Wash your hands. Use the toilet. Put away your dirty dishes. Don’t drop your socks on the floor. Stop hitting your brother. Don’t experiment with Mommy’s lipstick. Quit banging on the window. That necklace is not a toy. Don’t throw those down the stairs. Wipe up your spill, please. That screaming is hurting my ears. No more whining. Stop hopping out of bed. That’s not yours. Stop grabbing me. Don’t forget to say “please.” That’s too many chocolate chips.
One of these days, I’m going to make a list today of all the instructions I give in a day, just to count. I’m guessing we would hit three digits pretty quickly. My children are full of ideas about how the world should work, and some of those ideas are… what’s the word… terrible?
It’s true that children do need a lot of specific reminders about what they are allowed to do. They forget or ignore old rules, and they come up with exciting new scenarios that require oddly specific new rules (e.g., “No, don’t hang upside down and ask your brother to grab you by the neck.”)
Fortunately, there’s a way to boil all this down into a few basic principles that will teach values, reduce arguments, and stay with you as you grow and mature as a family.
Short and Sweet
These rules are short, easy to remember, and they are phrased in a positive way. Using positive, caring language is more likely to build skills and encourage cooperation. For example, this study points out that mothers who talk about feelings are more effective in building a child’s self-regulation skills than mothers who talk mainly about consequences and rules. It is also very important to teach a replacement behaviour when you are targeting a behaviour to eliminate, so the positive phrasing helps kids understand what to do. When you choose one behaviour to take the place of another, you’re also giving yourself the chance to reinforce that good behaviour, and make sure it happens even more often.
Tailored to you
Every family is unique, but I’m guessing that most of your concerns can be summarized here. If not, feel free to add a fifth rule if your family has some key values I haven’t covered, but the idea is to make these rules as general as possible so they can stay consistent as your children grow.
For example, you may not always need a rule that says “Hold still and open your mouth while I’m trying to brush your teeth.” However, hygiene and health will always be very important goals, so here’s an example of a rule that will grow with you:
We take care of our bodies.
Poop in the potty. Cut your fingernails. Try new foods. Don’t stay up too late. Wash your hands. Put your mittens on. Don’t jump off the bunk bed. Just one slice of cake. Stay away from that angry dog. Wear sunscreen. Don’t stick that in your nose.
Why? why? why? why? why? why? why? Because we take care of our bodies.
Your kids may argue that 1 bath a week is too many, or just 5 minutes past bedtime can’t hurt, or blue mittens are unacceptable, and you may choose to compromise or not, but there is no argument about the fact that we take care of our bodies.
This is true for parents as well as for kids, and it’s sometimes a useful law to rely on. I can’t come and play, I’m finishing my dinner, because I have to take care of my body. I need to take you off my lap so I can go to the bathroom, because I have to take care of my body. I’m not going to let you kick me, because I need to take care of my body. We model it, and as often as possible, we live it.
The next rule is similar in that it covers a lot of ground, and it means different things at different times in your child’s life, but it boils down to one thing.
We take care of our home
Pick up your underwear. Hang up your backpack. Stop scratching the table with your fork. Don’t write on the walls. Put the cushions back in the couch. Please tidy up those books. Pick up your wet towel. Stop splashing in the bath. Clean up the play doh when you are done. No food in the living room.
Why? why? why? why? why? why? why? Because we take care of our home.
You don’t need to explain the density of the fork versus the density of a pine table surface, or the chemical composition of a Sharpie on the wall. You can speak simply and with authority, because a clean and well-maintained home is something you value, and you are teaching your children to do the same.
Speaking of values, respect for other people’s property and bodily autonomy is a pretty important concept, but it’s hard to explain. Start with the simplest step.
Ask before touching.
Stop grabbing me. Please stop taking things out of my purse. Leave that clump of dirt on the ground. No hitting. That’s not your toy. Ow. Don’t pet strange dogs. Stop pushing me. Leave your sister’s hair alone. No touching Daddy’s desk.
This one applies to touching items that belong to other people, and it also applies to people’s bodies.
With regards to household items, neighbourhood dogs, weird things on the sidewalk, most kids are curious and impulsive, and it’s natural for them to want to look at things that interest them. You might be tempted to set up a “just don’t touch it” rule, but this one has two advantages:
- sometimes it’s actually okay for kids to explore and learn, but asking will give you a chance to guide that experience, and praise them for getting permission
- curious children who are not encouraged to ask first might just go behind your back, so in this case, you will get a heads up that they are sniffing around, and you can congratulate them on their courtesy (while finding a new spot in the garage for your Pandora’s Box.)
This rule also helps children stop and think before touching, without having to go into detail about “good touch” or “bad touch.” In real life, consent is more important than the category, because it’s okay to refuse a hug, and football players agree to tackle each other. It also helps to prevent impulsive gestures that may go wrong. For example:
- Ask before you pick up the baby
- Ask before you pull my arm
- Ask before you jump on my back
- Ask before you poke your brother
Asking permission is a key skill for developing impulse control and will reduce the number of conflicts and punishing interactions in the long-term.
Stop whining. No screaming. That’s rude. That’s not how you ask. I don’t like your tone of voice. No yelling at your brother.
There’s nothing revolutionary about this rule, but it’s a useful one. Everyone responds more pleasantly when the request is polite, so this is a behaviour that is likely to be reinforced by others.
Please note: this rule doesn’t apply to early learners. When children first start to develop language, it’s important to reinforce at every opportunity, so caregivers respond to “ma!” and eventually “milk!” This rule should be introduced gradually to children as they grow and become comfortable with making requests.
Here’s an example of how to gradually increase expectations by giving prompts and fading them out when the child makes a request:
- Say ‘Please!’ (echoic prompt)
- Say ‘Milk please’ (more complex echoic prompt)
- What do you say? … ‘Milk please!’ (delayed prompt)
- What do you say? … ‘Pl…” (delayed, partial verbal prompt)
- What do you say? (indirect prompt)
Gradually, the child will be expected to ask nicely the very first time, so the parent may pretend not to hear a shout or a demand. Some children will be able to respond to a reminder to “ask nicely”, while others will need the whole phrase repeated for a while.
Remember that the generalization process sometimes takes time, so children will learn to ask politely with parents, but they may forget to use it with siblings. Children may have to learn to remind each other, but the important thing is to start somewhere.
These rules are meant to stay with the children long-term, to apply to new situations as they become more independent. Remember to reinforce rule-following as much as possible, and use the rules as you praise them:
- “Wow, you brushed your teeth! Great taking care of your body!”
- “I’m so glad you picked up your pyjamas. That’s taking care of our home.”
- “I’m glad you asked first. Sure, you can give it a try.”
- “Thank you for asking so nicely!”
So, what do you think?
Would you find it helpful to create a visual for your household, based on these four rules?
Are there any other key concepts you would add?