Do kids like rules? Not really. Do they need them? One hundred percent.
Kids inherently crave rules because rules help them understand what to expect. When they can predict things, they feel more secure and safe. When a child feels secure, they have the freedom to explore, grow and develop. It is just as important that those rules and boundaries are consistently kept and enforced. Inconsistency breeds fear and worry. Children don’t know how to react when they can’t expect a consistent response from the adult(s) in their lives. It also helps our kids to navigate right from wrong and learn about personal safety.
It’s essential to set household rules and boundaries. But not too many.
As parents, we are naturally worried about our kids when they start becoming more independent. The temptation is to create many rules and regulations in the hopes that we can protect our kids from all the mistakes and potentially negative things in life. But it doesn’t quite work that way. Kids with too many rules often experience low self-esteem or anxiety because of high expectations and inability to recall and subsequently meet all of the rules. So, we need some kind of happy medium between no rules and too many rules.
What kind of rules can help kids feel safe?
1. Open, Honest Communication
The first rule is actually for parents, and it’s about creating a trusting relationship that allows for transparency and honesty. This starts with a secure attachment that lets your child know that you can meet their needs. This isn’t the same as meeting their “wants” or being a pushover. It has to do with meeting their emotional and physical needs for safety and connection.
This can be ensuring that they are fed and clothed, but also things like acknowledging and supporting when they feel sad. Or understanding and working through times they feel frightened. When children experience secure attachment, they trust that particular adult and are more likely to share their concerns and worries, from little things to big things. If your child is open and honest with you, it means you are more likely to hear about things that could be impacting their safety and wellbeing. (1)
This rule also involves active listening, respecting your child’s emotions, and not rushing to fix them or minimize them. It also has to do with labeling the behavior versus the child, such as, “I don’t like lying, but I love you.” If a child doesn’t fear being punished for being honest after making a mistake or getting into trouble, they are more likely to come to an adult for help.
2. Limit Technology
Set limits for technology use. You should have restrictions on the length of time used and access to certain content. Also, consider the age-appropriateness of having social media accounts. And try to have family computers or laptops set up in central (visible) places. Although you are in the safety of your own home, predators and bullies can creep into what should be your child’s safe harbor. Setting the above rules and expectations can help limit their exposure or at least increase the likelihood you will be aware of any issues that arise online. Also, as with rule number one, if you create an environment where your child can feel safe telling you anything, they are more likely to disclose if something untoward happens online. (2)
3. Physical Safety
Physical safety rules are also essential. There are some fundamental rules that we want to instill around household safety. Things like the use of, and access to heat, electricity, power tools or equipment, medicine, the entry and exiting of the house, etc. (3)
Physical safety examples might be:
- Not using the stove/oven without a parent present
- Not opening the door if someone rings or knocks
- Having a curfew
- Not running with scissors
- Don’t touch the hot faucet
4. Healthy Habits
There should also be rules about creating healthy habits. The hope is that if we provide our kids with a good grounding of daily self-care rules, they will take these into adulthood. This could include regular bathing, changing clothes, brushing teeth, going to checkups at the doctor, dentist, etc. This allows you to create a routine that kids love because they know what to expect (and when to expect things), making them feel safe. It also reduces power struggles because they know that it’s time to brush their teeth and get their school clothes on after breakfast. Consistency is critical for this particular rule. These kinds of activities of daily living will also help your child feel great about themselves and improve their self-esteem. They feel responsible and in control of things and also that they can look after their own bodies.
5. Social Habits
Not only should we set rules about looking after their bodies, but we should also set rules around emotional safety. These rules are more focused on how your child should treat others, which in turn sets expectations for how others should treat them.
There should also be a focus on respectful behavior in relationships. And there should be a clear expectation to communicate to a trusted adult if someone is not respecting their boundaries, making them feel uncomfortable, or hurting them. These rules also help keep children safe from predators. An empowered child who understands safe touch and boundaries around their bodies is more likely to say something if they feel uncomfortable. Therefore, they are less likely to be targeted by predators who tend to target more vulnerable children. (4)
Some examples of good social rules might include:
- Treat others respectfully
- Be honest
- Be fair in how you treat others
- Using gentle hands and not hurting others
- Giving people privacy
- Use proper names for genitals and respects people’s “private” parts
Rules should be adaptable.
Safety is not just about the rules themselves, but also how we go about setting and keeping them. Each family will have its own variation of these rules. Each family is unique in their values and expectations of one another. But these are some key rules to help set the groundwork for your family’s interpretation. The only universal condition is that rules should be consistently enforced, or they become meaningless. Inconsistent rules can make children feel anxious or distressed because they don’t feel secure/safe as they don’t know what to expect.
It’s also very important to vary your household rules as your child develops. Their needs and abilities will change, and we need to adapt alongside our kids as they grow, so our rules need to grow also. Rules are also more likely to be adhered to if we, as parents, are good role models and involve children in decision-making. This way, they see us living by example, but they also feel included and important contributors to the family, which leads to self-esteem, connectedness, strong relationships, and a sense of safety.
Moore, T. (2017). A review of kinship carer surveys. Protection through participation. Child Family Community Australia. 1-13.
Mitra, D. (2020). Keeping children safe online: A literature review. Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.
Ablewhite, J., McDaid, L., Hawkins, A., Peel, I., Goodenough, T., Deave, T., Stewart, J., Watson, M., & Kendrick, D. (2015). Approaches used by parents to keep their children safe at home: a qualitative study to explore the perspectives of parents with children aged under five years. BMC public health, 15, 983. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-2252-x
Babatsikos, G., & Miles, D. (2015). How parents manage the risk of child sexual abuse: A grounded theory. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 24.