Baby SmilingHow to Get Your Child to Follow the Rules

So many parents tell me the same story; I don’t know how to make my child follow the rules. When I ask her to do anything she just says no, or begins to argue.

Do you ever wonder why, despite the fact that you’ve told your child the house rules, he child still isn’t listening, cooperating or being respectful? Rules are a funny thing; they’re very important to parents, yet they are most often stated in ways that a young child doesn’t understand.

Parents tend to create rules using adult-like words that state the outcome they’re looking for, like “be respectful”. The parent assumes the child fully grasps all these big words and concepts. The parent hopes that all lack of cooperation etc. will change now that she’s made a rules chart. But kids don’t “get” these kinds of rules.

How Kids Learn — and Don’t Learn — Your Rules

Young children need how-to-do-it type rules before they can follow conceptual rules. Look at a rules chart in any classroom. There are usually only 3-4 rules and they’re clearly explained in basic, age-appropriate and descriptive how-to-language.

Think about how you learn. Suppose you’re reading a parenting book about how to get your child to follow the rules. The information is so theoretical that you have to read the passages two or three times just to understand it. Do you think you’ll be able to remember what you’ve read in the middle of reacting to a disrespectful child? Probably not.

It’s the same for kids, too. The more thinking a child has to do in order to understand the rules, the less he’ll be able to remember and follow them. There’s one exception. You may have one of the few kids who truly understands the rules and always follows them. If that’s the case, keep doing what you’re doing!

Most children however, need rules to be broken down into age appropriate steps so there are no questions about what they’re supposed to do. Once all the steps are mastered, the parents can move on to using shorter statements, like “make good choices” to get the point across.

To show you what I mean, let’s pretend that this 4-year-old could actually articulate the confusion caused by a parent who doesn’t use basic-age-appropriate-descriptive-how-to-language when laying out her rules.

Example 1

Mom says, “Follow the rules.”

Child asks, “Mommy, is following the rules like following someone in line? How many rules are there in the whole-wide-world? Do I have to follow them all?

Example 2

Dad says, “Be respectful.”

Child asks, “Daddy, do I respect with my eyes, my nose or mouth?”

Example 3

Mom says, “Make good choices.”

Child asks, “Mommy, how am I supposed to learn how to make good choices if you make all my choices? Shouldn’t you have to follow this rule since you’re the one who makes all the choices?”

You can see how using adult-like concepts can confuse a child. To get around that, try stating your rules using child-like thinking that includes the step-by-step actions you want your child to take. That will give your child a better chance of understanding, remembering, and adhering to the rules.

How to Explain Your Rules Effectively

Compare these two approaches, which I’ll call “conceptual” and “age appropriate”:

Example 1

Conceptual: “Listen”

Age Appropriate: “Listening means opening your ears so you can hear the words, and keeping your mouth closed when someone else’s mouth is talking.

Example 2

Conceptual: “Follow directions”

Age Appropriate: “Before you begin, what do you need to do first? What do you do second?

Example 3

Conceptual: “Be Respectful”

Age Appropriate: “No more mean words, use heart words to say what you feel.”

If explaining the rules in child-like terms doesn’t increase compliance in any given situation, then consider asking your child what he’s supposed to do. If that doesn’t help, keep asking him to “try again” until he is willing to comply.

Both approaches will help remind and correct your child of your rules, without punishment, when he isn’t following them.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and The Authentic Parent Series. Go to to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.


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