Have you ever told your children not to hide in a clothing store, not to touch dangerous things, or not to run in the parking lot? Have you had to say it more than once, only to find that they repeat the same behavior three minutes later?
Why is this happening?
Prohibition (like saying DON’T) is the most popular disciplinary short-cut in teaching kids about safety. It’s an automatic response to stop the unwanted behavior.
On the other hand, prohibition by itself works only temporarily. It does not address the root causes of the unwanted behavior. Kids’ natural curiosity washes out your rules like a high tide.
Here are 8 proven ways to teach children to follow safety rules
Step 1: Teach Safety by Striving to establish an “I’m good” mindset.
You need to separate the child from the child’s behavior.
– All kids want to be safe; they do not intend to worry or upset you (even though sometimes it might feel like they do it on purpose). Your goal is to persuade the kids that they are inherently good, and that does not change when you limit their behavior. Avoid saying your child is BAD when they break the rules. Try instead saying something kind and firm:
“I can’t let you do that – because I care about you and want to keep you safe.”
If a child associates himself with being good or bad depending on his behavior or ability to follow the instructions, he will feel that he is only good when he behaves well or meets someone’s expectations.
A child raised with this view will struggle with safety issues as an adult. It will be hard for her to behave in a “bad” way, even in self-defense. She will likely be reluctant to look bad, upset someone, reject advances, stand up for herself or stop a manipulation.
Step 2: Teach safety by explaining your attitude clearly.
Tell the kids when they are free to do as they would like and when something is not allowed. When you must make something off limits, whenever appropriate, try to explain why.
Step 3: Teach safety by defining the difference between Rules and routines.
For instance, things like unbuckling yourself in a car seat, running into a street or playing with medications should be RULES. All rules should be important and chosen to keep the child safe. Rules are expected to be respected all the time (and your child will need guidance to do that).
In contrast, bed-time, food preferences or screen times can be adjusted as needed. Ariadne Brill, founder of the positive parenting connection explains that these don’t have to be called rules and instead suggests to make them part of routines. She also recommends that each family define the difference between rules and routines based on values and everyone’s needs.
Step 4: Consider the age of your child when you are teaching safety skills.
The number of the rules that a child can remember is just about “age,multiplied by two.” So for example, a three-year-old is likely to remember no more than six rules.
If you decide to impose more rules than this suggested limit, do not expect the kids to remember your whole list of rules all the time.
When kids are young it’s normal to need to keep repeating and reinforcing safety rules.
Step 5: Figure out WHY you keep trying to enforce certain rules only some of the time
You may not need all your rules. You may be enforcing a rule that isn’t actually a rule. The real reason may be that you are tired or want some silence. Whatever honest answer you give to this question is okay. Try to accept it, communicate more clearly or find a better solution.
It’s okay to respect your own boundaries and to say “I will not let you play this game because last time it was a mess, and I’m not ready to clean.”
Kids need to see that Mom and Dad have their own interests and boundaries.
Step 6: Turn to NO into positives
If you are tired and are not up to negotiations, that’s your right — parents are humans, too.
But if you have just a tiny piece of energy, try to find a way to turn NO’s into positives like “Yes, you can do it after lunch,” or “Let’s try together”.
Step 7:Use the right language and tell the kids what to do (instead of simply telling them not to do something else)
.Using the words “Don’t” and “Stop” often tricks our minds to do the opposite. For example:
“STOP thinking about the pink elephant. DON’T think about it!”
(You can read about other ways parents might be unintentionally teaching kids safety in a wrong way at “3 Innocent things (everyone does) that break child’s future safety“)
– Instead of “Don’t hide in the racks,” say “Can you play by me, please?”
– Instead of “Don’t touch it,” say “This is a dangerous thing and must be held by adults.”
– Instead of “Don’t run in a parking lot,” say “Hold my hand now.”
Do not scare kids that something bad WILL happen to them as a result of breaking safety rules.
Use age appropriate explanations and show that you care about your child.
- “Can you play by me please, because it takes me longer to do the shopping if I have to look for you. If you’re near me, we can get out of here quicker.”
- “This thing is dangerous and must be held by adults, because it is sharp and can hurt kids.”
- “Let’s hold hands, because kids are short, and the drivers might not see you in the parking lot.”
Step 8: When teaching safety skills, don’t forget: Kids are humans, too.
– Discuss your rules with the kids.
Kids are more likely to support the things they have created or participated in.
– Listen carefully. Kids find so many creative ways around prohibitions! I had it more than once with my kids like: “You said no playing with candles, but you said nothing about the candle lighter”.
– If you are tired and prohibiting for the sake of keeping your sanity, be honest.
When you’re working on building a stronger connection, kids do cooperate.
I was amazed at how many times my kid’s suggestions were better than mine.
Like, “If I may not play the piano, may I take your player and the headphones, please?” I would never think to offer a three-year-old my player and headphones, honestly. I thought he wanted the piano, but he wanted the music.
Your best bet for helping your child respect safety and family rules:
- A great way to work on learning safety rules is through games.
Red Light / Green light for example can be fun!
- Be ready for the mistakes. (Connect before you correct them!)
- Check to be sure you are following the rules yourself: Monkey see, monkey do. If you jaywalk, it doesn’t matter what you tell them — kids do what you do, not what you tell them to do.
- If a rule applies to the kids only, state that clearly.
- Handle limits and boundaries in a positive way.
- Keep going and be ready to work on it regularly. It might not be perfect from the very beginning.
- The success is defined by your willingness to stick to the positive way of setting rules and your consistent effort at guiding your child.
Does your child struggle to follow rules? Do you have a concern as to how to teach your child about safety and rules without relying on consequences? Tell us in comments and Katy and Ariadne will be happy to help you find some resources and new ideas.