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How to Make Kids Obey Your Rules

You've told your son three times today that he shouldn't slam the back door, yet in his eagerness to go play in the sprinkler with the dog, he just slammed it so hard the windows shook in their frames. You're afraid the next time he does it, you'll be sweeping up glass instead of simply feeling startled.

Clearly, your rule about door-slamming isn't getting the attention it deserves, and it's time to do something besides nagging. Fortunately, "there are several ways to approach rules," advises child-development specialist Phyllis Gilbert, M.S., M.Ed., of the child development and family living department at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. The secret is finding the one that works for your particular child.

Stay Age-Appropriate

"First of all," said Gilbert, "make sure the rule is age-appropriate. A curfew that is appropriate for a 12-year-old may not be appropriate for a teenager."

Age is also a factor in explaining the rules. If your toddler is slamming the door repeatedly, you may need to make a game out of practicing how to close the door appropriately. A teenager, however, can understand the direct approach of a statement that incorporates consequences, such as, "Slamming the door may cause the glass to break. I don't want that to happen, and you don't want to have to pay for it, so please be more careful."

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Pick Your Battles

"Make sure your rules are based on something important and needed," Gilbert advised, "not just 'because I said so.'" In other words, if you're battling with your teenage son over making his bed each morning, consider reassessing that rule and focusing on enforcing the one about wearing his safety gear while skateboarding. Don't attempt to reinforce a rule that has no real significance.

Be Willing to Explain

Gilbert points out that children are more likely to comply with rules when a parent is able to tell the child why the rule is important. "When a child breaks a rule, use 'I' messages to tell him how you feel," she said. For example, you might say, "I was very worried when you rode your bike after dark. Cars can't see you, and you might get hit. That would make me very, very sad."

This approach is more effective than saying, "You make me so mad when you ride your bike after I've told you not to." By changing your words to an "I" message, you teach your child empathy while modeling a healthy way of expressing feelings. Meanwhile, your child is less likely to go on the defensive, and your words have a better chance of sinking in.

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Use Active Listening

Active listening improves communication with just about anyone, and your child is no exception. "Listen to your child and then restate what you heard them say," said Gilbert.

You might say, "So, you're upset about what John said to you." This opens the door to a conversation about why your child called his friend a stupid jerk instead of following the rule about using nice words only. Your child will also be able to clarify his emotions and the behavior, and together you can get to the bottom of the issue that led to the rule-breaking.

Be Versatile

Of course, not all children are the same. "The strong-willed child challenges every rule," Gilbert said. "Understand that what works for the first child may not work for child two, three or four. No one method of discipline fits all children. If you have a strong-willed child, you have to find out what works for that child."

"Dealing with strong-willed children can be a challenge," Gilbert added. "If this is the case, recognize it. Talk to other parents about methods and strategies they use. With the strong-willed child, the best strategy is often a natural consequence." This means that if your child leaves his homework lying on the kitchen table -- again -- you might decide to allow him to suffer the consequence of missing recess or receiving a poor grade. Eventually, he'll learn to follow the rule about school papers going in the backpack before bedtime.

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