Four Tips for How to Make Better Rules for Kids

I lead a workshop “Ethical Discipline,” where participants tackle two big questions:

  • How can we keep kids safe and get them to do what we need?
  • How can we help kids grow up to be great adults?

One of the trickiest parts about being an adult caring for young people is that we’re responsible for providing boundaries for kids that maximize their physical and emotional safety. If you’ve ever been a parent, teacher, babysitter, or camp counselor, you know that this isn’t always easy.  Kids can make some awesomely bad decisions when left to their own devices.  Babies reach for knives, toddlers run in the road, and kids of all ages can be hilariously unconcerned with their own safety.

When we interact with kids, we can’t avoid our obligation to make boundaries for them.   Thankfully, there are ways to make the experience easier, less stressful, and less antagonistic.

Pip’s Tips for Setting Boundaries:

·      Get a Head Start.  On a day when you’re relaxed, think over some behaviors that are potentially difficult to deal with, and plot out what you think the boundaries should be and why.  You can’t possibly anticipate every situation, but the more you think about appropriate boundaries ahead of time, the easier your work will be in the moment.  If you’re planning a trip to the park, think it over: is it OK for the kids to make mud pies?  Why or why not?  If you have a 15-year-old, ask, “Once she gets her license, what will the rules be about the car?  What do I need to know to make that decision?”  Jot down your ideas in a notebook to help you remember.  All of the thinking you do, you get to keep. 

·      Make Rules that Make Sense: As they grow, kids develop frameworks for understanding the world.  At every stage, and especially as they begin to gain access to abstract thought, adults’ rules are an impactful source of information about fairness, danger, and how things work.  Saying “Because I said so,” denies kids access to your rationale and erodes their trust that you set boundaries to protect them.  Although a baby might be angry at you for pulling a box of matches away no matter how well-reasoned you are, if you consistently make rules that make sense, you’ll reap rewards over time: When kids can count on you to make rules that make sense and to act predictably, they’ll transfer that trust even to situations where they don’t yet understand what’s going on (for instance, if you need to get them to leave a dangerous area quickly and don’t have time to explain why).

·      It’s OK to Say “I need to think about this.” If you get surprised by a situation you haven’t thought through yet (is it OK to have a stick swordfight?), let the kids you’re with know that you need some time to think it over.  If they’re old enough, you can even bring them in on the decision.  Say, “This makes me nervous, and I’m not sure yet if this is safe.  What do you think – what should the rule be about playing with sticks?  Is there a safe way that we can play with them?” 

·      Learn to Estimate Risks.  The key to setting good boundaries is making accurate guesses about how dangerous different risks are.  Our brains often estimate risk inaccurately, over-weighting risks we’ve heard about recently or that are visually vivid.  Seeing news coverage of a plane crash can lead someone to feel more nervous about a plane ride than a car ride, though the latter is statistically much more dangerous.  Although our perceptual errors come from an evolutionary design that helps keep us safe, our impulses can sometimes be unhelpful for making rules that make sense.  If you are nervous about something, get more information about how accurate your feelings are: look it up, ask an expert, or talk it over with trusted friends.  Gaining an understanding of the line between your personal triggers and real threats will help you make boundaries that accurately reflect the level of danger without preventing kids from taking the positive risks that help them grow.  If you come to a different conclusion than other people in your community (or your family) about where the line should be, having evidence behind your reasoning (and seeking out conflicting evidence) can also help you have transparent conversations about rules.   

Next week: Once you’ve set boundaries, what should you do when kids break the rules? Click here to read the next blog post in this series!

Come back to the blog next week for Pippi’s next post on discipline strategies and join us on January 12 at 6:30 at The JCC in Manhattan for her next workshop, “Ethical Discipline.”

Ethical Discipline

January 12, 6:30-8:30 PM
JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue
Beit Midrash, 7th floor
Discipline doesn’t need to be a struggle! Join Ma’yan Program Director Pippi Kessler for a free workshop where you can learn to modify behavior and set limits using techniques that encourage self-moderation and cooperation. Whether you’re a parent, educator, or relative, you’ll learn concrete strategies to help kids grow successfully.

To register, please contact Pippi Kessler at or 646.505.4424. Drop-ins are also welcome. For more information, visit

(photo credit: flickr)

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