Rules show that parents care and teach socially acceptable behavior. To young children, rules often seem unfair or confusing. So here are some guidelines to help you think and reflect on developing rules that make sense to a preschooler:
- Rules should be age-appropriate and doable. Notice that ‘reasonable’ is not a part of the equation. Attempts to reason with a preschooler often lead only to frustration for both parent and child. Promote success for the child by keeping the rule within their known capabilities. For example, it is difficult (if not impossible) for a four-year-old to keep a tidy room all the time. But it is doable for him to pick up his toys, and put his shoes/clothes away before going out to play.
- Rules should be simplistic. A clear, concise explanation for why this rule is necessary, should be enough for a preschool child to connect the dots between what is expected of them and how to produce that response. Safety is a very simple reason all children need limits and it works well to explain the many, many rules necessary. The old-fashioned “because I said so” asserts power but falls short of providing a young child with the one-to-one correspondence of what might happen if they disobey the rule. Instead, say “I want you to hold my hand in the parking lot because you are not tall enough for the car drivers to see you and that is unsafe. When we get to the car, you can let go and climb in.”
- Be a coach rather than a referee. Children need to learn how adults expect them to behave. They need a playbook for what to do when they team up with other kids. This is a difficult task to master if their grown up just keeps blowing the whistle and yelling “foul. “ For example, if a child is hitting her classmate, try saying, “Tell her why you are angry at her so you can talk things out” instead of blurting out “Don’t hit!”
- Remain calm and repeat. Expect the worst rebellion from the beginning, and learn to perfect the robot response. Consistently replying with the simplistic explanation (above) over and over and over equips parents to control any situation by deflecting their own anger or exasperation with a screaming three year old.