How to Maintain House Rules Without Using Punishments or Bribery

“But what about when…”

Key Takeaways

  • Criticism and yelling are forms of punishments.
  • Praise and giving feedback are forms of bribery.
  • Providing a safe or acceptable alternative to the behavior is helpful.

When I talk with people about how we do things in our home and how other “respectful” parents do things, the follow-through idea is probably the biggest sticking point.

“What do you mean you just, ‘don’t let them hit each other?’ Kids need to learn there are consequences for their actions. That would never work on my kids.”

You may even be thinking this right now!

Let me explain how we do things at home and this may give you some ideas.

First, our home is a peaceful place by my standards. Our children often help clean up the table without being asked, put their toys away in certain areas of the house after they’re done with them, eat full meals without complaining or tantrums (I don’t want to imply that tantrums are wrong or bad just that we don’t experience very many), and they help get themselves ready for bed with little to no resistance.

We do not use:

  • timeouts
  • spankings
  • criticisms
  • rewards (tokens, stickers, or even chore charts)
  • or even praise (I never say, “good job” or “you’re such a great helper”)

We live life and we invite them to live life with us. But, that doesn’t mean we live without principles. I spoke with my wife (IG: @kristen.m.mott) about how we maintain our household rules and we narrowed it down to 4 distinct things we do to follow through and teach the rules of our home.

Remain Calm

Calmness is not only attractive but it also models leadership for our children. Our children imitate us until they become us. If we want them to become calm people in the face of frustration then we should at least start with modeling calmness. Imagine how reassuring it would feel for you to lose your mind in front of someone and have them respond completely calm and collected. They don’t argue or threaten; they just listen. Sounds great to me. Here are some things I’ve done to stay calm:

Wait for Ten Seconds

If you feel anger flowing in your blood, take a breather. Just wait. Feel the anger without acting. Let it pass so that your mind can come back to reason.


I’m indebted to Janet Lansbury for this term. Simply describe what you see in a non-judgmental way (like a good sportscaster!) “I’ve asked you to sit down but you’re still standing. You must really want to stand.” Again, the tone of my voice is paced and calm, not critical and exasperated. If they see that their behavior is getting a rise out of me then they may start to feel that I’m not capable of leading them.

Remember the Three Beliefs

Behavior comes from within. I do not control my children, regardless of their ages. I wrote more about this concept here, but I’ll include the short version:

  1. I think and act in ways that I hope will help me meet my need for survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun.
  2. I cannot make others do things they do not want to do. I can only provide information; Others cannot control how I think, act, and feel.
  3. Every person has the right to be free from ridicule, threats, punishments, and rewards as a means for forcing them to do things they do not want to do.

I adapted these beliefs from William Glasser‘s definition of External Control Psychology — a way of living based on the belief that others could control us and that we could and should control them.

Remind of the Rule and Consequences

One of our most basic rules is there is no running allowed on the hardwood floors. Sometimes they get excited and run the last few steps before reaching their playspace but this is not something we address. Every once in a while they will start to run and goof off around the kitchen and table. We say their names until we have their attention, remind them of the rule, and might remind them of what might happen (the consequences, not punishment) of running.

The Difference Between Consequences and Punishments

We use these terms very specifically. Consequences are things that could happen regardless of where we (the parents) are. A punishment is something that can only happen if/when the child is caught doing something and the parent intentionally creates an unpleasant situation in hopes to teach the child that the behavior will not be allowed. We work very hard at allowing consequences to be the teacher whenever possible.

Physically Stop the Behavior

The bigger people get, the harder they are to move. When it comes to the point that we are unable to physically stop them from doing something then we may focus on the way their behavior is affecting others instead of trying to physically stop it. Our oldest is five and we rarely physically stop his behavior. We remind him of the rule and how his actions are or might impact others.

Provide a Safe or Acceptable Alternative

There are many behaviors that are acceptable or safe in different circumstances. We ask that our children not shout at the dinner table. If they start to forget about this rule or decide they want to test to see if the rule still applies then we remain calm, in other words, we don’t treat the behavior as evidence of naughtiness, we remind them of the rule, and we might say, “You can shout in the playspace after you’re done with dinner.” I don’t think it’s appropriate to physically stop this behavior because that might mean covering their mouth. But, if they did continue then we’d simply say, “It sounds like you’re ready to play and are done eating. I can help you clear off your plate if you’re done.” This scenario is a win-win. If they decide they’re not done then they stop shouting and resume eating. If they decide they are done then we clean up their dinner and they can go shout as planned. Neither scenario requires me to compromise on a house rule. Neither scenario requires me to get angry, bribe, or punish them.

But What About…

Behavior is not a simple thing. There are literally thousands of scenarios that might go slightly differently. The above principles are things that seem to have improved the peace of our home. I’ve seen classroom teachers manage groups of kids with similar principles very effectively. Even while I’m writing this my 3-year-old has been playing by herself for 40 minutes and my 7-month-old has been entertaining herself on the floor for an hour.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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