Positive Discipline: Why Kids Need Rules

Rules and limits provide the framework around which children organize their learning. Having realistic boundaries helps children understand what behavior is expected of them and what will happen if they don’t comply. Age-appropriate rules that are consistently enforced in an atmosphere of love and affection offer children the following benefits:

  • Firm limits reassure children that the adults in their world are in control.   No matter how much your child acts like she wants to be in charge, having too much power is anxiety-provoking for a child. Kids intuitively know they need their parents to fulfill their leadership role and to place limits on children’s behavior.


  • Rules prepare children for successful living in a complex world.   Learning to obey simple family rules, like putting toys away, completing chores, or treating one another with respect helps equip children to develop self-control and ultimately follow society’s legal and moral laws of conduct.


  • Rules help children learn about appropriate social interactions.   Having rules of etiquette and teaching basic manners – like apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings or not taking something that belongs to another without asking – teach children how to live in harmony with others and to show mutual respect in their interactions. Simple rules, like “Say ‘excuse me’ if your must interrupt,” help a child learn appropriate ways to get what he wants.


  • Rules and limits provide essential structure.   Rules help provide a sense of order and predictability, by letting children know what will come next (“We wash our hands before we eat,” “TV is allowed after homework is done”) or anticipate what will happen when a limit is broken (“You’re going to time-out if you push Logan again”).


  • Rules teach children to obey authority figures.   Children who learn to cooperate with parental expectations are more likely to respect other authority figures, like classroom teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and employers, ultimately preparing them to become law-abiding citizens.


  • Rules help children behave appropriately and to feel competent.   Children who know the limits of acceptable behavior are better able to comply with their parents’ expectations, and thus gain the sense of belonging and approval they crave.


  • Gradually expanding a child’s limits builds her confidence and sense of responsibility.   Just as society gives children increasing responsibility as they mature, parents should appropriately expand the limits placed on their child, based on her developmental stage. Children take pride in gaining greater responsibility, like having a later bedtime or curfew. As your children get older, giving them a voice in setting the rules will increase their motivation to adhere to the limits.


  • Rules and limits help ensure the physical safety of children.   Just as traffic speed limits are designed to protect people from harm, many parental rules are meant to ensure our child’s safety (“The car won’t go until everyone’s seat belt is buckled” or “You must wear your helmet when riding your bike”).

Having too few limits gives children an inflated sense of their own power and spurs them to provoke power struggles and test the limits even harder to get their parents to assert their authority. On the other hand, an excessive number of rules or an overly rigid approach to parenting creates an adversarial relationship between parent and child and fosters feelings of resentment and rejection, which undermine a child’s self-esteem. Furthermore, excessive control can provoke rebellion, not only toward the parents, but also against other authority figures.

Although children may not like the rules, they deserve to receive explanations for limits and expected consequences for breaking the rules.

Use short, simple, specific comments (“Remember, sand stays in the sandbox”) rather than generalizations (“Play nicely”). Present rules in a positive and impersonal manner (“The family rule says, ‘We eat politely,’”) rather than using negative or emotional terms. (“I said, ‘Don’t throw food!'”)  Generally, children understand more clearly what we expect when we state the rule in the positive (“Food is to be eaten in the kitchen or the den”).  When a child hears a negative command like, “Don’t kick that ball in the house!” the mental image she creates is kicking the ball in the house, instead of the acceptable alternatives. If you do state a rule in the negative, like “No hitting!” couple it with the appropriate behavior, “We use words to tell people we are angry.”

Copyright ©  2011  Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS     May be duplicated if authorship is cited.     www.dr-mom.com