When Rules Are Broken

When Rules Are Broken

Every organization or group, including the family, has certain standards of acceptable behavior. These are usually called rules, guidelines or standards. They are usually established by the administration, which, in the family, is the parents. They may be very clear, black and white, or they may be quite fuzzy and unclear. They may be specific or general, and they may be written, spoken, or even unspoken.

But every family has them, and it’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure they are known by the kids. Rules, or standards of acceptable behavior, are necessary for everybody, and especially for younger children, such as “No hitting,” “No playing in the street,” “No jumping on furniture,” “No snacks before meals,” “In bed by 8:00,” “Home by curfew” (for teens), etc.

Clear Rules

Parents, who make the rules, need to be on the same page with each other and agree on what the rules are. Is bed time 8:00 or 8:30? Is jumping on furniture allowed or not? If the parents can’t agree on what the rules are, the children will not only be confused, but they’ll create havoc and split the parents apart in a hundred little ways. This creates lots of confusion, even chaos.

But even when the rules are clear, strong-willed, autonomous, and defiant children will break them often. It is then that the parents tend to administer negative consequences in the form of punishments. But serious problems develop when punishments don’t work, as they often don’t with defiant children. When they don’t bring about the desired compliance with the rules, bad behavior not only becomes the norm, but the parents’ authority is undermined as well.

This is often the case with strong-willed, autonomous, and defiant kids of all ages, who disagree with the rules, challenge the rules, break the rules again and again, and openly defy their parents’ authority. Some even let their parents know that “You can’t make me!” or “You’re not the boss of me!” Strong-willed and/or angry children often are very sensitive to parents’ and other authority figures’ attempts to control them. And worse yet, these children often seem impervious or “immune” to the punishments their parents try to impose, so that punishments actually have little or no effect. When the children are unaffected by punishments, and don’t even care what punishments the parents inflict, it makes punishments -– and consequently, rules -– useless.

When rules are broken and punishments blown off like this, something new, and a bit more sophisticated, is needed because parents are helpless to force compliance. I call it a New School approach to rules and consequences, and by implication, to parenting.

In the New School approach, the rules and punishments model (Old School model) of guiding children’s behavior is transformed to a new model: agreements and accountability. This means that the parents share their rule-making power with the child by negotiating agreements that replace the rules that are so often being broken or defied.

Difference between Rules and Agreements

Agreements are different from rules. They are personal commitments between people. “I’ll be home by 3:00,” “Yes, you can have Sue and Lucy stay over on Friday night,” “I’ll give you a phone call if I’m going to be late,” “I’ll take out the garbage when this TV program ends,” etc.

The big difference between rules and agreements is this: rules demand obedience, agreements invite cooperation.

How often is a parent supposed to negotiate agreements about how the child is to behave? As often as necessary. In other words, whenever rules are being broken and punishments have no effect. Even with a defiant toddler? Yes. “But agreements are too soft. I’d just be giving in to my child,” you might think. Well, they might seem that way, and they might even feel soft, or weak. However, agreements are much more powerful than rules, especially for independent-minded or defiant children. Why? Because people (even children) are much more likely to live up to an agreement they had a role in creating than they are to obeying rules they didn’t create and don’t like.

Rules represent authoritarian, black and white thinking (guidance by decree) that is expressed by the rule maker(s), to be followed or obeyed by subordinates. Agreements represent a higher level of critical thinking and a greater exercise of freedom and personal responsibility on everybody’s part. The negotiated, or co-created, agreement involves compromise. Both parties get part of what they want. At the same time, both acknowledge and honor some validity in the other’s thinking.

Critical Thinking

For many children and toddlers this can be the beginning of critical thinking, and perhaps the first opportunity to develop an important relationship skill. Granted, there is a certain amount of trust involved when you accept somebody’s word that they will do something, and you might not trust the defiant, rule-breaking child. But what else do you have to go on? You know you can’t force compliance to your rules, and besides, you’re tired of issuing useless punishments. In addition, you want something much better from your child than mere obedience, and that is cooperation. So even if you don’t trust this child to follow through on what she agrees to do, you’re much farther ahead by negotiating the agreement because you are treating her much more respectfully, and you are giving her a chance to prove herself, and show you that she can, indeed, be responsible. Isn’t this what she’s always asking for? Beyond that, you are not setting yourself up for “payback,” which can come in many subtle and not-so-subtle forms from an angry child (including a two-year-old).


Besides all those positives, making an agreement with a child, and obtaining his personal commitment to do something, carries with it the enormous value of a much higher likelihood of conformity to a behavioral standard, because he himself helped create it. Aren’t we all much more likely to follow through on what we freely committed to than conform to what was “rammed down our throat”?” I call this cooperation, and it’s much better than mere obedience based on fear of punishment.

By negotiating the agreement, you’ve taken away the child’s stimulus for resentment, or a trigger to anger. You’ve given him the respect he’s always seeking when he complains that you’re treating him like a baby, or like a little kid, or when the adolescent demands to be treated like an adult. So you’re miles ahead on every front when you negotiate agreements as opposed to foisting useless rules and meaningless punishments on a defiant child.


Now, of course, children will break their disagreements–at least, at times. (Unfortunately, that’s not so much different than we adults, is it?) But now, when the negotiated and freely accepted agreement is broken, you have a different card to play than a useless and meaningless punishment. You now are set up to “nail him to the wall” so to speak, by holding him personally accountable for breaking his agreement. This is another lesson for the child in relationship skills and critical thinking. You are now concerned not so much about the specific agreement that was broken (e.g., she didn’t take the garbage out after the TV show ended), because that can be dealt with in the very powerful dialogue you are about to have. I call it the “accountability dialogue” because it focuses primarily on the fact that she broke her agreement with you (regardless of what the agreement was), and you are taking that personally.

I also refer to the accountability dialogue as the “you-and-me dialogue.” It focuses on the Golden Rule, and how we treat each other. You’re on rock-solid ground here, because even two-year-olds understand this to a certain degree: When I agree to something with you, you should be able to expect me to follow through on it our of respect for you. And the same goes for you. It’s a two-way street. That is what is fair. By the same token, I should be able to expect you to follow through on your agreements out of respect for me. Ask the two-year old “Why?” And she will probably tell you that if you don’t follow through on your agreement with her, “It’s not fair.” And she’s right.

They Learn from It.

Believe me, if you do this dialogue right, the child who broke her agreement with you will be squirming in her seat. She’ll be suffering far more–and learning a lot more–than if you had imposed one more useless punishment.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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