“Because I told you so” never seemed like a satisfactory answer to me as a kid. In fact, it just made me want to be a grown-up so I could be the boss and do whatever I wanted. 

Well, as a grown-up, I now realize this is not true and that grown-ups have all kinds of rules we have to follow, too. But as a psychologist who frequently works with defiant young children and as the mother of a very inquisitive preschooler, I have learned that “because I told you so” still doesn’t work that well. One thing I have realized is that all (good) rules have good reasons behind them. And the reasons these rules exist are the same for grown-ups and for kids. When kids learn about the “three main reasons for rules,” we parents can quickly remind them why a rule is important and the potential negative consequences of not following the rules.

Reason 1: Keep Us Safe

The most important reason for rules is to keep us safe. All kids want to be safe, and they typically don’t argue with this rationale when they realize that grown-ups also have to wear seatbelts and helmets, look before crossing the street and follow pool rules. So, don’t expect your kid to do these things if you don’t.

Reason 2: Keep Us Healthy

Another important reason for a lot of rules is to keep us healthy. We all need to eat healthy foods, brush our teeth, wash our hands and get enough sleep in order to feel good. It always seemed so unfair that my parents got to stay up later than I did, but now I understand why: Kids need more sleep than grown-ups because when they sleep is when they grow (true!). Grown-ups don’t need as much sleep because, well, they are already grown-up. They still need sleep, though, to keep from getting sick and grumpy.

Reason 3: Help Us Get Along Together

Society has a lot of rules to help us all get along together. Some are obvious: Keep your hands and feet to yourself, use nice words, take turns and clean up your messes. Saying “please,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry” are good things for us all to practice if we want to get along well with others. Again, don’t expect your kid to do these things if you don’t! Kids love it when they learn that grown-ups can get punished for not following the rules, too—time-out for grown-ups is called jail.

Thinking about these three main reasons for rules has helped me to make quick decisions about what to do when there are competing values: fostering independence vs. preventing major injury, for example, or not wasting food vs. eating healthy. It helps me keep the “big picture” in mind and be consistent when setting limits. It also helps me realize when something I want my kid to do is really not a rule but a personal preference. So yes, my kid’s socks and headbands never match her outfit.

Using the “three reasons for rules” helps kids understand why a particular rule is important and the consequences for not following it. They still may not like it, but they’ll usually get it. So not only does this cut down on arguments, but once kids understand “what’s in it for me,” it helps them develop intrinsic motivation to follow these rules even when parents are not around to enforce them. And that’s really what’s it’s all about, isn’t it?

This article was written by Kim Sirl, PhD, a psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  She is one of the Mom Docs who writes for the blog ChildrensMomDocs.org.

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