"I'm not eating them! I did not agree to that!" my four-year-old daughter snapped when I told her she had to eat her Brussels sprouts. The argument escalated to a tantrum, which necessitated an immediate time-out. Exasperated, I talked to my sister-- a teacher and expert in early-childhood discipline-- about my daughter's rebellion against rules. My sister suggested an idea that sounded crazy at first: letting my daughter make rules herself. But, as it turned out, allowing my daughter to make her own rules facilitated much better behavior and overall discipline.
Children are inclined to follow rules that they themselves have made, or have contributed to making. My daughter could no longer claim that she "did not agree to that" when she found a rule objectionable, and she felt like she was more in control of her own life and of our lives as a family. By letting my daughter set rules herself, I created a situation in which we had clear boundaries that she herself understood and helped to establish. As my sister predicted, my daughter started following rules when she was responsible for making them.
My daughter and I took turns negotiating rules for our household. My daughter's first suggested rule was "No one is allowed to tell lies. That includes Mama lying about whether or not we have popstickles in the freezer." This was a reasonable rule, so I agreed to it and countered it with another rule: "Everyone has to eat at least six bites of at least one vegetable at dinner time." We negotiated this down to four bites and moved on to the next. My daughter enjoyed every moment of the rule-making project.
I made sure that every rule we made was completely fair-- that is, it applied to all of us, not just to my daughter. She was much more eager to agree to a "no lying" rule, for example, knowing that it meant grown-ups, too. She was also glad to know that Mommy and Daddy will also go to time-out if we feel like we're too angry to be around other people. The sense of fairness, equality, and participation made the project a success for my daughter.
After we'd taken turns penning several more rules, including "Everyone in our family will always love everyone else, no matter what," and "No one, including the kitty, is ever allowed to bite, scratch, hit, or kick anyone else," we printed the page and hung it at child's eye level on the wall. Since we printed it, my daughter's behavior has dramatically improved and she has consistently made an effort to follow the rules. I know that she'll eat her broccoli because she knows that I'll tell the truth about the ice pops waiting for dessert.
I'm very glad for my daughter's participation in creating a list of rules. As paradoxical as it may seem, my daughter's insistence on setting her own rules has made it much easier for me to set mine. Would you let your child make her own rules, or do you stick by the mantra "Mommy knows best?"
Juniper Russo is a freelance writer living in Chattanooga, Tenn. When she doesn't have her hands full with her bright, inquisitive four-year-old, she writes about many topics including parenting, science, green living, and health.