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Picking the Rules That Matter Most

Melissa Henrich would like to be a more effective disciplinarian. Her four boys, ages 3 to 9, take advantage of her, she says, running through the house, jumping on the furniture, wiping out the food in the fridge. She'd like it to stop. "But I don't feel like fighting," she admits, "so I let things slide more than I should."

Part of the problem is that there are just too many rules to enforce—from not allowing the boys more than one cookie after school to insisting they clean up their rooms every night. The kids can't remember all these rules. Neither can Henrich. "I've set so many," she says, "I forget what I said and what I said I'd do." She'd pare down the list to the ones that really matter, but that's the other part of the problem. Outside of life-and-death safety rules, says Henrich, "I can't decide which ones are most important."

We all want what she wants: kids who mind us at home, behave in public, and grow up to be courteous, law-abiding citizens. Rules, we know, are important; we want our children to abide by them if only for their safety and our sanity. But too often we aren't sure where to set boundaries and why we set them there.

"Many parents don't seem to have thought out what the rules are for," says James Windell, a family therapist in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and author of 8 Weeks to a Well-Behaved Child. "They're not to make our lives easier but to help our children learn to live in society, to give them the self-discipline to control their impulses."

So before spewing "don'ts" and "no's," "stop's" and "never's," we must make sure the larger picture, the longer view, is in clear focus: Discipline isn't about rules but about passing on the values that inform those rules, the belief system by which we know right from wrong without anyone having to tell us.

"Good discipline is about teaching morality and character," says Charles Schaefer, Ph.D., author of Teach Your Child to Behave. "Ideally, all of your rule making should reflect that." Here's how you can put it into practice:

Remember the Golden Rule

The most basic of parental directives—"Don't hit," "Wait your turn," "Remember to share"—are born of this basic ethic: Treat others the way you'd like to be treated.

This fundamental principle can be used to determine the legitimacy of any rule, even those mundane ones repeated a thousand times a day to a 2-year-old, such as "Take your shoes off at the door." The most unremarkable of directives are worth enforcing if they teach a child to be reflexively considerate of others, to think for a fleeting second, for instance, of what their running inside in muddy shoes will mean in terms of your time and effort spent mopping up.

This kindness ethic is rooted in an even more basic consideration: Children need rules from the get-go in order to learn respect for their own health and safety. Fortunately, most every parent recognizes this. Melissa Henrich, who lives in Wisner, NE, observes that one of the few rules she gets her 3-year-old to follow is the one about crossing the cattle yard near their house unattended—"probably because he knows, on this, I mean business."

Bedtime and mealtime rules can be considered an outgrowth of the same "respect for one's health" aspect of the Golden Rule. Elise Goldschlag, a mother of seven in Irvington, NY, is a stickler about an 8 p.m. bedtime because "it's clear that even the thirteen-year-olds need it," she says. "They're not bounding out of bed in the morning or I'd relax the rule!"

Of course, every family will evolve its own set of commandments, one informed by its own values and traditions. Even in a fairly homogenous community, the rules one family holds dear may not make it to another's top ten. In Goldschlag's household, for example, disrespecting one's parents is a capital offense. "We never let our kids talk back to us," she says. "I tell them, 'You don't have to respect us, but you have to act like you do.'" Yet she allows her kids, who range in age from 3 to 18, to dress as they wish—a laxity Bonnie Spiegel, a mom of two from the same town, can't understand. "My five-year-old isn't coming home in a short, tight shirt with her belly sticking out," she says. "I'm the mother, and I say no."

Melinda Marshall is coauthor of Champions Are Raised, Not Born, a book about what athletes learned from their parents.

Put Your Foot Down

Knowing what to expect from a child is half the battle. The other half, of course, is acting on your convictions—having the courage to follow through on whatever consequences you've spelled out, however inconvenient or unpleasant that may be.

Grace Wong of Bethlehem, PA, describes her son Brandon as a typical 3-year-old: "His first response to whatever I ask is 'No.'" Seven out of ten times, she says, it's necessary to issue an ultimatum in order to get cooperation—as in "You'll be put in a time-out," "No McDonald's after the playground," or "I'll have to take that toy away until tomorrow."

Half the time, she has to follow through on what she's threatened—an extreme she'd really rather not be pushed to. Yet she can't help but notice that carrying out ultimatums means she's had to issue fewer of them. "He understands he'll be limited because I've done it," she says. "Lately, all I've had to say is 'You know what's going to happen if you don't obey.'"

Misty Burnette of Concord, NC, recently found herself in a protracted battle with her son, Bailey, 2. He refused to take a bath and wouldn't brush his teeth or let them be brushed. Burnette and her husband tried everything to get him to be more willing: "We promised we'd make cookies, offered bribes like candy, bought one of those visor things for washing his hair; we even just gave in on the bath and said, 'Okay, not tonight, but tomorrow.'"

Finally, says Burnette, they realized they were sending the wrong message. They were implying he had options, when, in fact, he didn't. "We told him, 'You may not like it, but you're gonna get a bath,'" she reports. "Same with brushing his teeth. Two times I actually had to hold him down and brush them, but after that, he listened."

Elise Goldschlag says she doesn't get 100 percent cooperation from her kids all the time, but she can take them out to restaurants and be assured they'll behave because "every one of them has spent time outside in the car with a cranky parent while everybody else continued to eat inside." It took only one or two exclusions for the kids to realize she wasn't going to back down. "We've had our share of tears," she says, "but they understand they're not going to win, and that gets compliance."

According to clinical psychologist Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of Don't Be Afraid to Discipline, the majority of parents she sees struggle with discipline because "they're concerned that they could be abusive." But if you're afraid to say no, she says, you deny your child an example of someone with the strength to act on her own beliefs in the face of resistance. Far from abuse, discipline proves that you're there for your child—that you care, and that for all of those reasons, you'll respond.

Even if you have no immediate response—if you have to say, "I'm going to have to think about this and tell you later"—be consistent in having one. "From age two, a child needs to know that something will happen; that, at the very least, Mom or Dad will be disappointed," says Windell.

Don't believe you have to be the same parent to each of your kids, either, says Peters. Children who are more excitable and less patient by nature will probably need firmer enforcement than siblings who are more cooperative or conservative.

Don't Be Afraid to Say Yes

It's important to learn when and how to say no—and just as important to recognize that your response to everything else can be a qualified yes. A big part of getting your child to be obedient when it comes to important issues lies in showing that you're a reasonable rule maker, not an irrational control freak. You don't want to be so authoritarian that he stops coming to you for permission and gets sneaky in order to get what he wants. But this doesn't mean you have to be Santa Claus. Saying yes is a matter of giving options, not giving in.

Misty Burnette's 2-year-old, for instance, is keen on wearing his cowboy boots to daycare every morning. That's fine, says his mom, except they're huge on him and would be dangerous to play in. "So we say, 'Okay, wear them until you get to the door.'"

Children from toddlerhood on up can begin to understand that behavior is rarely absolutely good or absolutely bad—it's dependent on time and place. Maybe Mom and Dad's bed is considered off-limits for jumping, but jumping on the cushions in the basement is acceptable. You can sound agreeable 90 percent of the time merely by specifying the circumstances under which an activity gets your thumbs-up. Coloring with markers? Sure, but use them at the kitchen table and be sure to put on a smock. Banging on pots and pans all over the house? Fine, but the noise has got to stop when the telephone rings.

The older the child, says Windell, the more you can shift back the responsibility for determining yes or no. One way is to turn the question around, especially when you know the answer you'd give is "No." Kids as young as 3 often know the rules, even if they have trouble following them. "What's the rule about that?" you can ask, or "What do you think my answer is going to be?" Then you get to say, "Yes! That's right! Good remembering!"

Dan Dowell, a father of three in Gold River, CA, says he's seeing the results of having put his kids "in the answer mode" years ago. His daughter, now 12, wanted to go to a party instead of to a soccer practice she'd agreed to weeks before. Instead of saying no or calling her coach to bail her out, he asked her to come up with a solution to her conflict and run it by the coach herself. She did, and the coach consented to her putting in an extra hour and a half of practice the day before the party. "I'm not setting up my answers as rewards or punishments anymore," says Dowell. "Instead, I've gotten my kids to ask themselves, 'What have I done, or what can I do, to earn a yes from Dad?'"

"Effective parenting isn't about hemming in a child with rules," says Charles Schaefer. "It's about gradually promoting autonomy and freedom and expanding those as a child gets older."

Expect It to Take Time

Discipline is not an efficient process, alas. Just because we say "We don't hit" doesn't mean the problem is eliminated. We're obliged constantly to redirect our children's behavior or intervene to show them the right way and to repeat ourselves endlessly. But we can't hope to show our children how to reconcile their desires with those of others if we rush in with a Band-Aid rule that addresses nothing but our own desire to move on.

Time with our kids is what many of us feel we lack. And what time we have, we're loath to spend hassling or fighting. But that just makes it more important to apply a consistent disciplinary approach based on our most cherished values.

Kids are by nature impulsive, self-centered, and keen on immediate gratification. And while you shouldn't always punish them for those inborn traits, it's a parent's job to teach kids to rise above them. In fact, you'll handicap your children's chances for success in the future if you don't teach them now—while they're young and still eager to please—to think beyond themselves, to take into consideration the needs and desires of others.

It's so much easier while they're young; you know you don't want to wait until they're teenagers.