Teaching the Amazing Power of Rules

Before we left Boston, we had the good luck to take a community class on discipline.  It was a priceless hour as it simplified how we interacted with our two boys.  And I would say the entire family has also greatly benefited.

The instructors shared three messages. 

  1. People like rules as it simplifies life, removing unnecessary decision making.
  2. Most parents opt for negotiating, generally confusing matters due to the inconsistent actions for the same situation on different days.
  3. Kids generally out-negotiate their parents, and by a country mile.

As example from the adult world: You’re caught going 72 mph in a 55 mph zone, & you want to ask the cop, "hey, can we just say the limit was 65 and you then give me a warning?"  The cop does not fall into this negotiating racket, does not yell, pout, or any such nonsense – – she or he just says, "you were 18 over the limit, I need your driver’s license."  No confusion, no hysteria.  Implied: hey my hands are tied, it’s a hard and fast rule some other yutz created, I just enforce it, with a smile.

The upshot: instill a few rules, don’t get mad when they are broken, just be clear on the implications, and deliver context & punishment if they don’t heed those rules. 

When an infraction occurs, inform the little one in a calm voice (this is perhaps the hardest part).   "Honey, the rule is we don’t throw things.  Say it after me….  Okay, if you do it again, you will get a timeout."  Then, if repeated, take action.  Now it’s their choice as to how they proceed.

A "bad" but common example:  After weeks of prep the family is driving to the airport to fly to Disney World.  One of the kids throws a tantrum, and mom or dad weighs in, "if you don’t stop yelling, we are turning this car around and going HOME ! !"  Unfortunately for the parents, the child has observed the planning, the packing, the time invested already… and calls their bluff, by continuing to yell.

A better alternative: Mom or dad calmly says, "Billy, repeat after me, the rule is we don’t yell…. Now if you do this again, we will give [ insert the punishment here ]."  And the parents put all their effort into resuming their conversation so as to give enough rope for the little one to choose his own outcome.

A calm delivery of this message is extremely important to help them understand that the issue is a rule was broken, not that mom or dad is now massively pissed off, even if that is true.

Invariably, the little one probably will break the rule again in 5 mins.  Now you can say, "Honey the rule is we don’t yell.  Let’s repeat that and then we will go get a timeout."

We had a few rules to start off:

  • The rule is we don’t throw things in the house
  • The rule is we listen
  • The rule is we don’t yell

The readout after 10 years of using this approach?  Within just 4 months, they could tell you their own transgression.  "Which rule did you just break?"  would be answered without hesitation with something like, "The rule is we listen."  In fact, they knew the entire code of the house.  Over time, they would get very annoyed at kids who had tantrums.  "That boy really doesn’t understand the rules, and he’s so crazy."  For the parents, it’s been a lot less drama, of the painful kind.


Checking in on Older Bro’s Timeout, © 2005, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

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