What kids really need … is structure.

Around a decade ago, I visited a friend whose grandchildren were staying with her for a couple of weeks in the summer. The children were young, one was two and the other almost five, and they had been there for over a week. When we sat down for lunch, the older child leaned over and pointed out the napkin on the table and said to me in a whisper, “at Nana’s, we are supposed to put our napkins in our laps when we eat.” I was amused to get this lesson in the structure of napkin rules from this young man, and noted that he was helping his little sister with her napkin use, too. 

cartoon image of older couple in structured play with young children, with adults looking on
image credit: wikihow

After we finished, both children folded their napkins back on the table – the little girl needed a bit of help, but the napkin was on the table and not on the floor – then the young boy helped clear the table, and only after those tasks were complete was he off to play with their grandfather. I told my friend what her grandson had said to me, and complimented her on his manners. She said, “well, he learned that here, because at his house they don’t even sit at a table to eat, and frequently just eat on the floor in front of the TV. My daughter-in-law says that I’m too strict with the children, but they do behave well when they’re here.”

I told her that it was plain that the children adored both of them and that it was in part because of the structure that they provided. A new article agrees with this approach, “Kids Need Structure More Than Warmth from Their Parents, According to a Top Child Psychologist.

In the years since that little boy talked up the rules of napkin use, I have noted that these children continue to be very fond of their grandparents, at least in part because of the structure that exists in that house. At 15, the young man who had reminded me of the proper placement of my napkin told me that one reason he loved visiting his grandparents was that he knew what to expect. Meals were on time and he could count on what rules he was expected to follow. That structure proves to children that the adults in their lives care for them and are paying attention. Their own parents are very warm and loving, but totally unwilling to require that their children follow any rules, or to provide any structure to their lives. It almost feels like they don’t care about their children’s well-being, since they’re unwilling to step up and parent by providing rules and structure.

When my son was little and misbehaved in public, we left the grocery store, restaurant, public swimming pool, or whichever place he chose to act up. This happened when he was between one and three years old, when self-control is very difficult for a child. We went outside, frequently sat in the car and I would say to him, “when you settle down, we will go back.” What he needed was structure, he needed to learn the rules of how to behave in public. Taking him away when he misbehaved showed him in very clear terms that his behavior was unacceptable. Going back when he had quieted down told him what behavior was expected.

I remember my mother saying to me, “you will not bother other people, the minute you do, we leave.” My point here is that punishment doesn’t help, since it doesn’t teach the child what behavior is acceptable. Loving children is more than a warm feeling. It means making sure that the child knows that you’re paying attention, and that you care about their behavior – that how they act matters to you. Children know that parents are supposed to tell them what to do. They chafe and complain, but they know what the boundaries are, and what’s expected of them in the way of behavior toward others – which includes people in public places.

When parents are unable to provide that structure, it feels to children like their parents don’t care about them enough to provide a set of rules for how to behave in the wider world.

Providing structure for children is one of the most crucial things that parents can do. Aside from table manners, other forms of structure that children need are schedules, not necessarily rigid, but children need to have meals on time, go to bed around the same time each night, and know what is going to happen in their lives. They need to be read to every night – not just some nights, EVERY night. Kindergarten teachers tell me that they can tell very quickly which children are read to regularly. Structure gives children the skills to get along with other people by providing the rules of life.

Of course, you want to show your children that you love them, but giving in to their every whim only says that you aren’t really noticing what they’re doing. When you truly care about someone, you pay attention to their needs and more importantly, teach them how to meet their own needs. Not setting boundaries for behavior, and setting schedules for things like meals and tasks, when your kids are young means that when they’re old enough to live on their own, they won’t have the skills they’ll need to manage their own lives.

Real love can sometimes be tough to manage. You don’t want to make your child unhappy, but little children do not see the world from other’s viewpoints. Making a huge fuss in public bothers other people. Children need to know that. Help your kids learn to manage their lives by providing structure – and a hug!