Appropriate rules and enforcement help kids become healthy adults.
By Jim Morris
Parents often feel guilty when their children develop problem behaviors. If a child frequently misbehaves, the parents often feel it means they're not doing their job very well. A common parent complaint is that others--including professionals who deal with children and families on a daily basis--frequently point the finger first at parents for a child's emotional and behavioral problems.
Although parenting is extremely important, and it can be a factor in a child's misbehavior in many situations, the reality is typically far more complicated. In general, parents should probably receive less credit for children who turn out great, and less blame for kids who don't. Understanding the underlying causes of a situation might help people to better address it, but blaming oneself or others serves little constructive purpose.
Genetic and other biological factors influence children's behavior, and parents are not the only people from whom children learn. Friends, other adults, and the media also can influence children's behaviors.
People are born with different strengths and weaknesses. The good news is that what we make out of those strengths and weaknesses is up to us. Children with disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may need added support; on the other hand, having ADHD or another disorder in no way dooms a child to negative outcomes.
Each person has a range of possible outcomes, and this is where parents play a critical role. One way parents can help children make the most of life's opportunities and successfully face its challenges is through setting and enforcing appropriate rules.
With naturally compliant children, establishing rules can seem relatively easy. These children discern what is expected of them and largely try to please. A simple statement of disappointment might be enough to correct misbehaviors. With many youth, however, rule setting needs to be much more systematic.
Rules that are vague, inconsistent, excessively complicated, and open to interpretation can leave everyone in the family frustrated. Rules are easiest to enforce when they are realistic, clearly stated, reasonable, and appropriate to the child's age and development.
Here are some basic steps for effective rulemaking:
Well-developed rules can take pressure off the whole family. The child no longer has to guess whether something might be allowed to slide or if it could result in a parental tirade. Parents should firmly but calmly follow through with the established rules.
- Choose the rules you need. Less is more; generally, fewer rules are better than lots of rules.
- Clarify the purpose of the rule--to maintain safety, help teach responsibility, restrict antisocial behaviors, and so on.
- Choose rules that make sense in terms of the child's developmental status; 4-year-olds, for example, shouldn't be expected to cook the family meals.
- When possible, include the child in the process of creating the rule.
- Write the rule so that it's easy to understand but contains enough information that it's not open to interpretation, otherwise children will be tempted to resort to technical interpretations. ("But you said I had to be home; not in the house. I was standing outside.")
- When possible, write rules in the positive, stating the desired behavior. ("Do your homework before watching TV," instead of "No TV until your homework is done.") Sometimes, however, it may be more honest and direct to state a negative behavior that is to be avoided. ("No smoking!")
- Attach well-chosen privileges or consequences to the targeted behavior. Again, consider the child's developmental level, and, when possible, involve the child in selecting the privilege or negative consequence. A child is the expert when it comes to what motivates her.
- Focus on rewarding positive behaviors ("Do your chores, and you can go to the mall."), although using negative consequences for important behaviors is certainly acceptable. ("No alcohol, or you lose the car keys.")
- Never use basic needs, such as meals or affection, or prosocial growth activities, such as church, athletics, or volunteer work, as privileges or consequences. These should always be available to a child as long as he can safely handle them.
- If you use a negative consequence, try to relate it to the offense in some natural or logical way. ("If you don't put away your toys, you won't be allowed to take them back out for one day.")
- When granting a privilege, combine it with praise. ("Good job on your piano practice! You may have an hour of game time.") Deliver any negative consequences in an unemotional manner, however. Expressions of anger or disappointment aren't necessary--a well-chosen negative consequence speaks for itself.
- Be very consistent with the rules once they are in place.
Raising children is one of life's most important tasks, but it's the one with the least amount of formal training. Most parents learn through on-the-job training or follow what their own parents did.
When necessary, parents should seek additional support. Natural supports are best, such as extended family, the child's school, neighbors, churches, and the like. Sometimes, though, parents may face excessive challenges and need to seek professional support from external resources.
Raising children isn't easy, even in the best of circumstances. Whatever the causes of a behavioral problem, remember that people can change, problem behaviors can improve, and sometimes it just takes enough people providing the right kind of support to make sure it happens.
Jim Morris PhD is Director of Clinical Services, Eckerd Youth Alternatives (EYA), Clearwater, Florida. EYA is a private not-for-profit organization serving more than 9,500 at-risk and troubled youth annually in 41 community-based and residential programs in eight states. Visit www.eckerd.org, or call toll-free 800/914-3937.
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