Parenting Key: Involve child in making rules

Most children do not like rules any more than they like most green vegetables. Fortunately, by the time they become adults they have usually developed a taste for both. We come to understand the value of good rules and the importance of learning to play or work within them. Can you imagine playing a sport without rules? They would all turn into shouting matches or worse, a pro hockey game. Can you imagine living in a country with no rules (or laws, as we call them in grown-up world)? We wouldn’t like it for more than a day at most. So teaching our children the value of rules and the importance of living with the limits they are designed to maintain is a major part of Active Parenting. That’s why we stress “freedom within limits” so often.

Active Parenting is about more than making and enforcing good rules, though. It is also about teaching our children how to make and live with good rules. We do this by different names. Take this example from the Active Parenting 4th Ed. Parent’s Guide:

Family Meeting: Problem-Prevention Talks

I commented earlier about how frustrating it would be to play a game of softball if you didn’t know the rules. Rules are important for any activity, including day to day living in families. To prevent problems and get along well in a family, everyone needs to be clear about the rules and expectations.

Children often misbehave simply because they don’t know what parents expect from them. They don’t know where the limits are and how much freedom they are allowed. Of course, many a shrewd child will play dumb about the rules, figuring that “it’s easier to gain forgiveness than permission.” In either case, many problems can be prevented if you take the time to discuss guidelines and expectations before the situation occurs.

The Active Parenting approach to problem prevention is not about laying down the law and dictating what the rules are. A much more effective approach is to discuss potential problems with your child and decide together what solution or guidelines the situation requires. Of course, as the parent you will have certain limits that are nonnegotiable, but a willingness to be flexible within those limits can go a long way to winning cooperation and avoiding problems. For example: You have some grocery shopping to do, and you need to take your five-year-old daughter with you. Having a short talk with your child before you leave home can improve the chances of your outing being problem-free, which could save you a lot of time—and stress.

The following guidelines can help you make your Problem-Prevention Talk effective:

Guidelines for Problem-Prevention Talks

  1. Identify potential problems and risks.
  2. Share thoughts and feelings.
  3. Generate guidelines for behavior.
  4. Decide on logical consequences for violating the guidelines (if necessary).
  5. Follow up later.

Let’s go over these guidelines one by one. We’ll use the shopping scenario as an example.

  1. Identify potential problems and risks.

If you have been in similar situations before, then you probably know where the trouble spots will be. Otherwise, use your experience of similar situations and your knowledge of your child to anticipate the problems. For example, your child often whines for you to buy her things whenever she goes shopping with you. She also has a tendency to wander off, forcing you to chase after her.

  1. Share thoughts and feelings.

Ask your child what she thinks about the situation and what problems might arise. You may be surprised that she also has concerns. Then make your own thoughts and feelings clear in a friendly manner. For example, your child may feel that grocery shopping is boring and she’d rather be outside playing. You might say that you understand that shopping is boring for her, but that you need to buy food for the family to eat.

  1. Generate guidelines for behavior.

Using the information you gathered in step two, talk with your child about what you expect of her. When discussing guidelines, keep in mind that it will be easier for your child to comply with the rules if she feels like she is gaining something by doing so. We aren’t suggesting the use of rewards or bribes for cooperative behavior, but including incentives can be effective. For example, avoid:

“If you’re good, I’ll buy you a toy.”

This is a bribe or a reward, and will lead to having to buy the child something every time you go to the store and will also teach her to manipulate others.


“If we finish our shopping by 4:30, we’ll have time to stop by the park on the way home.”


“How would you like to help me do the shopping by handing me the groceries off the shelf? Maybe you can help me pick some things you’d like to have for dinner this week.”

“Great! I also need for you to stay beside me all the time so that you’ll be safe and we won’t interfere with other shoppers.”

  1. Decide on logical consequences for violating the guidelines (if necessary).

Your child will be more likely to follow the guidelines if she knows there will be logical consequences if she violates one. You don’t need to use this step with kids who are basically cooperative or who have not had problems in similar situations. In fact, such a warning may seem like an insult to a child who only needs to be included in the discussion and have her needs considered in order to cooperate. For more challenging kids, however, consequences are very helpful when done right. For example:

“When we get to the store you can either walk with me or ride in the cart.”

  1. Follow up later.

In situations in which you are not around to ensure that the guidelines were followed, you will need to check up to see how your child behaved. If she has followed the guidelines, then you can encourage her by acknowledging the good effort. If she has not, then you will need to enforce the logical consequences.


From Active Parenting 4th Edition by Michael H. Popkin (pp 101-104), Copyright © 2014 by Active Parenting Publishers, Atlanta, GA. All rights reserved.

Dr. Michael Popkin

Founder and President
Active Parenting Publishers