How Kids and Teens Interpret Rules and Consequences
Despite everything your child says and does to the contrary, she wants rules and consequences. Children need to know where the boundaries are because they know instinctively that they need adult protection to survive. Without you to show her what's safe and what's not, what's acceptable and what's not, your child could get hurt. Her behavior is not a demand for no rules; it's a demand that you stick to them.
In the last fifty years, a laid-back approach to parenting has become somewhat popular. Laissez-faire (pronounced “lay-say fair”) is a French term that translates roughly as “letting people do whatever they want.” It's a style of economic policy that says governments should not interfere with economics, and just let the marketplace play out as it will. Letting your children do whatever they want, or “laissez-faire parenting,” is not effective at shaping your child's behavior.
As people have grown more aware of the dangers of child abuse and of the power of praising positive behavior, enforcement of rules and consequences has fallen by the wayside or been dismissed as “too harsh.” That's a simplification of how to effectively shape behavior — you need to use both the positive and negative sides of the coin. Laissez-faire parenting is not only ineffective, it can be harmful because it leaves children open to danger and leaves parents and other people stressed by inappropriate, defiant, or violent behaviors that go unchecked. Moreover, while inappropriate behavior can sometimes bring about its own natural consequence, relying exclusively for behavioral reinforcement on natural consequences is problematic because they can be serious, delayed, or ineffectual.
For example, if your child is about to touch a rosebush after you've told her fifty times not to because she might prick her finger, allowing the consequence to play out naturally can be effective because it's immediately uncomfortable (ouch!) and directly affects her. On the other hand, allowing her to skip her homework by reasoning that she'll suffer by not qualifying for a good job in the future if she doesn't get good grades now, imposes too serious a consequence that is too delayed to be effective. Also, allowing a kid to steal the neighbor's bike because she'll have to learn that other people won't like her if she steals from them won't be effective — if your child doesn't empathize with other people, she may not care how her actions affect others.
Kids Want Limits
Kids want limits. They even ask for them. It's called “testing” or “challenging,” and it's very trying for the parents. If you think back to when your child was first learning to walk, you can see the very beginning of this behavior. If you told her not to pull on the plant in the living room because you didn't want it to fall on her, or simply didn't want it shredded to bits, you might recall that she stopped. For a second. And then she looked right at you and grabbed the plant again. “You gonna stop me?” that look said. “Isn't this the limit? Isn't this what you just told me not to do? So what are you going to do about it?” That, in a nutshell, is exactly how kids ask for limits and challenge you to enforce them. It's how they test whether you care about them enough to step in and stop them. Kids view your enforcement of rules as an act of love.
Kids will “try on” all types of behaviors to see your reaction. You might be at a loss for where your six-year-old daughter heard a particular swear word, but save the detective work (“Who taught you to talk like that?”) for later. When you're with her, focus instead on the rule: “That's swearing. We don't use that word in our house.”
Kids don't ask you to enforce rules in so many words because they're not capable — it all works on an instinctual level. Testing you allows you the opportunity to answer your child's question: “Do you care enough about me to protect me from what you've told me is harmful?” You'll have to answer “yes” several times for all the major rules in order to prove to your child that you back up what you say.
When Kids Win
If you don't step in and enforce the rules, your child will feel unloved, unsafe, and unparented. You have to be stronger than she is and send her the message that you can protect her and will shelter her from whatever harm the world throws her way. Looking the other way seems, at first glance, the easier option: wouldn't it be easier, just for today, to let your kid play videogames when she's supposed to be doing her homework so you can get dinner ready without interruption for once? But looking the other way when rules are broken is a slippery slope, because your child will repeat the behavior and try something else to see if that's negotiable, too. In the long run, letting today's rule be broken is actually harder for you, because you have to deal with twice the rule-breaking tomorrow.
Unfortunately, if you let defiant behaviors slide, they will escalate as your child cries out for your help. “How far can I go before somebody stops me?” is the rough translation of these behaviors. That's another reason why threats of suicide or homicide should be taken extremely seriously — it's the kid's last card. That's the worst she can do, and if she threatens to do it and you don't react, you've essentially sent her a message that says, “Go for it. I don't care about you or anything you do.”