Continuing our series, Noël Janis-Norton, acclaimed author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys, explains the importance of establishing rules and routines, and following through on them.
Why Introduce Rules for Children?
We all want our children to behave sensibly at home, at school, at their extra curricular activities and when they are with their friends. We want this partly for our own sakes – because children who are mostly cooperative and self reliant are much nicer and easier to live with.
We also want this for the child’s sake because a child who behaves in an acceptable way (most of the time) is far more likely to receive approval and praise from the people around him, and is likely to be happier and more confident as a result.
In order for children to get the approval and praise that is so good for them, they need to follow society’s code of behaviour: to be respectful towards others, to do their best at school, to be organised, friendly, honest and caring.
How Can We Pass On These Important Values To Our Children?
A few children seem to absorb these values simply by observing and imitating their parents. But other children don’t behave the way we expect them to, even when we set a good example. There can be several reasons for this misbehaviour:
- They might not fully understand what is expected of them
- They might believe that what we want them to do is too difficult
- Even if they know what we want, and even if it is not too difficult, they may not be in the habit of doing the right thing
- They might not take us seriously if sometimes we plead or lecture or threaten, sometimes we shout, sometimes we give in, and sometimes we barely seem to notice what they are doing
- And for some children, misbehaving is more fun!
Establishing rules and routines, and following through on them, addresses all these possible causes of misbehaviour.
A rule is an expectation that we state explicitly. Over time, a consistent rule becomes a habit – a routine that is followed without having to think much about it.
A rule needs to have two parts:
- We state clearly what we want the child to do
- We state clearly the rewards and consequences: what happens if he does or doesn’t do what we require
How Can I Tackle Problem Behaviour?
Let’s take an example:
When your son comes home from school, he usually drops his coat and school bag on the floor and runs off to play, no matter how many times you remind him or tell him off.
- We make a rule, which says exactly what we want, for example:
As soon as he walks through the door, he has to put his coat on the peg, take his shoes off and put them in the basket and put his school bag on the homework table.
- We also set up rewards and consequences:
Rewarding a child for following a rule shows that we appreciate his good behaviour. The easiest reward is Descriptive Praise; with a smile on our face and a smile in our voice we mention what he did it right. Descriptive Praise is immediate, it takes only a few seconds, costs nothing, and soon results in better behaviour.
We can also make it clear that nothing else, such as a snack or a game, will happen until all his belongings are in the right place. The snack and the game are the rewards for following the rule. Delay of the snack or game is the consequence for not following the rule immediately.
Be Consistent With Consequences
A rule without a consequence is nothing more than a wish or a nag.
Children need to know that something slightly unpleasant will happen if they do not follow a rule. Often this simply means that they cannot have what they want until they have followed the rule. This way, they will take the rule seriously. The best consequences are immediate.
Major misbehaviour, such as physical aggression towards a parent, would need a much more serious consequence, of course.
The tendency is for parents to give treats, toys, screen time etc, with no expectations, and then to take them away (or threaten to) when the child misbehaves. This understandably creates resentment. It is much friendlier and also far more effective to motivate with rewards. We can give a reward of screen time, special privileges, pocket money, extra time with a parent, etc.
At first, a child may follow our rules because he wants to please us or to earn the reward or to avoid a consequence. Gradually, following the rules becomes a habit, part of the everyday routine. He learns to behave according to our values, and gradually these values become his own.
How do we establish a new rule or routine?
The first step is to get together with all the adults in the home and decide on the best rule or routine for your family. The rules you decide on will depend on your culture, lifestyle and beliefs.
Once you have decided on the rule you need to introduce it to your child. Do this by stating it very simply, rather than by explaining too much.
Once you have told your child the new rule, he needs to tell you the rule, so that you are sure that:
- he knows what he needs to do
- he knows what will happen if he does or does not follow the rule
Don’t expect your child to like a new rule at first. Following rules requires children to make an effort. If you were to leave it to them, most children would prefer to do what they feel like doing in the moment.
Once your child can tell you the rule, take the time to write down the details of the rule and stick it up somewhere so that everyone can see it and be reminded. Find opportunities to talk about the rule, emphasising the positive. Descriptively Praise him whenever he follows the rule or even when he says he will.
Descriptively Praise every step in the right direction, and give the reward or consequence. Practise being consistent, responding to every bit of good behaviour or misbehaviour. Otherwise, your child will assume that you don’t really mean what you say.
Following through every time is not easy. To be consistent, we need to stay aware of the new rule, and we need to understand and accept a child’s upset reaction to a rule or to a consequence. We need to stay positive, not blaming or criticising him for breaking the rule. Instead, calmly give the consequence you have told him about.
It can be tempting to let children get away with minor misbehaviour, but this will have a negative effect in the long run. We need to make sure that children behave properly for their own good, as well as for our convenience.
Start With Just A Few Rules
Once you experience success with the first few rules, you can add more. You could even boil down your expectations into one over-arching rule: “Do what Mummy and Daddy (and Granny and the nanny, etc) tell you to do the first time and without a fuss”. This one rule will cover most of the daily flashpoints and most misbehaviour.
Have a clear rule or routine for every part for the day that might be problematic, that way your son will know what is expected of him. Also, having clear rules gives you the opportunity to Descriptively Praise whenever he is not breaking a rule and gives him many chances to do the right thing.
As your growing boy develops more common sense and internalises your values and habits, you will find that you are making fewer rules and focussing less on rewards and consequences. The child’s own value system will be telling him the right thing to do.
Some Rules You Might Want To Put In Place
- When your child has a problem getting ready for school on time:
- He may only sit down to breakfast after he is completely dressed, hair brushed, and his school bag is packed and near the door.
- If he can finish everything he needs to do early enough, he can earn playing a game before leaving for school (but not in front of a screen).
- A consequence for being late would be that he himself has to explain to the teacher why he are late.
- Give your child a daily household chore, according to his ability. The reward for doing it properly would be Descriptive Praise plus earning some pocket money or screen time etc. If he doesn’t complete the chore on time, or if he doesn’t do it to the best of his ability, the consequence would be that he has not earned the reward.
- Make a rule that a reward such as screen time is earned for completing homework to your satisfaction. This is an incentive for the child to do a thorough job. If homework is not completed on time and carefully, the consequence would be that he hasn’t earned his screen time.
Noël Janis-Norton is a learning and behaviour specialist with over 45 years’ experience in Britain and the United States as a head teacher, special needs advisor, consultant, lecturer, parenting coach, speaker and author. She is the founder of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, resources that can help you and your family, from books and CDs to parenting courses, workshops, fortnightly talks and private consultations (at the Centre or by telephone).
Her new book, Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys is out now.