We are trying to get the kids to be as self-sufficient as they can, including mentally.

So for some things, we have simlpe rules, so they don't need to get our approval/permission for every detail.

However, it is extremely undermining to our goals when a child who knows the rules 100% perfectly and can tell you the answer according to the rules at a drop of a hat STILL asks you the questions that rules can answer all the time.

Examples (MANY of these or similar per day):

  • "Can I play this video game?" "What do the rules say?" "Don't play before 10am and only after homework and chores are done". "Have you done homework?" "No". "So can you play?" "No". "Correct! You know the answer then".

  • "Is it OK to listen to music now?" "What are the rules for listening to music?" "No music when someone in the family is asleep." "Is anybody asleep"? "Yes, mom's sleeping". "Can you listen to music?" "No". "Correct! You know the answer then".

What would be the reason for a child who 100% perfectly knows the rules and can apply them - for many years - to still ask when they know the answer clearly? And what can be done to encourage them to STOP asking in such a clear cut situation?


  • This does NOT appear to be a simple excuse to grab for attention. It's alwasy about a genuine want; and after asking said question, the child is perfectly content to go play/read by themselves for an hour or more with no attempt to contact the parent until the next time they genuinely want permission to do something.

  • These are old, established rules. The child knows the rules for years, and was perfectly able to reason those rules years ago, never mind now.

  • We already try to incentivize by always praising when they reason themselves (which does happen sometimes).

  • The child has no doubt in their knowledge of the rules. When pressed for an answer according to examples above, they never experience any hesitation or doubt as to whether their reasoning is correct (justifiably so).

  • 1
    Age of the child? If they're particularly young, this is perfectly normal and part of the development cycle.
    – Doc
    Jun 2, 2014 at 21:27
  • 1
    It also might (depending on the reason for the issue) help the child apply rules by making the rules positive instead of negative. For example, instead of "No music if someone in the family is asleep", make it "You can listen to music whenever you want, except when someone is asleep." - this makes the desired action allowable by default except in specific scenarios rather than disallowed by default.
    – Doc
    Jun 2, 2014 at 21:31
  • @doc 6+. And tried positive with zero effect
    – user3143
    Jun 2, 2014 at 21:45
  • 1
    speculation: the child knows that if you say yes, they can do it, even if it would otherwise be against the rules. They deem it possible, if not perhaps likely, that you'll just give permission without enforcing the rule. Jun 5, 2014 at 2:30
  • @WinstonEwert - the child has had years of knowing the rules never get violated.
    – user3143
    Jun 5, 2014 at 2:44

4 Answers 4


This is a prospective memory failure. Prospective memory is remembering to do something in the future. In this case, remembering to apply a rule to a future situation. It's a very different kind of memory than retrospective memory, in this case remembering what the rules are.

People can be very good at retrospective memory and not very good at prospective memory. I think this is particularly true of children, who are not given very many opportunities to practice prospective memory, and are generally shielded from consequences for prospective memory failures. Adults usually remind them of their obligations at the appropriate times.

Like any skill, you can improve your memory through practice. What you can do is provide prospective memory aids, and provide consequences for failing to heed them. A prospective memory aid for your video game example might be a sign next to where the video games are kept that lists the rules. Even though they know the rules, the sign will jog their memory of the need to apply them.

A consequence might be if you ask a parent to play video games before your homework is finished, you'll have to wait an hour after homework is finished to play, instead of being able to play immediately afterward. The consequence acts as another memory aid. After they have experienced the consequence a few times, their brain will make the association and help jog their memory.

You can brainstorm with your kids about other prospective memory aids. Ask them what they think would help them remember. Maybe keeping their homework near the video games, putting a picture of someone sleeping near the music, etc.


For my older children it's often the case where they don't want to fall afoul of the rules (and thus get in trouble) coupled with the "dishwasher" effect.

The Dishwasher Effect

They don't like to put their dirty dishes away. If they don't, however, there will be a consequence. So they put their dishes on the counter if there isn't a parent around. If there's a parent around, they'll ask if the dishwasher is dirty. We usually tell them to look themselves (ie, you already have the power to answer it yourself), but there's a problem:

They can't always tell if the dishwasher is dirty or not, even if looking. We drink mostly water in our house. We have a large family so the dishwasher is run almost twice a day, which means that the condition of the dishwasher can't be associated with time. We often use clean dishes directly from the dishwasher, so there may be a half full dishwasher of what appear to be clean dishes, but they might actually be dirty and without careful inspection it can be hard for a child to understand the state of the dishes.

So what should be a simple rule: "Put your dirty dishes away" appears to be a big, difficult to solve, problem for them.

Even if it's not difficult to solve, a seemingly simple rule may have a dozen other rules attached and it can be difficult to remember them all.

Requesting A Rules Check

The conversation will sometimes go like this in our house:

Son: May I play video games?

Parent: I don't know, can you?

Son: I think so.

Now at this point I can say, "Well, do according to your understanding." and then when I follow up with them later I will inevitably find something they failed to do. This makes both of us unhappy. But unraveling the rules turns out to be a significant challenge. The rules, at first glance, seem simple:

  1. Homework must be complete
  2. Chores muse be complete
  3. Bedroom must be clean
  4. Playroom must be clean

But if you dig in, there are nearly a dozen rules for each of the above, and any minor violation may result in a consequence. They can't easily determine if their homework is complete. As an adult it seems trivial, but it's not.

  • Is there math homework? Is it done?
  • Is there social studies homework? Is it done?
  • Is there English homework? Is it done?
  • ...
  • Is there a long term project? Have I completed enough of it that I can consider myself up to date?
  • Is there a test coming up? Do I need to study for it?
  • What day is today, is there something specific I need to get ready for tomorrow?

There is, or should be, in theory, a stable checklist for each task. The bedroom isn't clean until all the toys and clothes are off the floor.

But then there are a number of exceptions on top of these dozens and dozens of rules. Is what the siblings are doing going to change the evaluation for the bedroom being clean? Is it fair for this child to be delayed from video games due to actions of a sibling preventing them from "checking off" all the rules (similar to sweeping the leaves off the sidewalk on a windy fall day).

Difficulty is Over Nine Thousaaaaand

If you have a checklist of four items, and those items don't cascade into any other items, and they are easy to evaluate, and there are no exceptions, then you may be justified in your frustration at having them evaluate the conditions each time.

But, even to a tween or teenager, these are not simple questions to answer, and depending on how strict your consequences are they may choose to have you evaluate them every time, rather than run the risk of forgetting task 1.a.III.

Problem Solving

Consider a different approach, when they ask you to evaluate the rules:

Parent: If you aren't certain, I'm glad to help. Rather than discussing it verbally, though, since that hasn't worked in the past, I'd like you to write down the rules and then come back to me so we can review them together.

Child: Here are the rules (hands paper)

Parent: Ok, this [looks right|is missing X, Y and Z]. Now which rules do you already know the answer for - put a check mark next to them. ... Good. Now let's talk about the ones you aren't sure about. Sometimes it helps to break things down into smaller pieces. So let's take clean bedroom, since you aren't sure about it. Go ahead and write down the rules for a clean bedroom.

Child: Here are the rules(hands paper)


Eventually you will accomplish several things:

  • They will have a list of your approved rules for a given activity
  • You (and they) will explicitly recognize which ones they are having trouble evaluating
  • You will teach them how to solve "big" problems by breaking them up
  • You won't be sending the messages "You are all alone in this" or "I will always solve your problems for you."
  • They will understand that while you are available to help them evaluate the rules, you won't actually do the work for them, and it may be less annoying for them to figure it out themselves than it will be to go through the process with you.
  • They will see that you are consistent, and unlikely to make an exception or forget something, making it less profitable to take a chance and ask you when they already know the answer.

It doesn't seem to be related to memory IMHO. It sounds more like the child doesn't agree with the rules. You don't question the fact that he remembers the rules, OK that's good. But does he agree with them? You seem to be concerned by the intellectual aspect of that only (does he understand, does he know, does he remember...), but not too much the emotional aspect of it. Having old established rules doesn't mean that they are fair. At least fair for your child. Or maybe it was fair years ago and it isn't any more. Children grow, so they should be able to question the rules now and then (not all the time, I hear you). If you always have the same questions, maybe it is time for you and your child to sit and discuss the rule: not you doing the talk and trying to convince him, but both you trying to find an agreement on the rule. Also, maybe your child focus a lot on the rules and bother you all day long (can I do that...?), because you focus a lot on the rules. In the examples you give, it sounds like you'd always reply to their enquiry with "what does the rule say?". If you child hear you talking all day long about rule, it is understandable that it would be his main concern to satisfy you: I will ask dad/mum about it, so (s)he sees we all agree. Of course, it isn't conscious. To break that pattern, I'd try to stop talking about the rules (but still applying them of course). That would maybe sound like:

[child] - Mum, can I listen to music now?

[me] - I don't know. Can you?

[child] - Yes, I think so.

So then the child would turn on his music, and then I would have to apply the consequences of a broken rule (whatever they are in your house). But the conversation would most likely be:

[child] - Mum, can I listen to music now?

[me] - I don't know. Can you?

[child] - No, I don't think I can, dad's sleeping.

Now, if the rule's broken and your child has to face the consequences, it would be a good opportunity for you to check if he agrees on the rule. If he starts discussing the rule, then maybe later you will have to indeed sit down with him and discuss the rule (but I wouldn't mix that discussion with the initial consequences of the broken rule).

  • But the child never questions the rule results. E.g. they never ask "well, can we change the rule to 'x'" or express dissatisfaction aside from the typical "want to play don't want chores" that's expected from any child at any age.
    – user3143
    Jun 3, 2014 at 18:58
  • Maybe they don't try to question the rule, because it is not something they feel they would be allowed to do? (just asking :)) And if really they don't want to question the rules, then maybe my other point: try and stop talking about the rules all the time, if you want them to become self-sufficient then trust them with the rules, let them decide when they can or can't do whatever they want to do (but still enforce the rules). Just my opinion on the topic...!
    – Smurk
    Jun 5, 2014 at 3:53
  • Nope. They were negotiating rule changes explicitly for many years
    – user3143
    Jun 5, 2014 at 11:50
  • So you make a difference between discussing the rule results (your first comment above) and discussing the rules itselves (your second comment here)? It sounds a bit too farfetched, no? Children are children, if they tell you they don't agree with the results of the rules, it means they don't agree with the rules... Or maybe I misunderstand what you meant, but really your two comments here seem opposite. In my initial message I was suggesting two approaches: 1/ if child doesnt agree with rules, rediscuss rules; 2/ if child agrees with rules, stop talking about rules. That's what I meant...
    – Smurk
    Jun 6, 2014 at 1:28

I agree with user27864, this does not appear to be a memory issue, that would be overcomplicating a simple situation.

What's likely going on is: Since children have an innate need to validate for themselves that their environment is stable and safe. As a result, they will continuously test authority to validate the safety and stability of their environment. When a child kicks and screams, we tend think they want us to 'give-in', it is quite often the reverse.. they (subconsciously) want to see how hard (or how easy it) will be to destabilize their environment, in other words the are testing the safety of their little world.

As a side note about rules, I find that it is easier (and often beneficial) to apply rules in a positive way, so rather than "You cannot... until ...", I like to use "you can ... after..." or "after you finish ... you can ...". Taking the positive approach appears (in my experience) to diffuse the 'power struggle' before it occurs.

One additional point, the best way to teach children self sufficiency, is by example, i.e. by being self sufficient ourselves.

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