Family Rules Help Children Understand Boundaries and Expectations

As they prepare for a new school year, many children and parents talk about what they might expect. As children move from one grade to the next, they encounter new classrooms, new teachers and even new rules and expectations.

“When children know the rules at school, they can anticipate what is expected and feel safe and secure,” says Barbara Dunn Swanson, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“This concept also applies at home. Family rules help members know the boundaries and expectations for behavior. Knowing the rules creates a sense of comfort for children. In addition to rules, parents often create a schedule or routine for their children that can help reduce feelings of chaos by providing flexible, but consistent information and a daily structure that children can anticipate and follow,” said Dunn Swanson.

Children can be an important part of the rule-making process, Dunn Swanson explained. Giving children some say in developing the rules and any consequences helps them to remember and take responsibility. When parents and children talk about rules together, parents can honestly share reasons for the boundaries and limits that reflect their family values and help to keep everyone safe.

The rules that are established should reflect the age and ability of the children they are designed to protect. Providing reminders about the rules can help young children who are very stimulated by their environment and excited about the opportunities before them.

“Research shows that specific, understandable directions and expectations can improve child behaviors and prevent dangerous circumstances. In addition, you’ll be less frustrated, and your child will be more likely to learn appropriate behaviors. It is most effective to tell children exactly what behaviors you desire,” Dunn Swanson said.

For example, instead of saying “Don’t yell in the house,” say “Please use your inside talking voice.” Instead of saying “You better be home on time,” say “I expect you home at 10 p.m.” Instead of saying “Knock that off,” say “Please do not throw the football in the house.”

For teens, using natural consequences when rules are not followed can be an effective way to guide behavior.

“Parents can use the ’Three R’s’ and set rules and consequences that are related, reasonable and respectful. The consequence should relate to the behavior, be fair and show respect for the young teen’s feelings. One final reminder: as adults, we must remember to model the behaviors we expect from children. If we want rule followers in our home, we too must lead the way and follow the rules, Dunn Swanson said.

ISU Extension and Outreach has resources on guiding children and teens available for free download from the ISU Extension Store and additional resources from the Science of Parenting.


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