My “Rule of 3”

There’s no denying it: Kids can be irritating—if you let them. When my kids reached that age of wanting to do things just to irritate Mom, I knew I either had to take control of the situation or lose it forever. I also knew that preventing a child from expressing himself can leave him feeling frustrated, so I wanted a solution that would satisfy both of us. The result was my “Rule of 3.”

My Rule of 3 was simply stated as “You can do that three times, but only three times, and then you’re done.” Making an irritating sound? You can do it three times, then you’re done. Running circles around the kitchen table while I’m fixing dinner? You can do it three times, then you’re done. Poking your sibling in the ribs? You can do it three times, then you’re done. The Rule applied to things done to others or around others, not to actions done alone that annoyed no one else. Practicing your piano lesson? Great! Banging on the piano keys? Three bangs and you’re done; go back to the lesson or move on to another activity. Doing karate kicks or high dance kicks in the backyard? Wonderful! Kicking the back of my car seat while we’re running errands? Three kicks and you’re done; move your feet to another position and keep them still. Somersaulting into the pool? Cool! Combining your super-acrobatic somersault with a not-really-accidental splash of water into your sibling’s face? Three splashes and you are done; the acrobatics are fine, just do them farther away from others. The same rule applies to the child who is completely capable of coherent conversation, but who decides to stop replying to Mom’s questions with the correct answers and substitutes a high-pitched EEP instead. Three EEPs and this game is over! You’re done, and the next thing out of your mouth had better be the correct answer.

Why a limit of three? The first time may be funny; the second time might be cute; the third time is merely indulgence to let you get that one last effort out of your system, but anything after three is seriously pushing beyond the limits of respect for others. Acts that were clearly a danger to others or were purposely hurtful, those I stopped immediately. The Rule of 3 was never intended to permit harmful or hurtful behavior, even temporarily. No teasing, taunting, or otherwise disrespectful behavior—if you don’t want it done to you, don’t do it to someone else. (I suppose I do need to mention that this also applies to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and anyone else who feels they have the right to tease, tickle, and/or pick on my kids. Poke the Mother Bear at your own risk, but be prepared to face the inevitable consequences.) The Rule of 3 did fulfill its designed purpose of teaching my youngsters to govern their own actions, so that I wouldn’t someday find myself reminding my teenagers to show respect for others—something they should definitely know for themselves by then. The Rule of 3 was a stepping stone on the road to maturity, and each time my kids stopped themselves after the third repetition of something, I knew they were progressing well on their journey.

This Rule of 3-times-and-done gave my normal, fun-loving kids an outlet for the silly ideas and the what-if-I experiments running rampant in their heads, but at the same time, it prevented them from becoming frustrated by a sibling whose behavioral exploits never stopped. Yes, that also meant that Mom (or Dad) had to step in from time to time to stop the antics with the firm reminder, “That’s three—you’re done now.” A few times, I had to redirect my Tigger to move his antics to the backyard where no one would object, and he could repeat them as much as he himself could stand. (Although eliminating the audience was often enough to bring the activity to a quick finish.) Occasionally, I had to take possession of the ball being bounced indoors (preventing a fourth bounce) or the toy car being zoomed around the breakfast dishes (preventing a fourth zoom) to bring the Rule of 3 violation to a clear and concise end.

If I hadn’t enforced the Rule of 3-times, the rule itself would have dissolved into the mist of all other unfulfilled dreams and wishes. The method of enforcement may vary from family to family and incident to incident. Personally, I can administer a death glare that can be felt from across the room, even if it’s focused on the back of your head. Of course, the laser-stare only works if the kids already know what will happen next if they ignore the heat from my warning stare. If the rule-breaker knows what to expect as a just and fair punishment, The Look can work as well as the verbal reminder “That’s it—you’re done.” Kids usually have an innate sense of justice, so choose the punishment to fit both the individual and the infraction, then be consistently consistent. (Now to avoid further tangents, let’s return to today’s topic.)

My kids loved getting their 3-times chances. To them, it was a brief moment of indulgent freedom where they were in control of their universe. And then they knew when to stop and hand the reins back to Mom to maintain perfect order in their world. They’d had their taste of leadership, and while it was fun while it lasted, they knew it was a temporary role, a momentary glimpse of what future independence would hold. It was a lesson in cause and effect: actions have consequences, so take responsibility for them. Learn to control your behavior (or your reaction to undesirable behavior from others), because this is just a tiny sample of life in the adult world, a preview of coming attractions.

Because I began implementing this Rule of 3 when my kids were small, they learned respect for the feelings and the personal space of others, along with the self-control to be able to stop if Mom said “That’s three—you’re done.” We all learned patience and tolerance and flexibility, often with twinkles in our eyes as we watched the star-of-the-moment perform his latest trick… exactly three times. His eyes twinkled with the knowledge that he owned the moment and was in complete control for the time being. All the other eyes twinkled with the knowledge that he could only do it two more times… one more time… and then he would have to stop. There were even a few times that I remember offering, “Okay, that’s two—you can do that one more time.” And he usually did, while all eyes twinkled at the freedom contained in the Rule of 3.

Granted, the Rule of 3 was most often enforced for my always-pushing-life’s-envelope son. However, my less-boisterous daughter appreciated its effects in that she didn’t feel a need to retaliate for something that Dear Little Brother was doing just to annoy her. She knew she could allow him three chances. After three, if he didn’t limit himself, then Mom’s Voice of Authority would take over, and peace would reign once again.

The Rule of 3 is so deeply ingrained in all of us now that it can be difficult to understand why that kid in the check-out lane is still doing whatever, and it’s been 5, 11… 27 times now! Why hasn’t the kid’s parent said “That’s three—you’re done”? And then I remember that not everyone knows about my sanity-saving Rule of 3.

Over the years, there were hundreds (maybe thousands) of Rule-of-3 stunts. I remember telling my kids that I didn’t care if they wanted to bounce a beach ball off my forehead—but they’d only get to do it three times—and then they would be DONE. Try it a fourth time, and… well, they never did try a fourth time, because they had learned respect for the Mom who would let them get away with the first three times. The Rule of 3 worked both for them and against them, but it worked consistently every time. If only it worked as well on those kids in the check-out lane.


  1. CarolynM says:

    By the way, I did NOT start this from birth. There came a stress-filled day when I called “New Rule” and put a stop to the repeated annoyances by stating a 3-times-only policy was effective immediately. Consistent enforcement makes it work.

  2. Carolyn, this is SO brilliant. Why did I not find your blog before now? I’m starting a Guilt-Free Homeschooling reading challenge, and this is my first day. Though my older kids are happily married and moved away, I still have a squirrelly 10yo boy at home and he is so going to learn about the Rule of 3 today! Well done!!

Speak Your Mind