Rules: the Fewer the Better

Lisa writes: My kids did not have curfews. We had no rules about where they were supposed to do their homework or even when. There were no real rules about food, dress, chores, or even tidiness. We bought a dog without extracting a single promise from our sons. This was not an oversight as I had grown up in a home with a litany of rules. On the other hand, my kids had strict rules about computer use, bedtime, manners, academic and athletic endeavors and, above all, lying.

rules, street sign

When and how we make rules for our kids is one of the trickiest aspects of parenting. Enforcing and altering them is the other tricky part. Rule making is not something to take lightly or to try and do on the fly. It is important that we have a philosophical underpinning to the constructs we set for our kids.

Yet for me, the number one rule was: make as few rules as possible. It was, I believe, a risky proposition, one about which I received a great deal of criticism, but I believe it has merits.

Larry Nucci, a research psychologist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that we make four kinds of rules. There are moral rules, safety rules, rules of social convention, and then there are the all-encompassing others. And it is in this final catchall category that things quickly become murky, where most of the family battle are fought.

Parenting expert Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, argues for care in applying rules. He suggests that, when faced with an unwanted behavior, parents ask themselves if they can live with the behavior and, if perhaps, it is something that will, in time, change on its own.

One of my single biggest mistakes as a parent was extrapolating. l would assume that the behavior I abhorred, a lack of personal hygiene or mouth full of teenage cynicism, would last forever. My anxiety at any given moment had to do with the mouthy, unkempt 20-year old I could see in my future. That person, needless to say, never materialized, but his image effected my behavior. Kazdin gives many examples from attention issues to lying and delinquent behavior that often resolve over time. He entreats parents not to legislate away behavior that will disappear on its own.

Ultimately, the role of rules is for our kids to internalize desirable behaviors, to do what we have taught them even when we are no longer there to enforce our will. For me, this argues for taking the risk and trying to raise kids with as few rules as possible. The most recent research suggests that rigid parenting is not without its own risks in terms of both defiant behavior and unhealthy practices.

Early on, I thought my kids were remote control cars and that I could steer with my rules. I was painfully naive. Here are my rules about, well, making rules.

1. Make as few rules as possible.

The dirty little secret about rules is that they require enforcement which rates right up there as one of the least enjoyable aspects of parenting. Keeping credibility with our kids is paramount so with each rule there is more enforcement and more negativity. For me this argues for picking rules very carefully, deciding what is essential in our families and then My rules had high stakes, had to be picky.

2. Go easy with the rule making early on, the hard stuff lies ahead.

While I would have loved to have rules about tidy rooms and clean clothes, looking ahead I knew that rules about driving, drinking, respect for girls were going to be non-negotiable in my house. I tried to pace myself, knowing that these major issue loomed on the horizon.

3. Ignore what anyone else (other than your child’s other parent) does, it truly does not matter.

Every family has their own rules, which is as it should be, and concerning ourselves with another family can only mess with our heads. This includes grandparents and siblings. Our kids are our kids, and the rules we set must be our own.

4. Different kids, different rules.

I get the controversy surrounding this, but like so many families, my kids were so different, their needs so different, that I plugged my ears to the chorus of “it’s not fair, you let him…” and forged ahead. In the end they felt treated as individuals, seen for who they truly are…but in the midst, I got nothing but pushback.

5. Rules have a hierarchy.

There is a reason that there are ten commandments because those were the rules that were metaphorically etched in stone. Our religious texts are replete with rules, but they have a hierarchy and our homes need the same. Not all rules are created the same and our kids need to know explicitly that some loom far larger than others. Stay up past your bedtime and you are looking at a stern word or maybe an earlier bedtime the following night. Hit another kid on the soccer field and you are looking at a trip to the 1970’s, weeks of grounding and a ban from playing sports.

6. Parents do not always need to explain themselves.

My parents made rules and I did not even dream of asking why. I made rules and my kids wanted to explore my reasoning like anthropologists uncovering a new civilization. Then they wanted to negotiate. It is great if we can explain ourselves, it is great if our kids buy in, but one truth that does not change from generation to generation is that we are the adults and we make the rules.

7. Rules should say something about the person we hope our children will become.

They are a way to transmit our families’ values, not just a method of keeping our kids in line. It was all to easy to look at rules as a way of controlling behavior rather than imparting . Dr. Kazdin’s filter of, “do I need to change this behavior,” rather than “do I want to change this behavior” is an excellent one. In reality, I could live with far more that I considered undesirable than I thought I could.

8. Think ahead.

My son’s principal told the 9th grade parents, think of the curfew you want spring of senior year and then work backwards to what it means for your 9th grader. If you start at midnight in the first year of high school, he warned us, you will not like where you end up in four years. This is true of every rule that moves with age and maturity.

9. Parents need to be on the same page regarding family rules and, sometimes, they need to get other parents to, at least, read that page.

I had rules about R-rated movies, but I know that my kids visited houses with more lenient rules. Crossing my fingers was not good enough. I had to call other moms and tell them the rules my sons were expected to live by. As awkward as this can be, I found that this goes remarkably well.

10. Don’t depend too heavily on the rules we had as children; this is a different world.

While some things are immutable, so many of the rules I had – wi-fi off at 10:00 or no multiplayer games with strangers –  were not exactly things my parents had to contend with. It is a new world and it requires new rules.

11. Think about the ways your child might break your rules and build failsafe into the package.

My kids were not allowed to use the computer after 9:30. I programmed the parental controls to disconnect them from the wi-fi at 9:30. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I found one son on his computer at 10. He had simply changed the time on his computer to 8:00 and continued on his merry way. Reliable enforcement needs to be a built-in part of making rules.

12. Finally, many rules have a natural life.

Boyfriends and girlfriends might not be allowed to sleep over in high school, but what about in college? Computer use rules generally relax with the age of the child. It is important to sunset rules, to plan for their waning and retirement even before that day arises.

Maybe my kids had too few rules, the jury is still out. But one thing I feel certain about, parenting isn’t made easier with more rules, it is harder. And enforcing what is important only becomes more difficult in the face of a litany of decrees. For most of what I hoped for my children, I tried, with mixed success, to model the behavior I hoped from them and set for them clear expectations. I plugged the holes with a whole lot of nagging. The truth is, that in most areas, the micromanaging with rules was effort and heartache wasted. Every time I found myself thinking, what happens if he does not do what I am saying and the answer was, really not very much, I got rid of that rule.

Comments

  1. Agreed!

  2. We had very few rules as well. I was a fanatic about personal hygiene and manners around adults, but that was pretty much it. When they got older, the one hard and fast rule was no drinking and driving – ever, ever. I also expected a phone call if they were out late – we didn’t have curfews.

    I believe children live what they learn, and watching how parents operate is the biggest rule-setter of all.

  3. As I read your post and was getting more and more excited to read my own thoughts written as yours, I was shocked at how it all came together. I don’t think there was anything I did not agree with and I am a proud parent and grandparent, when I see how my kids turned out. As difficult as it was at times, I watched them make their own decisions, knowing how much easier it would have been to say “You can’t do that.” But they learned! RE: the dirty rooms, etc. my husband would constantly tell me “It’s not worth the fight, and really….what difference does it make?” He was right and both kids are now neat freaks. When my daughter started dating her boyfriend at 16, I had no idea it would be for life. At 18, the boyfriend announced to me that he was taking her to Florida for a vacation. I must have cringed because he looked at me and said “Mom, what’s wrong?” And I said, “I am not comfortable with that.” His response – “Have you met your daughter?” They dated 7 years before they got married – both virgins and very proud of it. They made their own rules.

    But, as you said, we had rules and very rigid ones for certain things. It takes wisdom (thank God for that) to know what to do in each situation. We instilled principles, not rigid rules and now we reap the benefits as we see our grandchildren growing up in a world more difficult than the previous one and we are so proud of how disciplined they are, well behaved, social and kind.

  4. Excellent post, with a lot of wisdom. Totally agree…..my children, now all grown, grew up with very few rules, which mean they knew the rules we DID have were truly important.

  5. I wholeheartedly concur. I have a 16 & 18 year old and have less rules than a lot of my peers seem to have. I’ve always lived by the “choose your battles wisely” book of life and so made less rules about the “small” things but hard and fast rules about those things I feel are most important (like be safe, be a good friend, be kind, make sure you do school work, don’t be judgemental, etc.). I have few rules about things that are “nice to have” like keeping room clean or eating their vegetables. A good balance of rules is key or none of them will be followed.

  6. WWK says:

    I am very proud of how my kids turned out, but I sometimes wonder if we should’ve had more rules when they were young. They were allowed to drop out of almost everything that didn’t appeal to them (or admittedly me), a long list that included a foreign language, soccer, and some memorable but horrible violin lessons.

    Looking back, I wish my husband and I had encouraged them to hang tough a little longer, because there are times when they still want to quit or drop out of things, which doesn’t work so well in the real (adult) world.

    It will be interesting to see what rules or lack of rules they will instill with their own children. I know that neither of them will have a candy drawer in the kitchen like I did (!), but I’m pretty sure that both of them will teach their kids the importance of being kind and not hiding your finished math homework under your bed.

  7. I do think I have too many rules, or expectations. That’s probably a better word, nothing is really etched in stone. But, I think that putting morals into place when they are younger is what makes for a child that can make better decisions when they are older. My older son commented that he heard worse swear words at school everyday then ever on a video game, but he made the decision not to swear. When big things come up we discus them rather than have a knee jerk reaction to drawing a line in the sand. Its worked well, so far, but I am just in the thick of it right now!

  8. The more rules we have, the more judgement and scrutiny floats in the home atmosphere. Letting kids define their own standards honors their instincts and allows them to grow.

  9. This was a relief to read. I like the flexibility evidenced in this list. I don’t often see my own parenting philosophies reflected on the internet, but I do here, and the validation is gratifying to say the least.

  10. Carpool Goddess says:

    I had rules about curfew because I didn’t want them on the road past a certain hour and after some argument they were fine with that. If they were running late they had to call. And they knew lying, cheating, drinking and driving, drugs, manners, academics, etc…were all nonnegotiable.

  11. Regina Kelly says:

    Great topic and easy to read now that my sons are 22 and 28.
    When they were young my sense about movies and videos and TV was that excessive violence was worse that mild to moderately smutty Adam Sandler kind of movies. Or even Saturday Night Live. My elder would watch and since he “babysat” as the years progressed and Dad and I were in the Village having dinner—younger brother watched (with elder brother) Chris Farley’s Motivational Speaker skits, Matt Foley & “Down by the River.”
    I was called into school by the 2nd grade teacher because younger brother was performing the skit, word for word, for his delighted classmates, and they did not even understand what it all meant. He had memorized it perfectly.
    The teacher thought he was a mad genius and had made it up !! One quick conversation and I figured out what was going on and corrected it, talked to both my guys who did not even consider the fact that the SNL content might not be great for a 2nd grader. It all worked out and I learned a lot. Their sense of humor remains the same to this day.