A coach speaking to a member of a youth soccer team explaining the rules of the game.

Why Do We Need Rules? A Guide to Child Development

The process of learning to follow the rules starts at home but continues in several other environments your children frequent. This can include the classroom, friends and relatives’ houses, and even in play. Signing your children up for organized sports and activities is a great way to introduce them to more areas where learning and following rules are important. 

 

Healthy rules and boundaries are a foundational part of mental and social development for children. It is the responsibility of the parent, as well as the child, to create and follow healthy rules during sports, while at home, and in the wider world. 

The Science Behind Rules

Understanding and fitting in with social norms, enforced by things like rules and boundaries, is a huge part of our social lives. These social norms provide us with structure and routine which has been proven to reduce stress. Additionally, the threat of consequence for not following the rules has just as big of a neurological effect as the feeling of fitting in.

For example, let’s say a child tries to cut in line and is reprimanded. Not only do they better understand that taking turns is a social value, but they will also, according to Scientific American, try to avoid the threat of punishment in the future. The process of discovering social norms — and the drive to avoid consequences through compliance — helps children learn mastery of certain social values like teamwork, patience, kindness, and so on. 

 

Games and activities help exemplify two different types of rules: technical and social. For example, when learning to play soccer, you need to understand technical rules — such as you can’t touch the ball with your hands — as well as social rules, like good sportsmanship. Both types impact the mental and social development of young players.

The Benefits of Rules and Limits for Children

Rules and boundaries aren’t beneficial to children only as a learning tool. There are several benefits to establishing and following consistent rules in the home and during social activities. These benefits include:
 

  • Provides a sense of order: Understanding the rules and boundaries for any given situation can help provide a sense of order and routine for children. This not only relieves stress but gives them a way to orient themselves in a world that they may not fully understand yet. 
  • Teaches children how to socialize: By understanding social norms and rules, children can increase their ability to socialize successfully with both their peers, as well as other adults and caretakers. 
  • Prepares children for the real world: The adult world is ruled by norms, routines, and rules. By introducing these things at a young age, children can gain tools for comprehension — such as listening and critical thinking — that they’ll use well into adulthood. Parents can also get involved in youth sports programs, to the benefit of their children. Not only is this great bonding, but by modeling understanding and respect of the rules, you can reinforce it in your children. 

How To Teach Children About the Importance of Rules and Limits

Teaching children the importance of rules and limits, not just that they exist and should be followed, is crucial for developing higher thinking and fostering respect. Principles children learn from understanding why we have rules and limits, such as the difference between right and wrong or that certain actions have consequences, are crucial to becoming a well-adjusted member of society. 

 

As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. When children experience things for themselves, they can form their own opinions and create stronger associations between actions and behaviors. Thus, using the following techniques as a way to teach children the importance of rules, rather than just telling them about it, is a great way to reinforce positive behaviors associated with learning and following rules and limitations. 

Establish Consistent Rules

For children to be able to fully comprehend and follow a set of rules, those rules must be consistent. If rules and boundaries are constantly changing, you’re at risk for reinforcing inconsistent behavior and causing frustration that can lead to acting out. Additionally, consistency makes children feel safer in a given situation or activity. When children feel safe, they are more receptive as well as responsive, and consistency in the home has been shown to improve overall behavior

Design Age-appropriate Rules

Rules and boundaries are not one-size-fits-all. What works for a three-year-old may seem patronizing to a 13-year-old. When designing age-appropriate rules, either for your household, classroom, or activity, it’s important to take different developmental stages into account. For example, a toddler who hits out of frustration may not understand that there are other options for expressing that emotion. This is a developmentally appropriate response — whereas, for an older child, it wouldn’t be. 

 

Designing developmentally appropriate consequences is also an important part of teaching children the value of rules. 

Create Meaningful Rules, Not More Rules

This may seem counterintuitive, particularly if you work with a variety of age groups. However, children of all ages are more likely to retain, follow, and understand a smaller group of rules than a larger one. This is another area where consistency comes in handy.  

 

If you find yourself with a large list of rules for your activity or classroom, ask yourself: Are these rules important for safety and understanding? Or are they trying to curb unpleasant behavior? An example of this could be no talking over the teacher. This is an important rule because children are less likely to understand their assignments if they’re distracted by side conversations. Additionally, this rule is teaching kids that paying attention during instructions is important in the classroom. On the other hand, having a no talking in class rule, even if the teacher isn’t giving instructions, teaches that silence is important in the classroom. This doesn’t necessarily translate to helping children achieve success. 

 

Learning the importance of following rules and boundaries, as well as learning and remembering different sets of rules, is a universal experience. Creating a positive, welcoming environment for your children during this experience is a great way to increase retention, teach respect, and improve critical understanding of the rules that keep us safe, happy, and healthy.