Rules, Rituals, and Routines

The Three Rs of Behavior Management: Rules, Rituals, and Routines

By Thomas Knestrict
Issue 118, May/June 2003

Little girl has drawn on the wall“My mom and dad want me to be nice to my little sister and not hit her ’cause it’s not nice to hit . . . and it hurts.” – Jacob, 5

“At night my mom reads me a book before I go to bed. Then I say my prayers and go to sleep.” – Jason, 5

“After school I come home and have a snack, then I start my homework. I have to study for 30 minutes every school day before I can go outside and play.” – Kinsey, 7

“Mommy gives me a bath at night.” – Tyler , 2

“We have a family movie night every week. We pop popcorn and watch a movie together.” – Olivia, 4

“We go to church a lot. Almost every Sunday!” – Tommy, 6

These children are managing their own behavior. They are less likely to have significant behavioral problems because of the activities they describe. The parents of these children know intuitively what researchers have been teaching parents for 40 years: A structured, predictable, and loving environment helps children organize their world and manage their behavior.

In my work as a behavioral consultant, I always look at the rules a family has in place at home, the rituals they use to formalize events, and the routines they create and use to move through the day. I find that when families have established rules, rituals, and routines in their homes, there are fewer behavior problems to deal with. Likewise, if these are not in place, then there is an increase in problem behaviors.

Keep it simple – no more than three to five rules. In fact, the fewer rules, the better. That’s not to say I don’t like rules. To the contrary – I love them. But rules should be simple and linked to values.

The rules in our house and in my work are: Be Kind, Be Truthful, and Show Respect. These values-driven rules can be linked to almost all behaviors. Their purpose is not to be linked to a consequence, so we can beat children over the head with them when they fail to follow them. Rather, such rules are teaching tools. When a child hits another child, we can link it to the rules: Be Kind, and Show Respect. This is instructive – it facilitates discussion of why hitting is not acceptable, and what might be a better choice when we are angry with someone else.

Thinking of rules in this way allows the parent to teach new behaviors. This is quite different from the rule/consequence model, in which, when the child violates the rule, the consequence is given. There is no link to any value, and there is no discussion of replacement behaviors. Most important, such a model is external, and requires the parent to be the policeman 24/7. We want kids to monitor their own behavior and do the right thing because itâ€Ts the right thing, not because mom or dad is watching.

“We have a family movie night every week. We pop popcorn and watch a movie together.” – Olivia, 4

“We go to church a lot. Almost every Sunday!” – Tommy, 6

I define a ritual as a “routine with meaning.” The children above are describing rituals. The family does this activity every week together. It happens without fail, and is valued by the child. This type of ritual creates a sense of predictability and consistency that is very important to a child’s development. It also becomes an opportunity for parent and child to connect emotionally, and for the child to feel connected to the parent.

Just as religious rituals formalize events within the church, family rituals formalize the connection that is developing between you and your child. Birthday parties, religious ceremonies, and eating meals together can serve as wonderful contexts for deeper connections.

A friend described his family’s ritual of “movie nights.” Each Saturday evening, the family would rent a movie, sit down, and watch it together. They popped popcorn and sat on the floor, all of them wrapped up in a blanket together. This continued weekly for years, until the children started going out with their friends and became involved with other activities. Even now, they occasionally ask for a movie night. When I asked the children about this ritual, every one of them remembered it as a hugely important time.

Rituals formalize events and the feelings people have them. They elevate simple human connection to a higher level, and communicate commitment and consistency to kids.

“After school I come home and have a snack, then I start my homework. I have to study for 30 minutes every school day before I can go outside and play.” – Kinsey, 7

“Momma gives me a bath.” – Tyler , 2

I believe that routines are a critical element in families, the fundamental building blocks of self-discipline and self-monitoring. If a child knows that dinner occurs at about the same time every night without fail, it sends a clear message that there is stability and predictability for the future. They are proactive as well – establishing routines heads off many behavior problems before they occur.

A perfect example of this is the bedtime routine. Set a definite bedtime. Fifteen minutes before that time, begin cleaning up and cueing the child that it’s almost bedtime. Continue to remind the child until it’s actually time to go to bed. Brush teeth, say prayers, read a story, lights out – follow this routine the same way every night without fail, and I promise you that there will be fewer problems. Why? Because there is less “dead time” – time spent doing nothing – and there is a roadmap for the child to follow: First I brush my teeth, then I go to the bathroom, then I get in bed, etc.

Routines like this will not “cure” all behavior problems, but youâ€Tll be surprised at how easily things begin to work if you stick with a set routine. I suggest holding to a new routine for a month before changing it or giving up on it. And remember, you are the adult and they are the children. Be a leader. If you set a schedule, follow through with it. Many times we let other activities pre-empt our routines. Many parents I work with say, “Yeah, I know, routines are important, but I need to have variety. Besides, it teaches my kid to adapt to change.”

Yes and no. If there have never been consistent routines, then all the child will know is unpredictability. Children can learn to healthily adapt to changes only from a baseline of consistent routine.

Many troubled families that I deal with have no predictable rules, no family rituals, no consistent routines to help them structure their home life. Such a chaotic way of running a family does children no favors. Children need a structured, predictable, and loving home to provide them a living example of how the world functions. If children grow up in chaos at home, they are likely to have difficulty organizing their behavior elsewhere, and may view the world as being only a chaotic and unpredictable place.

Setting and following rules, rituals, and routines is not easy, but it’s essential. Start with the three R’s: Begin establishing your family’s rules, rituals, and routines now, and watch as your children begin to manage their own behavior so you won’t have to.

Dr. Thomas Knestrict is an assistant professor of early childhood education at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati , Ohio . He taught in the public schools for 15 years and has been teaching at the university level for six years. His areas of research are severe behavior in early childhood and critical analysis of attachment theory, with a particular interest in critical theory. He is married with three lovely children, ages 4, 6, and 11.