rules Rule!
At ages 6-8, kids crave fair, realistic structure.

by Leslie Garisto

When it’s time for bed, your child puts up an argument worthy of being heard by the Supreme Court. “No candy before dinner” provokes a begging-and-pleading feat that makes the most resolute mom want to cave.

But don’t be deceived by their reactions. Kids this age crave structure and deep down — though they may put up a fight — appreciate rules. “Six- to eight-year-olds are concrete thinkers,” says child psychiatrist Sigita Plioplys, MD. “They aren’t equipped to analyze the world around them, so they like to be told what’s right, what’s wrong and what to do.” The challenge is to create rules that are fair, realistic and enforceable. Don’t worry, it’s not as tricky as it sounds.

Make the
Punishment Fit
the Crime

A consequence doesn’t have to be dire to be effective, especially if the transgression is a small one. Consider adding the consequences here to your family playbook. And make sure that the rules and what happens if you break them apply to everyone in the family — grownups included.

If your child “forgets” to do a chore: Have her pull an extra one out of the Job Jar. Fill the jar ahead of time with household tasks written on slips of paper — anything from”Take out the trash” to “Feed the cat.”

If he says “shut up” (or utters some other forbidden phrase): Insist on chivalry, and have him apologize as a knight would — with a bow and a sweep of the arm.

If she habitually leaves her things lying around: Ask her to stash them in “Invisa-bin,” a container that makes them “disappear” for several days.

Choose your words wisely. When establishing a rule, express it as a positive. “Get along with your brother” is better than “Don’t fight.”

“When things are framed negatively, it’s harder for a kid to follow; positive phrases give a chld some direction,” says Jerry Wyckoff, PhD, author of Getting Your Child From No To Yes. Or try constructing simple, upbeat statements that can apply to the entire family, such as “Everybody helps.”

“It sends a positive message. We’re a team, and we’re all responsible for keeping the household running smoothly,” says Christine Hierlmaier Nelson, a columnist on behavior and discipline for www.clubmom.com.

Explain the reasoning. It’s tempting to lay down the rules with an autocratic “because I said so,” but your child is more likely to comply when you tell him why you’ve established a rule in the first place.

“Kids need to understand that rules are a form of parental protection and guidance rather than top-down commands,” says Nelson. But keep your explanations simple. “We always say ‘thank you’ because it shows other people we appreciate their help” is a succinct rationale for being polite; you don’t need to go into the history of manners.

Enlist your child’s help. It may sound counterintuitive, but asking your kid to participate in making the rules can go a long way toward compliance (not to mention getting her to remember what she’s supposed to do).

But don’t make things too open-ended. If you are setting up a rule about sharing a toy, ask, “How long do you think each turn should be — five minutes or ten?” That way you’ve established the fact that sharing is the law of the land, but your child will have an investment in following along.

Be consistent, but build in flexibility. “Once you’ve chosen a rule, stick with it,” says Robert Field, PhD, a psychologist who has developed Directive Parenting, an online child therapy program.

That doesn’t mean however, that there won’t be special circumstan-ces. Your 60-minute TV limit, for instance, can be stretched to two hours when there’s a great family movie on, and bedtime can be extended on a holiday. But make sure you’re clear about what constitutes a special occasion. It’s better to not make a rule than to have one that you constantly break.

The Truth about Consequences

They’re important because they help kids understand that rules matter. When a child breaks a rule:

DO
Give him the benefit of the doubt. After a first infraction, remind him about the rule, explain why you made it and ask questions to make sure he understands the reason behind it.

Let her experience the natural consequences of her actions. If your child stays up past her bedtime, she still has to get up on time, sleepy or not.

DON’T
Respond in anger. If you haven’t established a consequence ahead of time, say, “You’ve broken a rule, and I need to think what’s going to happen.” Then wait until you’ve cooled off to come up with a reasonable response.

Make consequences overly harsh. The point is to let your child know that the rules are in place to help him, not to punish him.

Set consequences and enforce them. “You need to help kids understand that their own behavior has an impact — on other people and on themselves,” says Cindy Post Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute.

But make sure that the consequence is related to the activity in question. If your son is acting up at a family dinner, for instance, have him leave the table — as opposed to canceling his playdate for the next day. In the best of all worlds, letting your child know consequences in advance will help him make the connection between action and results.

Revisit and reevaluate. As your child matures, she may outgrow more than just last season’s clothes. “The rules that worked for her two years ago may not be appropriate now,” says Dr. Field. For example, an 8-year-old still needs to go to bed at a consistent hour — but she may require less sleep than she did a few years earlier. And at different stages in her life, your child may need less structure — or more.

That’s why it’s important to periodically take a look at the rules to see whether they’re still working. Ask yourself: Is this rule too strict? Are there new rules we need to implement? Dr. Field likens each rule to a parental push: If you’re pushing too hard, your child could lose her footing; too little, and she may flounder. But if you’re pushing just right, she’ll keep moving forward.

Leslie Garisto is a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in Parents magazine.