Children Dangerously Breaking Rules

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

Girl opening door

We establish rules to help keep our kids safe. We'd all like to believe our children would make the right choice when presented with a situation like whether or not to answer the door to a stranger. But what would they really do?

What would your kids do?

Recently NBC's Dateline tested a few kids in tough situations in a program called "The Perils of Parenting". Although it wasn't a scientific test, they demonstrated how easy it is to get kids to break rules.

They set up various situations where the kids were recorded on hidden cameras. Parents were interviewed ahead of time and asked how they thought their children would respond. Parents expressed how they hoped their children would act but often had nagging doubts as to how their kids would actually behave.

In one scenario, 12 and 14-year-old siblings were home alone when a man with a badge knocked on their door. Much to their parents' disappointment, they opened the door to the stranger and let him in when he explained that he was in the neighborhood inspecting milk. This scenario had been used successfully by a real child predator.

Does the way you word a rule matter?

Yes! How you state a rule can greatly affect your children's ability to follow the intention of the rule. For example, there are different ways you might state the rule about not opening the door:

  • "Don't open the door to strangers." For this rule, your children need to first establish if they feel the person at the door is a stranger. This may be a more difficult judgment if the person appears to be a police officer or some other official.
  • "Don't open the door to anyone when you are home alone." Does this rule still apply if there are multiple children at home but no parent is home?
  • "Don't open the door to anyone if a parent isn't around." Is it ok to open the door if a parent is home but asleep?
  • "Only parents open the door when someone knocks." This may be the easiest rule to follow especially for young children.
You want to state rules in ways that are easy for kids to follow.

What else can help ensure your kids will follow a rule?

It helps to discuss multiple "what if" scenarios in which a rule is tested. For example, if the rule is don't approach a stranger's car, talk through possibilities like these:

  • What if the driver says he has a question he wants to ask you? Do you go closer to the car so you can hear the question?
  • What if the lady driving says her puppy is lost and she needs your help finding it? She has a picture of the puppy that she wants to give you. Do you go get the picture?
  • What if the man driving holds up a gift and says it's for you. Do you go to the car to get the gift?
Bringing up these types of scenarios periodically during family meetings or dinner conversation, helps kids remember and follow the rule.

How can you help kids understand the importance of a rule?

Children are more likely to correctly apply a rule when they understand why the rule is so important. For example, if the rule is you need to walk straight home from school, why does this matter? Is it ok to stop at a friend's house for just a little while? What should you tell a friend if she invites you to play on the playground for a little while before going home?

Answering questions like these can help children more deeply understand and internalize the rule.

Does social pressure affect children following rules?

Definitely! The NBC Dateline drinking and driving program section tested this out by setting up a situation where teens were led to believe they were trying out for a reality TV show. As part of the interview, they needed to drive to another location and they believed the person chosen to drive them had been drinking. Would they get in the car with a driver they thought was intoxicated? Yes they did ... much to their parents' dismay!

Although the parents had told their teens to always call them for a ride in a situation like this, these teens did not do this. Watching a scenario like this with your teen can open up some important conversation about how difficult it is to stand up for yourself and not get into a car when you think the driver has been drinking. Discussing other options for pretend situations can help teens make better choices in real situations.

If a rule is worth having, then it's worth the time to periodically discuss it. Making sure your children understand the rule plus why it's important increases the likelihood they will follow the rule.

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

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