Archived Story

How to get kids to follow the rules

Published 4:35pm Saturday, May 5, 2012

QUESTION: I’m always repeating family rules. Aren’t children capable of understanding simple reasoning?

ANSWER: Wouldn’t it be great if kids were little adults? Actually, explanations, persuasions and logical reasoning usually have very little effect on children.  Adults think of the future and see the bigger picture. Kids think about the present and what they want now. While it’s smart for us to have thought through the reasons behind our decisions, our kids are not likely to respond to reasons and explanations as if they, too, are adults.

In addition, kids naturally have less power than adults. However, every human being, no matter how young, likes the feel of power. Children learn rather quickly that they can experience a feeling of temporary power by causing their parents to lecture, yell, cry or even hit. Once they catch on to their ability to make their parents “lose control,” there is an urge to repeat the pattern, just because it works. That’s why psychologist Thomas Phelan says, “if you have a child who is doing something you don’t like, get real upset about it on a regular basis and, sure enough, he’ll repeat it for you.”

Any discipline system can be undermined if parents talk too much or get too excited. Effective parents save the talking for general conversation. The family rules do need to be clearly explained, but before they are being tested. In other words, don’t argue or explain when a rule is being enforced. In his discipline style of training a child to stop an unwanted behavior by counting to three, Dr. Phelan counsels parents to give one clear direction. When a child cooperates, express your appreciation.

If your child does not cooperate, do not give further reasons, start to argue, or show frustration or anger.

Just start to count in a firm, calm voice. If the behavior has not stopped by the count of three, your child gets the appropriate time out period, about one minute for each year of his life.

Then he is allowed to return to the family and no one brings up what happened unless the behavior is repeated. Welcome your child back as if all is forgiven and it is time to get on with the day.  If your child seems to need reassurance, provide a hug and smile and quickly return to what you were doing.

Our words, our focused attention and our energy are most useful when they are reinforcing positive behavior.

 If you would like to talk with a parenting specialist about the challenges in raising children, call the toll-free Parent WarmLine at 1-888-584-2204/Línea de Apoyo at 877-434-9528.  For free emergency child care call Crisis Nursery at 1-877-434-9599.  Check out

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