How to Set Limits With Only One Rule

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a very challenging eight year old boy. My problems with him are too numerous to mention, but my question is about rules. I have rules posted on our refrigerator that I got from a parenting magazine. His teacher has rules that she says work for her and have worked for years. My son argues with me that rules are different and that’s it’s not fair. I know that I can’t have the teacher change her rules, so should I change mine? –   Patty, Dayton, Ohio

The moment you start changing what you do in order avoid a confrontation with a child is the moment when you know that you are definitely doing something wrong.

No, you should not change your rules because your son doesn’t like them. You should change your rules because I don’t like them.

Let me explain. First off, I know that your rules and the teacher’s rules aren’t any good, and I don’t even need to know what they are.

Here’s why neither sets of rules are any good:

1) They are your rules. Do you like to follow rules that are arbitrarily manufactured and then imposed upon you? No? Well, neither does anyone else. Children are no different. I can’t remember a time that someone has, unsolicited, bossed me around with a lot of rules that I didn’t ask for without me telling them where to go. Humans should be allowed, with guidance, to make up their own rules for their own behavior.

2) There’s more than one rule. You only need one if it’s the right one.

So, I am aware that pretty much everything I have said thus far isn’t all that helpful. You might be asking what this magical single rule might be.

Back off! I’ll get to it already. By the way, I didn’t come up with it. The revolutionary thinkers at The Love and Logic Institute did and it is reproduced here with their permission. So here we go. Here’s the good stuff. Here’s the “how”.

First, apologize to your child for imposing your rules on him.

I’m serious! You want a tough kid like yours to give you his undivided attention? Tell him that you are sorry for doing something to him.

Next, sit down with a pencil and paper and have him list all of the rules that he would like to have for the house. You may be surprised how many he will come up with.

Guide him to state the rules in the affirmative. For instance, instead of “Don’t be mean”, write “Be nice.” Instead of “Don’t talk back” write “Use kind words.” Write as many of these as your son can come up with. It might look something like this:

Be nice.

Be on time.

Use kind words.

Be gentle with the baby.

Be gentle with the dog.

Clean up your stuff.

Once you’ve made the list, tell your son that you think there’s too many rules to remember and ask if he could combine any. As no child in the history of the world has ever disagreed with the statement “There are too many rules”, he will gladly combine rules until he will be left with something to the effect of “be nice” or “be respectful”. All of the above rules can be combined into one of these rules because these two rules really are the distilation of any set of rules for human behavior. Once you have cut everything down to one rule I want you to say these words.

“Be nice. That’s a great rule. My only problem with it is that I hate bossing you around. I feel like this rule would be easy to use as a way to lecture you. I would be like ‘be nice, be nice, be nice.’ Ugh, I don’t want to do that and I might be tempted if I had a rule like that. How about we just agree that you can do anything you want to as long as it doesn’t cause a problem? That’s really what it means to be nice anyway. So that can be our rule: You may do anything you want as long as it does not cause a problem.”

Of course, expect that your child will immediately test these new rules. When he does simply say, calmly and with empathy, “Oh, man, does this cause a problem?”

This is not “stop causing a problem” or even “you are causing a problem”. This is a question. It gently forces your child to think, lessening his opportunity for anger and defiance. A smile or a friendly touch can go along with this. If necessary, following up with another question like “what should you be doing?” or “what should happen now?” should be enough to get your son back on track, especially if you say it breezily while walking away, thus assuming compliance.

So there you go: a plan for having your child create their own rule, even if it is the rule we want to have in the first place. Now, your son may complain that the rule is different than the rule at school. Pay no attention to this manipulation (you do know that when he does this that he is manipulating you, right?). Kids know that there are different rules for different people and different places. Your rule is all inclusive and really doesn’t have loopholes.

I hope this helps. Good luck and please let me know how it works for you.

-The Kid Whisperer