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How to Make Rules that Stick

Keep it real

Should there be one set of rules for all the children in your house? Not necessarily. "Take into account where each of your kids is developmentally," says Karen Gouze, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and a mom of three.

McGraw, for instance, lets 6-year-old Camryn get the mail from the curb while she's watching. But Caise, 3, is forbidden to try it for now. "He might run into the street," she says. And while Camryn can use the computer, it's off-limits to her little brother until he's older. Often the same rules apply to all the kids in the family, but they're adjusted according to age. Bedtime is a classic example—everyone has a set time, but the older kids can stay up later than the younger ones. In Bush's house, the kids are forbidden to barge in on anyone who's using the bathroom "unless there's blood involved." Her children understand and adhere to that rule. Now even her 5-year-old can wait till Mom is out of the bathroom. And the kids expect privacy for themselves, too.

Make the consequences fit the crime

Kids under 8 have a rigid sense of fairness and are likely to accept consequences if they seem fair and directly related to the infraction, says Gouze. "If a child doesn't share his toys when a friend comes over, a reasonable consequence would be to hold off on playdates for a few days," she says. "Similarly, misbehaving at dinner could lead to that child's leaving the table."

Sometimes, the best consequences of breaking the rules are the natural ones—simply step back and watch them unfold. In Bush's house, you aren't supposed to go into siblings' rooms when they aren't there, or use their stuff without asking. If someone disregards the rule, "then she gets the brunt of her sibling's tirade. I'm not going to cover for them," Bush says.

You might try posting house rules so they're visible to all in black and white. "Anytime you can take the parents' voice out of the mix, you do better and avoid power struggles," Gouze says. "Kids are less likely to push against rules that are on paper."