Not All Rules are Created Equal

Not All Rules are Created Equal

Managing the behavior of one’s young child is perhaps the most difficult part of parenting. And every mother and father knows how important it is to set rules and enforce them consistently. However, it also is important to recognize that not all rules are the same. They basically fall into four categories.

First there are moral rules, such as refraining from hitting another child. Next there are safety rules, such as fastening your seat belt before the car starts. Then there are social rules, such as saying thank you when someone gives you a gift. Finally, there are personal rules, such as washing behind your ears or wearing socks that match.

If you observe parent-child interactions, you see that most behavior management problems arise around the last category of rules. The fact is that young children crave a sense of autonomy, a feeling that they are in control of their own lives to some extent. And it is perfectly acceptable to permit them to develop a reasonable amount of individuality and independence.

So it is imperative that parents be firm and vigilant when it comes to the moral, safety, and social rules. But when it comes to the personal rules, it is wise to allow a little leeway. Of course, certain standards of hygiene and general appearance must be maintained. However, try to customize these rules to your child’s unique inclinations and introduce them as requests rather than instructions if possible. I think you’ll end up with a lot more compliance and far fewer unpleasant confrontations.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project. He may be contacted via e-mail at