How to Set up House Rules for a 3-year-old

By Kristine Tucker
Three year old playing with blocks in living room.

Three-year-olds know how to follow directions and communicate, so it's an appropriate age to set up some house rules. Rules must be simple and straightforward so your preschooler doesn't get confused or misunderstand your expectations. The goal is to encourage your 3-year-old to obey instructions, become more self-sufficient, develop organizational skills and, of course, clean up her toys.

Talk to Your Partner

Talk to your spouse, partner or other caregivers before you establish house rules for your 3-year-old. You want the authority figures in your house to be on the same page, so your child doesn't get mixed messages about the rules. For example, at age 3 you can expect your child to come when asked, says pediatricians William and Martha Sears of AskDrSears.com. If your spouse counts to five or gives multiple warnings when your child doesn't comply, she won't understand why she got in trouble with you for not coming right away.

Set Age-Appropriate Expectations

Choose house rules that align with your child's developmental stages. For example, you can't tell a 3-year-old to clean his room without giving some specific instructions. He understands simple direction words, such as "in," "on" and "under," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, your house rule might say that your child has to put his toys in the toy chest before dinner or put his dirty clothes in the hamper after his bath. Three-year-olds are too young to think through logical decision making, so teach your child to obey rules by conditioning her to follow your instructions, says Sears.

Involve Your Child

Let your 3-year-old have some flexibility with house rules by allowing her to make choices when appropriate. Three-year-olds tend to postpone bedtime as long as possible, so your house rule might say that bedtime is at 8:30. However, you can allow her to choose whether she wants to brush her teeth or read a bedtime story first. Or, let her choose what color pajamas to wear and which stuffed animal to sleep with. Parents need to encourage timely bedtime routines without sacrificing the comfortable and reassuring nighttime environment, suggests certified social worker, Kim West, at Parents.com. When possible, give her a choice between two alternatives -- more than two choices might overwhelm her.

Enforce the Rules

Enforce your house rules consistently, so your child understands what you expect and isn't surprised when he gets disciplined for noncompliance. Three-year-olds can dress themselves, including working zippers and large buttons, so you might have a rule that your child dresses himself after breakfast. If your child decides to watch TV, instead, you might turn off the TV for 10 to 15 minutes as a consequence. Enforcing the rules is a positive way to help 3-year-olds learn responsibility.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.