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The Rules About How Parents Should Make Rules
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The Rules About How Parents Should Make Rules

Children's Health

The Rules About How Parents Should Make Rules
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NOAH ADAMS, host:

No hitting. Clean your room. Parents spend a lot of time trying to enforce the rules.

Now, NPR's Alix Spiegel reports on new research about rules: Why some work for kids and others do not.

ALIX SPIEGEL: First, let me introduce our expert.

Mr. CAMERON SLAUGHTER(ph): My name is Cameron Slaughter and I'm 8 years old.

SPIEGEL: Cameron Slaughter lives in Washington, D.C. He's in third grade and says he enjoys animals with four legs. But animals with four legs aren't Cameron Slaughter's area of expertise. His area of expertise is this: Rules, specifically, the rules in his own house.

For example...

Mr. SLAUGHTER: We always do our homework when we get home from school and our bedtime is 7:30.

SPIEGEL: There are also rules about television, about how to address people who are older than you, and about not stabbing your brother with a pencil. And in general, Cameron says he feels pretty good about the rules that his mother has put in place.

Mr. SLAUGHTER: They kind of keep you safe.

SPIEGEL: So you appreciate the rules that she makes, mostly.

Mr. SLAUGHTER: Yes.

SPIEGEL: In fact, if you dig a little bit deeper, Cameron can even tell you some of the thinking behind the rules his mother has designed. For instance, why he can't watch too much television

Mr. SLAUGHTER: Because if you watch too much TV your eyes will burn.

SPIEGEL: Or why he has to go to bed so early.

Mr. SLAUGHTER: Because if you don't get that much rest, you'll be cranky.

SPIEGEL: But if you go down the list, you will find that there are some rules that Cameron doesn't think are fair or worthwhile. Rules he thinks it might be okay to disobey. For example, he doesn't think that it would be okay for his mother to regulate his personal relationships - who he spends time with.

Mr. SLAUGHTER: Because I can pick my own friends.

SPIEGEL: According to, Cameron Slaughter's position on rules is typical. Nucci believes that if you look closely at which rules children obey and which they reject, there are clear patterns to be found.

Dr. LARRY NUCCI (Research Psychologist, Institute of Human Development, University of California, Berkeley): Kids don't resist parents just across the board. It isn't the situation where kids are just driven by their impulses, and that they simply reject all the rules that parents have.

SPIEGEL: Instead, Nucci argues that rules can be broken down into four distinct categories.

There are moral rules: Don't hit, do share. There are safety rules: Don't cross the street, don't run with scissors. There are rules of social convention: You must say sir, ma'am. And...

Dr. NUCCI: Then there is this fourth category, which has to do with what children consider to be their own business and that they consider to be private: Friendships, playmates, who they want to play with, who they want to be around, activities, and some ways in which you express yourself through your appearance; clothing, for example.

SPIEGEL: It is this fourth category, Nucci argues, where the vast majority of conflicts between parents and their children occur.

Dr. NUCCI: Kids don't argue at all with - or very little argument with parents - when parents come up with reasonable safety rules, or rules about not stealing from other children, or not hitting other kids and so on. Virtually, all of the conflicts that parents are having with kids are over these personal areas.

SPIEGEL: In fact, Nucci says that in studies, children seem to resist moral rules only about 10 percent of the time. Seventy percent of their resistance, he says, is in areas that they perceive to fall within their personal domain.

Now this is a little bit tricky, because it turns out that children and parents don't always see eye to eye about what constitutes personal business. Take bathing, for instance.

Dr. NUCCI: The kids see it as it's my body, it's my life, if I'm happy how I am and I don't want to take a bath. And, you know, mom is saying, no, it's unhealthy, and you're smelly and you need to take a bath.

So what the kid is doing is arguing for an area of discretion and autonomy. And the mother is arguing, no, this is part of the general conventions of the family.

SPIEGEL: Nucci says that these kinds of conflicts over control of personal domain have been found by researchers to take place in every culture. And Nucci argues that, in fact, it's important for parents to respect a child's personal domain, because it's important ultimately to psychological well-being.

Dr. NUCCI: What we find is that it's tied into the requirements that people have for a sense of self and psychological integrity. We know from studies that have been done with adolescents that - cross-cultural studies - that when parents over-intrude, when they start controlling things that are really, truly personal - like keeping your diary private, all aspects of your self-expression - that kids even in rural China self-report depression.

SPIEGEL: But the idea that parents shouldn't intrude with rules on certain areas of children's lives isn't universally shared by child psychologists.

Dr. ALAN KAZDIN (Director, Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic): It's not what you shouldn't intervene on. It's all about the how.

SPIEGEL: This is Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. Kazdin doesn't believe that there are just spheres of life where children must have autonomy. He says that if parents are looking for compliance, the primary thing is to frame rules properly and not seem too authoritarian.

Dr. KAZDIN: What the research shows is that the tone of voice in the making of your request and whether you include choice in there. So if you say to your child, 4-year-old, we're going outside. Put on your red coat. It's cold out. You gave the child an ultimatum kind of thinking that is likely to lead to oppositional behavior in a 3-year-old child.

Now, if you say that same thing: We're going to go outside. Please put on your red coat or the green jacket? That presentation greatly increases the likelihood of compliance in any child.

SPIEGEL: So one basic difference between these two approaches is this: Nucci will argue that it's important for children to actually have control over a part of their lives, while Kazdin says that it's only important to have the perception of control. That's true, he says, not just for children, but for all people - parents included.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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