How to Raise a Rule-Friendly Kid

I will never forget watching a battle between a mom and her preschooler several summers ago at the pool. After repeatedly telling her daughter to stop running, she finally pleaded to the lifeguard, "Will you make her listen?"

I couldn’t help but think this mom had it backwards. Making her child mind was not the lifeguard’s job. From day one, this is the parent’s responsibility, and ducking the duty is asking for a lifetime of challenges. As school gears up, utilize this time to prep kids on compliance — in the classroom and at home.  

Be Consistent.

When it comes to disobedience, consistent consequences are a must. A 3-year-old cannot help spilling her milk, but when she digs in her heels and screams, “No!” she is making a conscious choice of defiance.

When my then 3-year-old, Silas, started preschool, I was excited about all he would learn. I wasn’t happy, however, when his teacher called a few weeks later. Not only was Silas breaking class rules, he was laughing when she corrected him. 

I took immediate action, not only making him apologize to the teacher, but also giving a consequence at home. The next morning when I dropped Silas off, I reminded him he had to listen and obey and told his teacher (in front of my son) to call my cell if he repeated the action and I would come to the classroom. The teacher appreciated my rapid response, and both knew I was serious.

Be Fair.

“Give kids good, clear, concise instructions,” says Robin Stevens, program director of the Regional Intervention Program (RIP), a nationally recognized early intervention program serving children with behavior problems under age 6.

“Preschoolers do not understand just to ‘Be good’, but they do understand a reminder to sit quietly at the carpet while the teacher reads a story,” adds Amy Flood, preschool teacher at First Baptist Collierville. Flood says parents should ask themselves if they are giving the child the tools he needs to succeed: Is the child getting enough rest? Is he eating a good breakfast? Is there structure in the child's routine? “All are important for the child to feel safe and confident,” she says. 

A final thought on fairness: Parents cannot expect kids to grow up to respect rules if they themselves are not rule followers. “Modeling proper behavior ourselves and pointing out the proper behaviors of others is so important,” says Stevens. 

Start Young.

My own mother once suggested I require my young children to sit at the dinner table until done. I didn’t think it was an issue; I thought I could wait until they were older and would more easily listen to reason. Now that I am more experienced, I know it saves a lot of hassle to simply instill obedience from the beginning. As a friend so wisely surmised, reasoning is just another term for arguing. “Even young children need boundaries, so they learn appropriate behaviors,” says Stevens.

Flood agrees. “It is such a joy to receive a preschooler in my class who has been taught by their parents to follow the rules,” she says, adding that kids who enter the classroom able to listen and obey have a very large head start in their educational journey.

Be the boss.

Teaching kids to listen and obey really is a safety issue. When it comes to hurting themselves or others, parents must convey that some behavior is simply not acceptable. 

Some prefer distraction to discipline. While there is a time for distraction, parents must discern when a situation calls for discipline. My mom-in-law lives with us, and is the self-proclaimed laundry lady — folding laundry for the crowd of 10 at our home. Recently when she brought 5-year-old Silas his clean pile of clothes, he responded by yelling, “Get out of my way!”

Disrespect calls for discipline, not distraction, as it falls under the category of hurting others. Not only was discipline applied immediately, but he had to apologize to his grandmother. And if it happens again, he will fold his own laundry for a while.

Finally, following the rules is not just a safety issue; it is also a success issue. “It is hard to enjoy a story, the playground, or even the simplest game when a child continues to interrupt, distract, or refuses to follow the rules,” says Flood. Until these basic skills are mastered, however, the child will have difficulty adhering to more challenging rules of what is socially acceptable. 

Raising a rule follower is not an easy task, but one that takes endless energy, insight, and tenacity. Instilling respect for rules cannot be passed off to the lifeguard, the teacher, or grandma. Kids thrive on the guidance, affirmation, and correction that — under most circumstances — only their parents can give them.


Have a New Kid by Friday by Kevin Leman. A common-sense, five-day plan for setting limits.

The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman. How learning your chlid's love languages will help you better communicated your love to him. Works at my house.

Pig Will and Pig Won't by Richard Scarry. Pig Won't constantly breaks the rules but learns a lesson in the end.

— Margie Sims is a writer, speaker, and mother of 10 who still manages to find time to follow her passion. Hear more Silas stories at

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