User's Manual for Parents, Part III: What Rules to Set
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

You know that Users’ Manual that was supposed to come with your kids and didn’t? Well, here it is. Now we’re on Part III. Remember to read Parts I and II. Or you’ll be sorry!

In this part, we’ll look at what rules families need to have for their kids. Many parents make the mistake of thinking that they don’t need rules if their child’s behavior doesn’t personally bother them. An individual parent may not mind it when a child picks his nose, yells loudly, or climbs on adults. But these behaviors bother a lot of other people. Or there may be things that bother you but not your spouse, or vice versa -- whether it’s kids wearing mismatched clothes or leaving things on the floor.

So let’s begin with the important guideline for setting rules. Your rules should be in line with the expectations of the community – teachers, other parents, shopkeepers, family and friends, and your children’s peers. Of course, there’s room for variation by your family, but your child has to learn the community standards or risk being chastised or ignored by many – or even ridiculed. That’s too rough on a child. For example, if your child yells or touches others’ possessions excessively, he’ll be corrected so often that he’ll wind up feeling uncertain about himself and angry at others for chastising him. He may also be criticized and excluded from playdates and parties, and start feeling like an outcast.

Your rules should consider your child’s age. As an example, five-year-olds can put away all their toys and two-year-olds can’t. Look back at Part I to see how you can learn what to expect. Children whose parents frequently under- or over-expect of them are far more confused and troubled than those whose parents have realistic expectations. We increase our expectations as our children grow older and become more competent.

Here are a few things to begin with before we get to the rules.

It's valuable to use phrases with your young child such as “It's Mommy's and Daddy's job to teach you everything that a  ____-year-old needs to know.” With elementary school kids, add, “…about how to behave.”  This concept helps reinforce that rule-making is a parent's job. Many children think their parents only make rules because they’re mean and don’t want kids to have fun.

Children should also be given reasons for new or changed rules: “We need to get dressed quickly today because…” It’s also important to praise children for cooperating: “You picked up your toys so fast – that was great,” or “That was so helpful.” And the child needs to understand the consequences of not cooperating. Consequences will be addressed in detail in Users’ Manual for Parents, Parts IV and V.

Now let’s look at the basic rules we should teach our children. As you read through this introduction to the main rules, add the many specifics you want your children to learn so you can build your views and values into your parenting, in partnership with your spouse. The following categories  cover the many kinds of rules.

The first rule is that your child needs to pay attention when you speak to him. Get your child’s attention and don’t settle for repeating yourself five or 10 times. Ways to make this happen will be described in Users’ Manuals Parts IV and V, dealing with consequences.
The second set of rules and limits involves safetyParents are the most confident in enforcing limits in this area – rules like not touching a hot stove or running into the street for younger children, or not playing with matches or skateboarding on busy streets for older kids.
Third are rules and limits covering respect for other people and possessions.  They include using “please” and “thank you,” and speaking respectfully and kindly to friends and siblings. Children also need to learn to treat possessions – theirs and others’ – appropriately, such as: Don’t take others’ things without asking and don’t ruin your clothes or toys.
Fourth are rules involving regular routines. Morning routines guide dressing, toothbrushing and so on. Daytime routines dictate eating, playtime, homework, TV, computer, video games, etc. Evening routines address preparing for bedtime, from putting away toys to how many stories, or how long a child can read in bed. Routines provide the necessary predictability for children and decrease limit-testing.
Next are rules that cover necessary habits. These include table manners and good eating habits, toileting, hand-washing, bathing, and so on.
Last, parents need to encourage their young child to practice skills that prepare him for starting school: speaking well and clearly, paying attention when someone talks to him, using scissors, learning the letter sounds, printing his name and so forth. Older children need skills that help them succeed in elementary school, such as understanding that they have to try even when they don’t want to; knowing how to work hard; asking for help in areas of weakness; and learning to be organized, including homework times and space.
Rules that you put together as parents should teach a child the essential values to internalize as he grows up. Your rules and values help him to navigate life successfully. Rules help children eventually learn to manage their time, get along with others, tackle unappealing tasks,  limit impulse buying, get enough rest and exercise, eat healthfully, and face challenges.  

As you add your specific rules to complete this list, you should continue training your child so that knowing how to behave becomes second nature to him. Pay attention to the behaviors your children need extra guidance on because of their individual personalities, whether it’s toning down a boisterous nature or speaking loudly enough to be heard.

As young children grow, good habits start to become automatic – as long as we have taken the time to train them: washing their hands before they eat, speaking politely to adults, removing their plate from the table, blowing their own nose, making their beds. And when they’re in elementary school, they learn to do homework, help make their lunch, bring in their bicycle, invite kids for playdates, help with family chores, etc.

Parents would do well to plan what they need to work on next with their kids, in partnership with their spouses. It’s helpful to update these lists together, including how to teach the skill. Teachers, pediatricians, friends, and family will have suggestions that are often worth listening to.

Children, however, often resist rules. And parents soon realize that their lectures about why and how our children should have behaved (e.g. “When I tell you to pick up your toys, you need to do it. Toys have to be put where they belong. Do you understand?”) often don’t impact their cooperation the way we wanted them to. So, Parts IV and V will update you about consequences – new ones and improved old ones.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015