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Three Principles for Rules That Work


At Positive Parenthood, we have eight principles for creating Rules That Work. We are going to share the first three here, and applying these three rules should help your family in terms of building a more peaceful home and encouraging children to behave in calm, socially appropriate ways. So, without further ado…


Principle #1: Rules That Work Use Positive Opposites Positive Opposites are the flip of every “no” or “don’t” direction we give our children. Instead of telling children not to hit, we tell them to keep their hands on their own bodies. This works because young (and even not so young children, and especially those with special needs)  will focus on what they hear you say. So, if you tell a child “Stop hitting! Don’t hit your sister,” what they hear- twice- is the verb to hit.  It’s no wonder then, that the action continues. Instead, we want to offer the desired behavior in our language- “Hands on your own body” is a direction that can be given in this situation that offers the child an idea for what to do.

The underlying assumption here, is that children want to behave well, and that they want to do the correct thing. Think about your relationships with other adults- most of us are more inspired to perform well when someone else assumes our capacity and ability. It’s the same for children- and assuming they are capable (especially when they have special needs) can go a long way to supporting their success. Building in the assumption that children are capable of following family rules is one way to weave support for your child into your daily interactions.

So, what are some rules that use positive opposites? Here’s some examples from families we have worked with: In our family, we use quiet voices inside. In this house, the rule is food stays on the plate. We always clean up our toys before we go outside. Principle #2: Rules That Work Are Simply Phrased & Melodically Intoned The Same Way Always State your rules as if they are mantras- that means choosing just a couple of the most important rules. The desire is for the child to know the rule in the same soothing, consistent and familiar way that he or she knows their favorite bedtime story. The sign of ultimate success is when the child starts to announce the rule- using your phrase and melodic intonation- to others! You can read more about why melodic intonation is so critical here and here. 

For example, perhaps in your home you have a rule that children cannot hit.  You have many different ways of saying this, and you have tried them all, again and again. Your children, though, still can’t keep their hands to themselves, no matter how often you tell them to stop hitting.

There is a better and more effective way- and you guessed it, it has to do with simple melodic phrasing that is used the same every single time. So- whenever a child makes a move to strike another, you say only one thing and in the same intonation every time: “The rule in our house is hands to self.” This means you must be close enough to intervene, and that you must commit to a phrase and melodic tune… but after a couple of occasions you will notice your children to be doing better. ​ Principle #3: Rules That Work Are Consistently Applied Consistency turns rules into part of the normal, natural, readily accepted fabric of daily life. This means that you must always use the rules, and that as you commit to doing so they will become standard ways of life for you and your children.

There are often environments that make consistently applying our rules hard- but its in these moments we need them the most. One such environment is the grocery checkout. Many children may ask for- or beg, whine, or demand- candy at the check-out line. Let’s imagine you’ve created a rule that you phrase as “Check-Out candy is only for looking.” As you move through the line, your child begins to whine for candy. You bend down and look in your child’s eyes and remind them of the rule. Your child starts to cry loudly, and you can feel the reproach from the person behind you in line, who you imagine is thinking “why can’t she just control her child?” You start to become embarrassed, and give in to your child’s cries, handing them the candy. Your child learns that when he or she tantrums, they get what they want- the forbidden candy. Next time, they may throw a bigger tantrum, or cry for a longer time, in order to get what they want. We’ve all been there, and the reproach of other people judging you is real, but there is a better way.

Let’s go back to the check-out line, and the child whining for the candy. You repeat your phrase, “Check-Out candy is only for looking.” Your child begins to cry. You grasp their hands and say the rule again. You pay for your groceries. You hold your crying child’s hand and smile at the reproachful person behind you. You leave the store. It is hard… but fast forward to the next time you are in the check-out line. Your child asks for candy. You bend down and say “Check-Out candy is only for looking.” Your child whines a bit. You repeat your phrase. Your child sighs and waits until you are done paying. It might take two or three or four times, but your child is capable of learning- and given the right support, they will! 

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