Working with teenagers for over 20 years has given me some insight into their attitude about rules. In fact, I’ve been fortunate enough to use some of these insights in my own home with our two teenage sons. When it comes to rules, you might be surprised at some of their reactions.
1. Teenagers Don’t Hate Rules
Believe it or not, teenagers really don’t hate rules. Rules help them get through the roller coaster ride of their day. Rules let them know what’s coming ahead. Our boys have rules when it comes to taking care of our American Bulldog, Lola. In our house after school, the rule is to take care of Lola before going out with friends or on their cell phone. This might mean feeding her, taking her for a walk, or cleaning up the poop in the backyard.
The key here is that the rule needs to make sense to them.
Before we got a dog, our boys begged us for over a year to get one. Part of the agreement was: if we get a dog, you must help take care of it. They love Lola. They want Lola to be cared for. And, they understand the reason for the rule.
Another rule of ours is no cell phones while eating meals–at home or away from home. Given the choice, our teens would pull the cell phones out while we’re eating. But, we believe in what Sherry Turkle calls “sacred space.” We believe that there are times and places that face-to-face conversation is more important than any online communication. So, we’ve made this a rule.
Rules let kids know what your family values. In these instances, our dog matters to this family and so do face-to-face conversations.
Rules let our boys know what’s expected of them and let’s them know that we trust them to handle it. We expect them to put away the phones at mealtime, and we trust them to help take care of our pet.
Ask any teen: Do you like knowing what’s expected of you? Do you want your parents to trust you? The answer is a resounding: YES. If the rule clarifies expectations and fosters trust, then your teenager will not hate the rule! Your teenager will actually appreciate it.
2. Teenagers Want Rules Enforced
I remember having a discussion with my class about using social media while doing homework. One girl commented that her parents take away her phone during homework time. To my surprise, a number of students said, “You’re so lucky. I wish my parents did that.”
This is really mature when you think about it. Cell phone temptation (even addiction) is very real and teens know it. At the same time, they know that getting their homework done is a priority. This was an admission that the cell phone can be a major distraction.
You won’t hear a teenager say, “Mom, can I have more rules?” But, you might hear them say that it’s hard to do homework with so many distractions. That’s a clue that an enforced rule could be helpful.
Enforced… it’s a pretty harsh word. We tend to think of law enforcement, handcuffs, and jail. In this case, I’m not talking about a consequence or punishment for neglecting the rule.
I’m talking about helping your teen follow the rule. When teenagers recognize the family value (for example, valuing education) and understand the reason for the rule (cell phones can be too distracting when doing homework), then they really don’t mind having the rule enforced. In fact, lots of teens will say, “I wish my parents did that.”
3. Teenagers Hate Consequences That Don’t Make Sense
I’ll be honest. This is the one that took me the longest to realize. And, it’s still the one that I struggle with the most because sometimes it’s just easier to come up with a convenient consequence than to come up with a connected consequence.
A convenient consequence is something that will make my life easier, but it usually does not connect to the rule. In fact, it might be so disconnected that the teenager will start getting all kinds of mixed signals about cause and effect. We need to make sure that our consequences make a strong connection between cause and effect.
Here are some disconnected consequences that I have personally given:
My son didn’t do his math homework last week = you can’t go to wrestling practice.
My son is arguing with his brother = give me your phone.
My son forgot to take Lola for a walk = you’re grounded.
A girl keeps talking during class to her BFF about prom = go in the hallway.
A boy cheated on a quiz = automatic zero.
The problem with all of these consequences is that they don’t make sense…especially to a teenager. They know that rules about doing homework, taking care of pets, and being honest are all good rules. The arguing and screaming won’t be about the rule.
The arguing and screaming is about the disconnected consequence. Of course, they’re not going to point this out because they haven’t figured it out. But, that’s our job. Our job is to figure out why they are yelling and screaming and not simply dismiss them as a rude teenager.
Are they disappointed in themselves? Are they overtired and overstressed? Are they confused and frustrated by the consequence? Most likely…all of the above! The disappointment, sleep-deprivation, and stress are for another day. For now, let’s focus on building strong cause and effect connections with the consequences that we give.
Here are some more connected consequences.
Didn’t do homework = do the assignment and take the penalty from the teacher.
Even if he’s going to get a zero, and even if his teacher does not require him to make up the assignment, we still make our son do the assignment. The point is that “not doing something” doesn’t mean you get out of it.
In other words, he still has to do the work that’s expected of him. So, there’s no advantage to skipping a homework assignment. Having to do the assignment anyway and getting a penalty for turning it in late are both consequences that make sense.
Arguing with brother = both of you sit down and explain your side.
Kids need coaching when it comes to conflict resolution and fighting fair. If our boys can’t figure things out on their own, then we step in and put them through a quick “counseling session.” Coaching them through this makes a lot more sense than taking away someone’s phone.
Forgot to take Lola out = take her on an extra walk then brush or bathe her
The formula here is simple. My son neglected a family member. Now he needs to give her extra care and attention. Isn’t this a great life lesson? This works for both pets and people. When we are neglectful, we need to make amends. Teenagers get this because it makes sense. Grounding them, on the other hand, will lead to an emotional outburst and completely overshadow the life lesson that you’re after.
A girl keeps talking about prom in class = move her to another seat.
After a couple warnings, I’ll remove the temptation to talk to her BFF by putting the girl in another seat. Putting her in the hallway might be the easy consequence…especially if she just came back from lunch, had a Venti ice-coffee, and got new pictures of her prom dress. OMG! I get it, she’s excited! So, remove the temptation instead of isolating the kid. Besides, do I really want to explain to an over-caffeinated teenage girl everything she missed in class because she was in the hallway? Just doesn’t make sense.
A boy cheated on a quiz = automatic zero.
As a new teacher, this was a no brainer. If you cheat, you get a zero. But, I started to realize that this was an easy way out for the kid. Cheating usually has something to do with confidence, work ethic, or over commitment. Just giving a zero often meant that those issues never got addressed.
So, we first had to talk about the cheating. Honestly, forcing the teen to do some reflecting was often more painful than taking the zero. Another thing that I would do is have the student write a letter home…you can imagine how reluctant they were to do that.
Regardless, I would always make the student come in after school and take the quiz again. Of course, there would be a stiff penalty, but the point is that not even cheating will get a kid out of the work he needs to do.
4. Teenagers Want To Help Make the Rules
As children get older, they want to have a say in their own lives. They want some control and some power because that’s what getting older entails. Getting older is about making your own decisions, having your own struggles and learning from your own mistakes. As parents, it’s important to trust our children enough to have a say in the rules and responsibilities of their own lives. This is truly one of the best ways to foster communication and trust. Talk to them about the rules in your home.
I’m not saying let them make all the rules. I’m saying maybe it’s time to talk about a new curfew, or spending habits or driving privileges. Regardless, let them have a say. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you hear!
Chris Morgan has been teaching teenagers for over 20 years and has two teenage boys at home. He enjoys Italian dinners with his wife, roller coasters with his sons, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with his workout partners, and tug-of-war with his dog, Lola. Chris is the author of the blog RollerCoasterYears.com