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How to Make Rules that Stick

Be flexible

If you decide to change a rule—whether you're making it firmer or more lenient—you should explain why. ("I know I've let you eat in the living room before, but since we had the accident with the grape juice, I've decided that it's not a good idea.") "You can sympathize with your kids' disappointment and still stand firm in your decision," says Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting.

Older kids, who've come to realize that not all rules are written in stone, are likely to lobby for changes. Hear them out: Learning how to negotiate is a valuable skill. Let them explain why they disagree; sometimes they'll convince you that a rule doesn't, in fact, make a whole lot of sense. "I encourage negotiation because it makes my kids think about the reason for the rules," says one mom in Virginia. "We have a 'no food can be taken upstairs' rule, but recently my daughter, who's nine, was having her friend sleep over, and she asked if they could eat upstairs if they spread towels on the floor. I said yes, since it addresses the problem that caused me to make the rule in the first place." Of course, though, you don't want to go totally overboard on negotiation—if a rule is set in stone, say so; don't be afraid to say "enough" at a certain point in the arguments against it.

Do as they do

To be a good role model and avoid looking like a hypocrite, practice what you preach (though clearly adults are allowed certain privileges, like late-night TV watching, simply because they are adults).

Jennifer Maciejewski recalls the time she and her husband were caught talking with their mouths full by their daughter, Katie, age 5, who knows that the family's dinner-table rules prohibit such uncouth behavior. "We've transgressed in other ways from time to time, too, and have fessed up and freely admitted that we were wrong," says the Marietta, Georgia, mom. "I think it's extremely helpful for our children to be assured that the house rules apply to everyone in the family."

Josh and I are pretty careful to follow the new rules we've set for the girls, especially after Lucy caught me sliding down the banister. Trust me: Being busted by a smug 4-year-old isn't fun.

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