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Setting boundaries: kids are more likely to follow rules when they get a say in them

How to effectively establish rules for children
WATCH: Whoever said "rules were made to be broken" was likely not a parent! Enforcing the limits can be tricky when you have little ones with big personalities but one parenting expert says it doesn't have to be. Laurel Gregory reports.

My five-year-old son runs the show. When it comes to his world — his wardrobe, snacks, playtime, screen time and even bed time — he makes all the big decisions. Well, at least he thinks he does.

About a year ago, I decided it was time for a change. I was overwhelmed trying to manage my then four-year-old son’s constant negotiations and boundary-pushing while caring for a new baby. I sensed my strong-willed, independent son wanted more agency. And so, I slowly started giving him more control — or, more accurately, the illusion of control!

Our world became a glorious plethora of options! A request for a cookie at a coffee shop became: “Sure! But I was going to bake muffins this afternoon. Would you like to have a cookie now, or wait for a banana muffin?”

My reply to screen time was: “OK! But you have the IMAX tomorrow for that birthday. Would you like the 20-minute show right now or wait for the big movie tomorrow? Your choice.”

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Don’t get me wrong: we have non-negotiable rules in our house. But if my son’s request was reasonable, I laid out the parameters and he could make a decision. This simple shift of giving him a say made a world of difference.

Parenting author and family counsellor Alyson Schafer says it’s a child’s job to find and negotiate boundaries. If they know that asking you for a popsicle four times will cause you to give in, they will. But kids stop badgering and negotiating when you’re consistent. And Schafer says they are more likely to follow the rules if they get a say in them.

I sat down with Schafer via Skype to learn more.

Laurel Gregory: Why are children more likely to listen when they get a say in rules?

Alyson Schafer: As soon as children protest one of your rules or limits or boundaries, then we know that they are developmentally of the age where they are letting you know that they want to have a voice in the way that the household is run. That doesn’t mean that they have a voice that says that they get to make all the rules or that somehow it’s now going to be their way and not our way. But it means that they want to be entered into the conversation in an age-appropriate way to talk about how we make decisions about things that impact them. So it’s interesting. Just having a voice, having a say and being invited into the conversation is enough that when you do set that boundary – whatever that reasonable boundary is – kids are more likely to accept that limit and boundary and then live within it because they feel that they have been consulted.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that they get their way all the time.

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But it also really helps parents because it means that you are really being conscious about the decisions that you’re making and kids will let you know if you start messing up on what you’ve agreed to.

READ MORE: Will you marry me? What’s really behind preschool proposals

LG: At what age could a child start having a voice in the rules?

AS: I think even a two year old that might give you some protest about wearing snow pants or something. Again, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to say: “No, you don’t have to wear snow pants,” if it’s -30 outside and you have to cover up, you have to cover up. But inviting them into the conversation might be something like: “Boy, it sounds like you really know how you like to dress your body and you really like to make that decision for yourself! Let’s step outside and see how we feel about the temperature… Yeah, it’s really cold, isn’t it?”

So just giving that little bit of choice and moving it away from what kids find so abhorrent: Do as I say because I say so.

That’s the part that they really – they don’t want to feel like they are under your thumb. And if we can be more educative about why we are making decisions, be more discussive. It doesn’t mean that we need to be negotiating like a lawyer on every point. It’s why I recommend having family meetings where just once a week you sit down and talk about family business and whatever you decide, whatever the rule is about how many cookies we have in a week, or how close to dinner time are we allowed to have sweet treats or whatever it might be, you just make that decision-making time once a week and then you just live by the rules.

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If somebody starts to say they don’t like the rules you say: “We talk about those things at the family meeting. I’m not interested in talking about them on the playground or at pick-up or in the grocery store or when you are begging me for a toy at the store. It looks like you have something you want to say about that. We do our family planning and deciding and decision-making at the family meeting.” And then you don’t have all this constant negotiation.

READ MORE: What to do when others break your parenting rules

LG: What are some things kids like to have a say about?

AS: You would be amazed at how much kids want to talk about everything! So certainly some classic things would be things like snacks. How many snacks. When they are allowed to have snacks. When they are allowed to get their treats. They like talking about screen time. When can they get screen time. What can they watch on screen time. When is screen time over. Same with things to eat. Not just snacks. But kids want to have a voice. They’ve got a discriminating palate and there are things they like or don’t like for dinner. It’s a lot easier to get them to settle in and not moan and try new foods if we talk about — as a family if there are five of us and we all have different things we like and don’t like and we need to eat to be healthy, how do we solve that problem? And different people do it different ways. Maybe Monday is Jamie’s day and Tuesday is Mommy’s day. Maybe we make a meal plan at the beginning of the week and we just make sure there is always one thing on the table somebody will like. There’s a bunch of different ways to solve it.

LG: How does giving young children a say in the household rules teach them about advocating for themselves and using their voice?

AS: When we ask kids to speak up and share their thoughts and opinions and start solving problems with us from a very young age, it develops their sense of empowerment and agency.

They actually believe they have good ideas to contribute. They actually believe that they can solve problems. They actually believe that they can impact change.

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When you think about the Gretas of the climate change world and thinking about the Malalas and these people that were, early in life, listened to and believed that they could make a difference.

Child and teen activism is really big right now and not just as a way to empower kids, I literally mean they are doing impactful things and moving the needle on society.

And so we start with this in the earliest years at home. We are really setting the ground for our kids to feel very much like they are able to shape their future.