Rules, Rules and More Rules

by Keith McCurdy

One question I am often asked, especially from parents of toddlers, is “how many rules should we have?”  For some reason we seem to look at rules with the notion of “more is better.”  Many parents feel that it is their job to fully inform their children of each and every guideline in the house so that their child will “know” how to behave.  I see this quite frequently in my office when a parent will come in and say “Johnny is doing ……. What kind of rule do I need to stop this?”  The notion is that if we have enough of, or the “right” rules, that our children will behave better.  Unfortunately, this is far from the truth and may even cause more unnecessary conflict in the home.

First off, the more rules we have, the more we have a tendency to micromanage.  When we have rules for everything, we are constantly on the look-out for an infraction.  This sets up a structure of “looking for the bad” and makes it difficult to see the good that our children do.    When we have this type of micro-management, we also get more push-back from our kids.

This is natural, yet we view the push-back as even more of a problem and we end up increasing the micro-management.  This inevitably develops the tendency to think that our job is to control our child’s behavior . . . This is not possible.

Our children have free will, and demonstrate it quite often.  Our role in parenting is not to control, but to teach or train.   In the process of this, the Apostle Paul warns that we are not to “embitter” them.   Micro-management and controlling parental styles embitter a child quite effectively.

So what do we do?  The healthiest families I have seen have very few rules.  If you ask the children of these families what the rules are, they may not even be able to tell you.  As one child told me, “We are just supposed to behave.”  That is a child that has been taught, not controlled.  That is a child that understands, or respects, parental authority.

When asked, what I most often suggest are five rules.  1) No illegal behavior.  Yes, people laugh at this.  Children are little criminals.  They all lie, cheat and steal.  Just watch a group of young boys playing cards.  It is hard to keep up with the number of times they “change the rules.”  Or when you ask if anyone saw that last Popsicle that was in the freezer, the denials come quickly.  And of course, siblings never take things from each other without asking.  2) No inappropriate physical contact.   3) No arguing, debating, back talk, etc. 4) No mean words.  This covers “you’re stupid” for a young child to the more profane for the older kid.  5) Do what I tell you when I tell you.  This is by far the most important.

With these rules, I tell parents that the rules do not control the behavior.  In fact, your children may continue to break every one of them.  The rules, from an early age, provide direction.  The direction is not only for the child.   Children need to know where they are headed, but we need to know where we are taking them.  Rules 2 and 4 relate to the primary issues children struggle with when frustrated.  Rule 1 is the beginning of teaching morality.  Rule 3 is the most frustrating behavior for parents.  Rule 5, of course, is the ultimate lesson we are trying to teach – respect authority.  Each of these provide an opportunity for us to firmly plant a roadblock in front of our child, in the form of a consequence, and to then provide redirection of how to handle it next time.

With a few basic rules, we tend to control less and enjoy our children more.  They feel freer and the learning environment is more positive and supportive.  Ask yourself if you have too many rules.  Are you micro-managing?  Do you know what you are trying to teach?   Are you trying to control your child’s behavior?  Now, how do you implement these rules . . . ?

That’s another article.

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