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How to Help Children Follow Rules

Three pillars of parenting have held up for more than century.

Key points

  • Effective parenting balances warmth and demandingness.
  • Effective parenting is not coercive and respects the child's emotional autonomy. It focuses on behavior, not thoughts and emotions.
  • Effective parents set rules only in legitimate areas of safety, morality, and convention. They enforce the rules they set consistently.

Almost all parents want their children to behave themselves and be happy.

Sometimes it seems like an impossible task. Kids change day to day and year to year. Their needs – and ours – change daily. The demands placed on all of us and the resources we have to meet those demands are in flux. Especially now, when burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression are rampant among both children and adults.

Although fashions in parenting come and go, three pillars stand out in the last century of research on families:

  • Effective parenting balances warmth and demandingness
  • Good parenting is not coercive
  • Children are more likely to follow rules they think are fair and legitimate

Effective Parenting Balances Warmth and Demandingness

Parenting style refers to the general atmosphere that parents use to gain their children’s cooperation. Effective parenting adapts to the child – we don’t parent our two-year-old like we will when they're 12. Effective parenting also helps the child to adapt to the needs of others. Happy, successful kids cooperate with others and behave differently in class than on the playground.

The most widely used descriptions of parenting style combine two core dimensions:

  1. Warmth or supportiveness refers to the child’s sense that the parent is there for them. “Unconditional love” is another way to talk about it – the child knows that their parent loves them for themselves and will back them up and protect them from harm. Every study I have ever read – on every continent and among every culture – shows that children do better when they feel unconditionally loved.
  2. Demandingness is a more complicated construct. Demandingness refers to the idea that parents have expectations for the child’s behavior that they teach or reinforce consistently. Note that demandingness means that parents both teach and communicate the standards to the child and that they enforce them – they make it clear to the child when they’re doing well and when they’re not.

Authoritative parents are both supportive and demanding. They tend to have children who are self-confident, liked by peers and adults, do well in school, and don’t get in a lot of trouble. Permissive parents are high in warmth, but low in demandingness. They want their children to behave but don’t effectively teach them to behave or enforce good behavior. Authoritarian parents are high in demandingness but low in support. Their children tend to comply with rules but have lower self-esteem and are more likely to be depressed.

There are two common misconceptions about permissive and authoritarian parents. The first is that permissive parents are very loving and never reprimand their children. The other is that authoritarian parents are very strict.

Neither is true.

Interestingly, children describe their authoritative parents as the most supportive. Although they don’t always like their rules, they see rules as a sign their parents are doing their job and that their parents care about them. Authoritative parents are more supportive than permissive ones. It is not unusual for permissive parents to be somewhat disengaged. They also want their children to behave but, because they don’t work effectively to make that happen, can get annoyed or angry when their children don’t.

Similarly, authoritative parents set somewhat fewer rules than authoritarian ones, but are actually stricter – they enforce the rules they set.

Takeaway 1: Children are more likely to follow rules when you:

  • Set them
  • Clearly communicate what they are
  • Let the children know when they’re following them and when they’re not
  • Make sure they know you love them no matter what

Good Parenting Is Not Coercive

The third dimension used to describe parenting style is autonomy-granting. Autonomy-granting is the flip side of coerciveness. Although the construct has been studied since the 1930s and studied with regard to parenting style since the 1960s, Brian Barber really brought out this idea with his work on coercive parenting.

Coercive parents try to control their children by manipulating the child’s sense of self. There are several ways that parents do this – all of them bad.

  • “If you really loved me you’d do what I say.”
  • “Good boys don’t behave like that.”
  • “If you do that again, I won’t love you.

Guilt induction is common among coercive parents. There are many many subtle ways that parents make approval, love, and positive regard contingent on behaving in a particular way. All of them can be defined as coercive parenting.

In coercive parenting, being worthy of love or being a good person depends on complying with the parent. Coercive parenting is manipulative. Not surprisingly, children who experience coercive parenting tend to feel badly about themselves, even when from the outside they look like they’re doing fine.

Takeaway 2: Effective parenting focuses on the child’s behavior, not on who they are as people

Effective Parenting Is Legitimate and Limited

Authoritative parents are strict, but set fewer rules than authoritarian parents do. Their rules are more targeted and enforced more consistently. Specifically, effective parents tend to exert legitimate authority.

Almost all children believe parents should set rules that keep them safe (Don’t smoke! Don’t play with matches!), help them be better, more moral people (Don’t steal! Don’t hit your sister!), and help them learn to fit in with the large culture (Dress appropriately! Don’t swear in school!). Children see setting rules in these areas – prudential, moral, and conventional – as part of their parents’ job. These domains are called areas of ‘legitimate authority’.

Children (and their parents) often don’t think parents have the right to control purely personal areas of children’s lives: their favorite color, who their friends are, or what they do for fun. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap in domains – is playing with a troublemaking friend a prudential issue or a personal one? Is wearing ripped jeans to church conventional or personal? How about violent video games?

Nonetheless parents, children, and adolescents have broad agreement about areas that parents should and shouldn’t exercise authority over. When they believe their parents’ rules are legitimate, children are more likely to believe they should obey rules they don’t like and more likely to talk to their parents about those rules, giving their parents the chance to explain. Children are also less likely to lie about disobedience or disagreement in those areas, and more likely to follow rules.

Long-Term Benefits

One of the strengths of authoritative parents is that they tend to set rules in legitimate domains and avoid areas that are private (not refrain from offering opinions, but not setting rules). The rules they set, they enforce. Authoritarian parents set more personal rules, but don’t enforce them. Permissive parents don’t set rules even in areas where kids think they should.

Interestingly, setting legitimate rules makes kids much more likely to listen to and obey parents. That has many long-term benefits. They are also more likely to agree with their parents when they set legitimate rules, so parents don’t have to keep arguing about an issue because parents and teens are on the same page.

Over time, that makes a huge difference.

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