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Many children need structure in their day, and they need some rules to follow.

Children need established guiding principles, clear direction and consistent follow-through. Vague instructions that come as reactions can have little effect and be confusing for children (ex.“Stop that.” or “Be nice to your friends.”) When play is simply a “free for all” without routines or guidelines for children to follow, they often times become distressed and act out. When they reach this point, the consequences for both of you can be pretty terrible. 

Here are some tips to follow to set a climate of respect and fun for everyone this summer.

As a caregiver do you find yourself speaking in this way — to little effect? Children often seek to do exactly the opposite of what adults tell them, whether because of distractions or just old-fashioned disobedience. But children misbehave for other reasons, too: We may not have expressed our expectations clearly enough ahead of time — or we’ve fallen into a pattern of inconsistent enforcement of those expectations. Children thrive if we can have clear expectations for behavior and enforce those standards consistently.

Kids should clearly understand the core principles that govern our everyday decisions. Yes, there should be rules — rules that may be adjusted as kids mature or as circumstances change — but we hope that children will always be able to point to the mission statement that we seek to fulfill every day, that foundation upon which our rules, expectations and consequences are built.

TRY THIS: Sit down with your group and explain to them how important it is that there are established rules that everyone knows and understands. Let them participate by suggesting rules as you write them down. Then narrow the list to about four to six that are truly important to your group. Once your whole group has agreed upon the list, write them on a large piece of paper and have everyone sign it — including you. Post it for all to see and tell your group that it’s an “active document.” Explain that an “active document” means that if they are not living up the some of the expectations that you have agreed upon together, you’ll sit down as a group and you’ll talk about it. Keep the expectations basic but be sure to show the children what these expectations look like. For example, if they determine that “respect each other” is an important rule, share with the group how they can demonstrate the rule by knowing each other’s names, not speaking when others are speaking, being courteous, taking turns, etc. Make the rules easy and tangible and make the examples clear.

Ground your own expectations in reality.

Expectations should be anchored in reality in order to anticipate mistakes and foresee potential misbehavior. It’s too easy to lose perspective of what is normal behavior in each age and stage of development. We often overestimate their ability to have self-control, to stay focused on a task and to handle social situations well. It’s normal for a 2-year-old to get upset if he doesn’t get something he wants; it’s normal for a 3-year-old to lose it if there’s a change in his bedtime routine; it’s normal for a 5-year-old to daydream in the middle of a T-ball game; it’s normal for a 12-year-old to be moody; it’s normal for a teenager to be irresponsible every once in a while.

There is a fine line. We need to expect personal responsibility and the development of appropriate social skills after children have learned the standards, but we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail at those things — making mistakes is part of how kids’ brains develop. Most importantly, these mistakes are launching grounds for further learning. Our responses to their mistakes and poor choices must encourage that natural maturing process.

Have fun and be safe.

Children are with you to have fun, but they need to be safe as well. They need it, and their families expect it. You MUST provide both, but safety should be your first priority. Caregivers who only focus on fun may let someone do something that may not be in the best interest of safety. If something were to happen to a child as a result of this lapse in judgment, it would have devastating consequences. Safety first and last! Healthy risk taking can build confidence and help teach natural consequences. Unfortunately, without guidance, children and can take risks that result in serious and long-term consequences. Providing children with healthy options for risk taking offers the thrill that they are seeking with minimal negative consequences. Healthy risk taking can reduce the likelihood of unhealthy risk taking. Examples of healthy risk taking for young children include: Exploring at a playground, trying new activities or new foods, playing pretend together and letting them be the leader and teach you, riding roller coasters and thrill rides or indoor rock climbing and engaging in activities that create excitement without the potential for unhealthy consequences

Hold the line.

As you set limits and consequences with children, they will almost certainly test and protest. Stick with your boundaries, be fair but consistent, and empathize with each child’s emotional reactions. Children needs to know you are constantly connected and emotionally there with them, no matter what mistakes they make. Remember that as the summer goes on, you may get tired. Our job as caregivers is to guide them consistently, even when we are tired, when we are preoccupied, when we are frustrated or angry. You may reach a point when you feel like relaxing some of the rules and regulations. This is only natural, but hold fast to your standards. 

By remaining true to who you are and the environment you have created with your children, you will achieve your goals.