Living by the rules isn’t always easy. But understanding the reasoning behind the rules usually helps makes it easier; if we don’t stop at a red light, we may plough into a car or pedestrian; if we burn leaves when there’s a smog alert, we will add to a dangerous air-pollution problem; if we don’t use a scooper when we walk our dog, someone – maybe even someone in our own family – may be scraping dogs deposits off their shoes for days.
But though toddlers have imposed on them their share of rules, more often than not, they have little or no understanding of why the rules are necessary – which makes living by them so far more difficult. Helping your toddler to see the reason behind rules will not only make rules easier to live by, but will make your toddler easier to live with. So:
- Explain your rules. The bitter pill of bedtime, for example, may be a little more palatable if it’s served up with an explanation (‘Your body is still growing-one day it’s going to be big and tall. But to grow, it needs sleep.’) Likewise, the edict ‘Hold my hand when we cross the street,’ may be resisted less if the rationale is spelled out (‘The drivers can’t see you because you’re smaller. But the drivers can see me because I’m big. If you hold my hand, you will be safe.’). Make your point quickly and concisely. If you go on and on with a complicated explanation of a simple rule, your toddler will probably tune you (and your rule) out.
- Make rules consistent. Living by the rules is impossible if a child is never sure, from one day to the next, what the rules are. If you scold your toddler for jumping on your bed one day, and you look the other way the next, your toddler won’t take your rules seriously and may enjoy testing you to see. ‘What’s the rule going to be today?’
- Make rules clear. When you say, ‘Don’t stand on the furniture’ to a toddler who is standing on the bed, does that just mean ‘don’t stand on your bed?’ On any beds? Or does it mean, don’t stand on any furniture, including beds, armchair and the sofa? How about the hassock? The kitchen table? Be as specific as you can when setting out your rules, and make sure you use language that is easy for your toddler to understand.
- Make rules reasonable. Some rules are impossible for a two-year-old to live by; always chewing with his mouth closed, for example, or always tidying up her toys without being asked. Keep your toddler’s abilities in mind when making rules.
- Repeat the rules often. Toddlers are typically so busy learning and discovering, rules tend to slip their minds. With their still-brief attention span and limited concentration, they have difficulty focusing on more than one thing at a time. So don’t assume that standing a rule once, twice, or even a half-dozen times is enough.
- Don’t make too many rules. If your toddler can’t make a move without breaking a rule, chances are he or she’s going to rebel against all the rules-if not now, then later on in life, and if not at home, then outside it.
- Make following the rules easy. You can’t expect a child to follow the rule to put toys cars away unless he or she has been instructed about how to put them away, and has a specific, accessible place to put them. So be sure that each rule you make comes complete with instructions.
- Don’t expect perfect compliance. Toddlers are toddlers; you can expect more rules to be broken than to be followed for a while. Sometimes they’ll be broken inadvertently – because your toddler’s simply forgotten or because his or her interest or curiosity has superseded everything else. Sometimes they’ll be broken because of your child’s inability to control his or her behaviour. Sometimes they’ll be broken because your toddler’s testing you and the limits you’ve set, and sometimes they’ll be broken in a fiery fit of temper. Whatever the reason, once you’ve carried out any disciplinary measures necessary, be forgiving and understanding.
- Finally, follow the rules yourself. You make a U-turn where you know it’s illegal, get on a ten-item-or-less line at the supermarket with fourteen items; you cross in between, not at the green. These little everybody-does-it infractions may seem harmless enough. But if they become part of your everyday behaviour, they tell your child that, when the rules are inconvenient or unpalatable, they can be broken. When a role model (and for your child you’re the number one role model) breakers rules, it’s hard for a child to understand why he or she can’t. As usual, your action speak more eloquently and forcefully than your words.