Mornings were a disaster in our house. Getting my 6-year-old out the door on time was impossible -- and after she missed the bus (again), I put my foot down: The minute the clock struck 8:00, she had to be dressed, with her backpack zipped, and head to the bus stop. Much to my surprise, Katie took to the new rule with gusto and hasn't missed the bus since. "Children this age like rules because they crave knowing what's expected of them," explains Stuart Goldman, M.D., a psychiatrist at Boston Children's Hospital. Learn how to make the most of this by-the-book phase.
Of course, some rules -- like those involving safety -- are nonnegotiable. But you can let your child have a say in less pressing matters, such as which chores he'll be responsible for or even the order of his bedtime routine. "By letting your child weigh in, you're giving him a sense of control, which means he'll be more likely to follow the rules you've agreed upon," says Dr. Goldman.
It can be hard for a child who sees everything in black and white to understand why her friend can do something that you won't allow. Explain that every family has different rules, and just like her friend's parents make the rules for their house, you create the ones for yours. "If it's possible, give your child a simple explanation about why you have a specific rule," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). For example, if you won't let her watch a movie that her friend has seen, you can say something like, "I don't like the way the people in that movie talk to each other. In our family, we watch movies where people speak nicely to one another and are kind."
For adventures away from home, your child is more likely to go by the rules if they are fresh in his mind. So before you walk into a challenging situation, go over your top three priorities with him. "It's much easier for children this age to do something than not to do something," explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. For example, in the car on your way to church, instead of telling your child, "No loud talking!" remind him to speak in a whisper during the service. Once you've discussed the ground rules with him, have your child repeat them back to you -- it'll increase the chances that he'll stick to them when the time comes.
When your child breaks a rule, give her one warning. But if she repeats the same behavior again, you have to act. If she realizes that you won't let her rule-breaking slide, she'll be less likely to do it again, says Rebecca Dingfelder, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. Put her in a time-out for one minute for each year of her age in a toy-free room, such as a spare bedroom or the mudroom. However, if your child seems to be consistently struggling with limits -- either at home or elsewhere -- take a closer look. "Most of the time, a child this age is breaking the rules because she isn't getting enough recognition for what she is doing right, so she seeks out the wrong kind of attention instead," explains Dr. Dingfelder. To turn things around, give her some simple rules you know she can follow. Then, praise her when she does.
While all kids love recognition from the important adults in their life, school-age children can be real people pleasers. That's because their brain is going through a stage of cognitive development, and they're becoming aware that their behavior affects others. In most cases, simply telling your child that he did a great job or giving him a high five is enough praise for following the rules. But for some behaviors that are really hard to change, such as staying in bed at night or following directions the first time, it's a great idea to use a good-behavior chart or some other visual way to track your child's progress, says Dr. Dingfelder. "Just don't make the end reward too costly or elaborate to pull off. Consider an at-home movie night, a special trip to the park, or even having dessert before dinner."
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.