Why Children Need Rules
It's one of the most basic parenting facts: Toddlers behave best when given limits. In fact, they crave them. "Rules provide the predictability and stability kids this age really need," says James Windell, a family therapist in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. "They learn that they can always count on you, which makes them feel secure." Unfortunately, this is also the stage when your child is exploring her independence -- which she accomplishes by challenging your carefully laid-down laws. It's only natural to get frustrated and, in the process, fall into some not so stellar discipline habits. But if you can follow through on even a few of these simple resolutions, you'll see better behavior in no time.
Resolution #1: I won't simply say "Be nice!" when my kid tries to hit or bite his friends.
Why it's worth making: Giving vague reminders when your toddler misbehaves rarely gets results. He's still learning what kinds of behavior are "nice" and "good."
Your new approach: Be specific -- and tell your child why your rules matter. Just make sure you keep the explanations short and simple; toddlers can typically understand something like, "We don't hit people because it makes them feel sad." When kids can see why certain limits are important, they're more likely to follow them. In some cases, you might try asking your child why he thinks a rule is necessary ("What do you think would happen if I let you leave your toys on the stairs?") before you tell him the answer. This will encourage him to start considering the results of his actions -- something little kids can't really do on their own.
Resolution #2: I'll tell my toddler to stay close at the store before we get there.
Why it's worth making: Children this age are seriously lacking in the self-control department, and developmentally speaking, that's totally normal. Reminding them of your rules only when they're on the verge of breaking them rarely works.
Your new approach: Do plenty of prep work. If you know your kid is going to challenge your limits in a particular situation, be clear about how she should behave ahead of time. (Remember, children this age like knowing what to expect.) For example, before you set foot in the supermarket, get down on your toddler's level and say, "You need to stay next to me while we're here. That way, we'll finish shopping faster and then we'll have more time to play later." Give her a couple of reminders as you shop, and be sure to thank her for being good if she doesn't wander away.
Resolution #3: I won't waste time and energy enforcing trivial rules.
Why it's worth making: Aside from putting your sanity in jeopardy (trust us, you might lose it if you're always debating appropriate cape-wear with a stubborn toddler), setting tons of picky rules just makes it harder for little kids to remember and follow the ones that are truly important, says Windell.
Your new approach: Pick your battles. "Getting your child to wear certain clothes obviously isn't as important as insisting that he wear his seat belt, so you shouldn't make it seem that way by being equally strict about both," says Darwin Dorr, PhD, professor of psychology at Wichita State University. Focus your efforts on teaching a few crucial safety and behavior rules, and try to loosen up when you have to deal with more superficial issues. This approach even has long-term benefits, since research shows that kids who are raised with too many rules may be rebellious later.
Resolution #4: I won't cave when my child demands to stay up way past her bedtime.
Why it's worth making: There's no point in setting a limit that you never enforce. If your toddler knows she can stay up late simply by screaming loudly enough, she'll just consider it a license to break all the other rules you've set.
Your new approach: Be consistent. Once you've set a rule, you have to enforce it all the time -- "usually" won't cut it when you're dealing with little kids. That no-wavering stance is particularly important when it comes to serious issues like sleep. "Toddlers who stick to a regular bedtime schedule are less likely to start a power struggle in the evening and lose valuable rest time," explains Steven Kurtz, PhD, clinical director of ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders at the NYU Child Study Center. (And kids this age need a lot of zzz's -- we're talking a whopping 12 hours a night for 3-year-olds.) Yes, it can sometimes be a pain to convince your child to get into bed and stay there all night long, but you're not doing her (or yourself) any favors by giving up. She'll just be overtired and even crankier the next day, and chances are you will be too!
Resolution #5: I'll find ways to avoid starting every sentence with "don't."
Why it's worth making: If you say "don't" and "stop" more often than a cop, your toddler will feel like he's never allowed to do anything. He'll keep challenging your rules out of sheer frustration, leaving you to deal with even more bad behavior.
Your new approach: Tell him what he can do. Be on the lookout for opportunities to show your toddler the right way to act instead of immediately laying down the law, says Dr. Kurtz. If you happen to catch your child trying to pull the dog's tail, for example, say, "It's okay to pet the dog, but you have to do it gently -- let's try petting him together," and congratulate him when he gets the technique right.
Resolution #6: I will stop myself from throwing a tantrum whenever my kid breaks a rule.
Why it's worth making: Yes, it can be satisfying to vent your frustration, but getting upset won't shock her into doing what you say. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect. "At this age, kids can't always tell the difference between what's fun and what's serious," explains Windell. "Your toddler may think it's hilarious to watch you have a meltdown, so she'll keep defying you to make you yell again."
Your new approach: Give simple corrections (yes, even when you feel like you're going to scream). If your toddler chucks her veggies on the floor at dinner, take a deep breath and use your calmest, firmest voice to remind her of the rules ("When you're eating, food stays on your plate"). Then get her focused on something else or, better yet, give her kudos for doing something well ("Great job using your spoon!"). After all, kids love praise as much as they seem to dislike rules.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Parents magazine.