Boundary Rules

You Ought to Know:

1. Kids are more likely to follow rules when parents use positive discipline (firmness with dignity and respect) rather than excessive control or permissiveness (not setting limits).1
2. Kids pick which rules to obey, and most rules fall into four categories: moral rules, safety rules, social convention rules, and personal business rules, says Larry Nucci of the Institute of Human Development at the University of Berkeley.2
3. Of the four categories of rules, kids are most likely to get into fights with their parents about personal business rules, such as bathing, clothing styles, and eating.3
4. The way a parent frames a rule makes a big difference in whether or not a child will follow the rule, says Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center.4
5. Two key ways to frame a rule well is by using a calm (but firm) tone of voice and giving your child a choice, so that the rule doesn’t feel like an ultimatum.5

My Take On It

As a parent, it’s easy to think, “I want my kid to do this, so he should do what I say.” But presenting a rule with this mindset usually backfires. I learned early on about the importance of being calm and about giving choices, but by the time my kids were 4 years old, they had begun rejecting the choices I gave them. I then started asking them what they thought the choices should be (their responses usually made me want to giggle out loud). And I listened. This process of negotiation (while also remaining firm in what my expectations were) made me realize that kids need more of a voice. Not a voice to tell adults what to do—but a voice that’s respected so we can work together to find common ground.

When I listened to my young children’s suggestions, I gave counterproposals and explained why I thought some ideas were more prudent than others. By talking together, we often came to a set of personal business rules we could both agree on. Of course, this took a lot more time than I wanted (and still does), but now that both of my kids are teenagers, they’re more willing to sit down and talk about issues rather than spend a lot of time slamming doors in my face.

Talk Further

Ask your child: “What do you think of the rules our family has?”

Explore Further

  • Find out more about effective rule setting at ParentFurther’s Discipline.

How do you get your kids to follow the rules? Share your comments below.


1. Jane Nelson, Positive Discipline (New York: Ballantine, 2006).
2. Alix Spiegel, “The Rules about How Parents Should Make Rules,” National Public Radio, March 29, 2010.
3-5. Ibid.

I am 16 and I think that for parents to make their teens obey them, the rules imposed should be in the teen’s favor also and the Parent’s favor also. If the rules are totally against the teen , it can cause the teen to be rebellious and they make it a mission to break the rules. I am an teen intern with the website Radical Parenting ( where teens give advice to the parents and write about issues from a teen’s perspective. We have this article 4 Surefire Ways to Make Your Rules Stick on our website which can add perspective to the mix. Feel free to check it out and comment.…


This is my new favorite blog to follow. Thanks!

The best way to set rules for different kids is to set rules that fit their personality best while also being fair. Think of rules as a $10 bill. For some kids, this may look like one $10 bill or two $5 dollar bills. For other kids, it may look like 10 $1 bills. All these equal $10, but they appear to be different, especially to children.

What’s important is to take into account each of your kids’ personality and what they need to succeed. I, too, have two kids. One questioned and fought against almost every single rule. The other was easier going, and if the rule made sense, that child usually followed it.

The one who pushed against the rules helped me to think through rules more, make the case for them, be consistent with setting and enforcing them, and listen to him about his concerns. Of course, this took a lot of time, but it ended up that this push-pull, back-and-forth debate was something that helped this particular child grow. (The other child needed more guidance on how to be assertive.)

Whenever one child got upset that the other had different rules, I pointed out their age difference. When my eldest got frustrated with my youngest, I pointed out that the youngest was doing what preschoolers do best: arguing with the rules. I taught my kids to be compassionate and understanding about what their siblings was going through developmentally—and I also talked about how different personalities need different things to thrive. Some want to be close to their parents. Some want more distance. The trick is to find what helps each to thrive and to adapt your parenting as they grow.

Thanks for this posting.

The skill of following the rules can be a hard thing to learn for certain kids. My daughter, now 11, thrives in a setting that has rules; rules for when you can talk, rules for when you can go to the bathroom and rules for how to interact with others. But, her 4 year brother has a tendency to challenge the rules (being 4 and all) which drives my oldest crazy!

How do you make sure that the rules are “fair” when you are dealing with two very different individuals at very different developmental stages? How do you frame the rules to address each person’s personality?

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