“Because I told you so” never seemed like a very satisfactory answer to me as a kid. In fact, it just made me want to be a grown-up so I could be the boss and do whatever I wanted. Well, as a grown-up, I now realize this is not true and that grown-ups have all kinds of rules we have to follow, too. But as a psychologist who frequently works with defiant young children and as the mother of a very inquisitive preschooler, I have learned that “because I told you so” still doesn’t work that well. So, how to teach kids to do what you want without getting pulled into a lengthy “discussion?” One thing I have realized is that all (good) rules have good reasons behind them. And the reasons for these rules are the same for grown-ups and for kids. When kids learn about the “three main reasons for rules,” we parents can quickly remind them of the potential negative consequences of not following the rules without getting pulled into a “discussion.”
- Keep us safe
The most important reason for rules is to keep us safe. All kids want to be safe and typically never argue with this rationale. Especially when they realize that grown-ups also have to wear seatbelts and helmets, look before crossing the street and follow pool rules. So, don’t expect your kid to do these things if you don’t.
2. Keep us healthy
Another important reason for a lot of rules is to keep us healthy. We all need to eat healthy foods, brush our teeth, wash our hands and get enough sleep in order to feel good. It always seemed so unfair that my parents got to stay up later than I did, but now I understand why: kids need more sleep than grown-ups because this is when they grow (true). Grown-ups don’t need as much sleep, because well, they are already grown-up. They still need sleep, though, to keep from getting sick and grumpy. (Now, of course, I look forward to going to sleep!)
3. Help us get along together
Society has a lot of rules to help us all get along together. Some are obvious: keep your hands and feet to yourself, use nice words, take turns, clean up your messes. Saying “please,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry” are good things for us all to practice if we want to get along well with others. Again, don’t expect your kid to do these things if you don’t! Kids love it when they learn that grown-ups can get punished for not following the rules, too: Time Out for grown-ups is called jail.
Thinking about these 3 main reasons for rules has helped me to make quick decisions about what to do when there are competing values: (e.g., foster independence vs. major injury; not wasting food vs. healthy eating). It helps me to keep the “big picture” in mind and to be consistent when setting limits. It also helps me to realize when something I want my kid to do is really not a rule, but a personal preference and I should just “let it go.” So yes, my kid’s socks and headbands never match her outfit.
Using the “three reasons for rules” helps kids understand “why” a particular rule is important and the consequences for not following it. They still may not like it, but they get it. So not only does this cut down on arguments, but once kids understand “what’s in it for me,” it helps them develop intrinsic motivation to follow these rules even when parents are not around to enforce them. And that’s really what’s it’s all about, isn’t it?