“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.” ― Albert Einstein
This is our task: to simplify the rules of living down to an age-appropriate level.
Keep things very simple. But not only for six year olds, Dr. Einstein; we’re reaching an even younger group here.
- AGE 2: Children at this age do not need explanations for why something is or isn’t done. They just need to hear what not to do or what to do.
For example, at mealtime there is the ever popular notion that throwing a spoon full of food onto the floor is fun. And let’s admit it, it might be fun for the child. But being on the other end of clean-up duty isn’t as exhilarating. Now is the time for the simple rule: No throwing spoons.
It might be helpful to mention that “Spoons are for eating and balls are for throwing.” If throwing the spoon continues, a response might be: “You must not be hungry anymore and we can stop eating. Then we can get cleaned up to go throw a ball together.” This discussion may or may not take place, but the point is this: keep the rule simple.
- AGE 3: Simple explanations for rules can be offered at this age. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that preschool children are confused by contractions. So telling them “don’t” – and even using the words “do not” – may make matters worse than simply stating “no”.)
For instance, if your child pulls another child’s hair out of frustration over something that happened, simply state: No pulling hair. It hurts.
Once the rule and short explanation are put across simply, then the situation can be moved along by offering an alternative way forward with the other child if you were able to observe what had happened. A three-year-old needs help labeling what they’re feeling. “Did you feel angry when that happened?” Then give a replacement behavior to pulling the other child’s hair.
Becky Bailey teaches parents to train their children in social cues. “Look at her face. When her face looks like that, it means she does not like what you did. What do you think you could do to help her feel better?” This is training in kindness and empathy as well as in how to interpret social cues.
- AGE 4: As the child gets older, the explanations for rules can become more complex.
For example, if your child is doing something risky it might sound something like this: “No climbing on this wall. It’s not safe. My job is to keep you safe. I love you too much to watch while you get hurt.” The rule is still simple, but the explanation can get more complex.
Children (and people in general) need to know what’s expected of them.
If an adult has started at a new job but the boss has given no instructions, the learning curve is going to be much larger than if the expectations are defined from the beginning.
We want children to be creative, but to do so within healthy boundaries. They will come up with their own plan if we don’t give them one. By the way of illustration, one day my two-year-old was having a grand ole time in her bedroom (which happened on a regular basis), but today was even more exciting as I had accidentally left the diaper rash cream at a level she could reach. Within record time she had covered herself and most of the carpet and bed with cream. She had no expectations of what to do (or not do) with such apparently fun stuff, and she got creative! But without healthy boundaries. A simple rule – and remember, simplicity is the point here – would help her shape her expectations: No playing with diaper cream. (And me putting it out of reach would have helped!) But encouragement to be creative within proper boundaries would also help her expectations: You can cover yourself while bathing in the bathtub with this colorful safe stuff [insert healthy substance here]. Keep it simple, with age-appropriate explanations, and help your child(ren) with their expectations.
What does this idea of simple rules look like for an activity of daily living?
Let’s take the trip to the grocery store and make three simple rules for the time in the store. On the way to the store, these three rules are said altogether (in a pleasant way, of course):
- No touching things.
- Stay where Mama can see me.
- No asking for things.
These are rules that Kirby made specifically for her children. They were said on the way to the store every time. Expectations were clear, and the rules were simple. At a later age, the children were allowed to touch what was handed to them. Also, it was explained that choices would be given as they went throughout the store, and the kids would get to give input (without things getting out of hand). Lastly, if a rule was broken, then the child would have to spend the time at the store inside the cart instead of freely moving about.
These specific were rules set in place by Kirby’s family and may differ for others. They are given here as another illustration of creating a system of boundaries for your children to know what is expected of them – keeping the rules simple.