How to set rules for your child?

June 3, 2023

Despite everything your child says and does to the contrary, she/he wants rules and consequences. Children need to know where the boundaries are because they know instinctively that they need adult protection to survive. Without you to show them what’s safe and what’s not, what’s acceptable and what’s not, your child could get hurt. Their behaviour is not a demand for no rules; it’s a demand that you stick to them.

If your child has been displaying defiant behaviour, take all of the nit-picky rules off the table for now and focus on a few rules that can increase the safety and peace in your home. You are not letting the other behaviours slide, you are taking a systematic approach to effective enforcement that’s going to take a few weeks or months to round out. 

Forming the most important rules:

Divide the rules you’d like to see in your home into three categories: very important, less important, and negotiable. To do this, make a list of all the problem behaviours that you think need correcting.

Next, put a checkmark next to the three behaviours you think are most problematic. Alone or with your partner, form a ‘’Most Important rules’’ list using no more than three checked behaviours from your list.

Some appropriate rules for the ‘’Most important’’ list could be:

  • Always tell an adult before you leave the house
  • Go to school every day
  • No hitting others
  • Etc.

The rules you choose should be age-appropriate and based on a problem you currently have. So, if you don’t have a problem with destruction of property, a rule against putting holes in the walls is not only unnecessary, it could backfire by showing and already defiant kid where he can find another button to push on your already overloaded control panel. These will be the basic, non-negotiable rules for your household from this day forward, no exceptions.  

Forming less important rules:

Take another look at your list.

Now that you clarified your priorities, choose 3 to 5 more behaviours that you’d like to see corrected later, after your child has a handle on obeying the top 3 rules. These are behaviours that are certainly disruptive, but that you can live with for a few more weeks because they don’t directly harm you, your child, or anybody else. Make a list of 3 to 5 new, less important rules based on this list. The rules should be specific to behaviours, not general attitudes or attitude oriented. Some examples could be:

  • No swearing
  • No friends in the house unless an adult is home
  • Maximum 1h of TV/computer per day

These will be a non-negotiable at a later date. Writing them down now can give you comfort because you can get some peace from knowing they will be resolved soon. But for now, put a star next to these and save them for later.

You will also create a third set of rules that you negotiate with your child after that

If you are dealing with a defiant child or you are confused about how to implement discipline in your house, I recommend you read The everything parent’s guide to the defiant child, by Lesse Jayne Rutherford and Kathleen Nickerson.