Setting effective ground rules for children
Anything for an easy life.
Are you ever amazed to see masses of young children at school lining up in an orderly fashion and walking into school calmly and with little fuss? Do you then wonder why it can sometimes seem so difficult to manage a single unruly child that is tearing around the supermarket or screaming “I want I want I want” like a young Veruca Salt? Because schools have rules, and they start on day one!
Start as you mean to go on
One of the best pieces of advice I could offer to a new parent is to start as you mean to go on. This applies to literally every aspect of parenting e.g. how you approach feeding; how you respond to the cries of your newborn; setting up and maintaining a bedtime routine; how you limit snacks and treats; managing screen time; what values you want to instil; what behaviours are accepted; what are not. The list is endless but, if you start this approach on day one with baby number one, you will make your parenting life a whole lot easier.
This requires thinking ahead and planning early; discussing what your rules and boundaries will be and how various challenges will be dealt with before they even arise because, believe me, when they do arise and you don’t have a plan or rules in place, children are usually very keen to help make some rules of their own and these are unlikely to be what you had in mind.
Reach an Agreement
Okay, so this does not mean creating the home equivalent of a set of school policy documents but, where there is more than one parent or guardian, it is definitely helpful if you’re on the same page in terms of parenting and if you’re not, it’s good to iron out these differences early. Children are very quick to learn which parent to approach with different demands if one parent is likely to give a different response to the other and they love nothing more than to have “but mum said I could” or “but dad said it was okay” up their sleeve in case they are challenged.
Follow it Through
For this advance planning strategy to be successful though, there has to be follow-through. It is no use saying that bedtime is to be at 8 o’clock on a school night if you are going to give in to pleading and delaying tactics some nights ‘just for an easy life’. It turns out that it does not make life easier when suddenly your children catch on to the fact that the rules have some flexibility and they start attempting to bend them further and further, night after night. Similarly, there is little point in limiting sugary snacks just to one day a week as a special treat, if you then let your children eat every packet of sweets that they come out of school with on a classmate’s birthday, rather then putting them aside to save for the ‘treat day’.
Share your Reasons
I honestly believe that children thrive within boundaries provided that those set are realistic, not stifling, and that they are consistently upheld. It is also crucial that the boundaries are set with the children’s best interests in mind whether in terms of their health, their safety, their education or general wellbeing. Furthermore, children are far more likely to behave appropriately if they understand what is expected of them and why it is expected of them so, communication is key. Sometimes the reasons may seem so obvious to us grown-ups that we don’t explain them but young children cannot always visualise the consequences of their actions. Your toddler may not yet have worked out that walking into the road in front of cars can be dangerous – they might assume that cars will just stop or go around them or even that they can be flattened and bounce back up like in a cartoon; so tell them why it is dangerous – you’re not trying to scare them, just to keep them safe and raise their awareness and understanding. Children and adults alike will always be more likely to follow rules if they know the reasons behind them.
Empowering Older Children to Manage Themselves
In fact, communicating the reasons behind boundary setting can help growing children learn how to manage their own health, safety and wellbeing as they get older. For example, a child that is told that they can only have one hour of screen time a day might be less than impressed but, if they understand that this is to ensure that they don’t lose touch with other hobbies; that they are equipped for different social situations and friendships; and that they are getting enough exercise and better sleep; they may be more accepting. Then, as they start realising the benefits, they may eventually start seeking this balance themselves without being told. So, one day when the internet is down or the tv is broken, rather than sulkily announcing that they’re bored, they will have an array of other options at their disposal.
The Challenge of Shared Care
Now, if upholding your rules consistently isn’t tricky enough on its own, the real challenge comes when you realise that, not everything is within your control and that, when your children are being looked after elsewhere, consistency may fly out of the window. Grandparents, for example, are notorious for flouting the rules of the parents and whilst it is worthwhile attempting to inform them of the boundaries you have set, sometimes you just have to appreciate that they are taking care of your children for you but that their days of parenting are over. So, cut them a bit of slack, let them enjoy their time with the grandchildren and, rather than presenting them with a list of rules and instructions, just give them the essential highlights.
Anything for an Easy Life
So, plan ahead, agree your rules and boundaries, justify them to yourself and to your children, stick to them and, next time you are thinking of giving in ‘just for an easy life’ remember that you are probably just about to make life a lot more difficult.