In establishing rules for children, adults need to be clear about what is and what is not acceptable behavior. Children have a highly developed sensitivity to those around them. Their defiance of household rules is often an indicator that parents are either unclear about what is expected or that they are in disagreement over the rule. Both possibilities are frightening to children. They depend on their parents to provide security and guidance. Parents can only do that if they are confident that the rules they have laid down are fair and worthy of respect.

Let’s look at some examples of what happens when adults aren’t clear:

George lost his baseball glove and appealed to Dad for a new one.

“I don’t know, George. This is the third glove I’ve bought you in less than a year.”

“Please, Dad. I can’t go for the rest of the summer without one.”

“Well, why don’t you earn the money for a new one?”

“I can’t,” whines George, “Not in time for the games next week.”

“I don’t know,” sighs Dad, pulling out his wallet. “Promise you’ll be more careful with this one.”

This father is uncertain about where he stands with regard to George’s responsibility for his possessions. He is also easily manipulated by George’s plaintive plea that he might miss something if Dad doesn’t bail him out. Why does this father feel it would be so horrible for George to be left out of some games while he figures out how to earn some money to replace his lost glove? Whatever his personal issues about responsibility, baseball, or money, George’s dad needs to understand that he isn’t giving George any incentive to learn to be more responsible. Unless he wants to buy a fourth glove in the next few weeks, he needs to take a stand and expect George to keep track of his things.

Jeanette, age 15, wants to stay out until midnight Saturday night.

“No,” says Dad firmly. “You’re too young to be out that late and I simply can’t let you do it — no matter what the situation.”

“Is it a special occasion, Jeanette?” asks Mom.

“Please, Mom. You know my boyfriend is going away with his family next week.”

Dad disapproves and Mom wavers. These parents are not working together. Jeanette can now play one against the other. Although she gets her way, it’s at a price. She doesn’t have the security of knowing what is really expected of her. She gets to do things through her ability to divert the conversation from her curfew to her parents’ disagreements, but she also becomes the topic of fights between her parents — not a comfortable place for any child.

In each of these examples, the parents are unwittingly part of the problem. Because their parents aren’t clear about the rules, the kids aren’t either. George has learned that the rule that he must take care of his baseball glove isn’t really a rule. Jeanette has learned that her curfew isn’t really her curfew. These parents need to take time away from the kids to discuss what rules they are willing to stand behind. In the case of single parents, it is equally important to determine a personal bottom line.

Ironically, children’s misbehavior can, in fact, be a service to parents, since it points out where their expectations are shaky. If they can confront such issues directly and resolve them, they can build a stronger, more secure family for their children to grow in.

It may take several discussions before the adults truly agree. A “united front,” in which people try to appear to agree when they really don’t, won’t work. Kids always know when we are faking and they can spot a “front” a mile away.

A suggestion I frequently give to parents who are struggling with setting and maintaining rules is this: When you find you disagree, tell the children, “We are in disagreement. We are going to our room to figure it out. We’ll call you when we have reached a decision.”

This approach totally changes the usual dynamics in the family. Instead of punishing the child for pushing on the rule, the parents see the pushing as a sign that they haven’t been clear enough. Instead of trying to force a child to go to his or her room as a disciplinary measure, the parents voluntarily go to theirs. This totally shocks the kids and bypasses the inevitable arguments about fairness and control. By removing themselves from a potentially anger-inducing situation, the parents defuse the anger and make space for themselves to get to the bottom of their confusion and disagreement.

If they need more information from their child, they can come out and ask for input, then return to their room to work on it some more. If they can agree, they have succeeded in clarifying family expectations and guidelines for behavior. If they can’t agree, they know that their own issues are the problem and that they have work to do.

Generally, children respect adults who respect themselves enough to be clear about what they will and will not tolerate and who are secure enough in their own roles to invite information and input from their kids. Children need adults in their lives who model this kind of self-respect and negotiation. They need the security that comes from knowing that no matter how much they push at a fair rule, they can count on the adults in their lives to remain clear.