Do Your Kids Deeply Understand the Reasons Behind the Rules?

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

Boy with skateboard by sign

Living peacefully in a civil society requires rules. For example, when teens are learning to drive they learn many rules like what to do at a stoplight and the maximum speed to drive. Rules provide guidance and allow us to anticipate other people's behavior.

Games children play also have rules whether it's Uno or baseball. There are rules which all players must follow in order to play fairly. Games aren't much fun if some players refuse to follow the rules.

The Temptation of the Forbidden

While rules can serve as helpful guidance, they can also feel like big locks hiding buried treasure that are ever so tempting to try to pick. What treasure is so special that it needs such a big set of rules to protect it?

Doesn't hearing "Don't peak!" just make you want to peak? Rules can sometimes make the forbidden behavior even more attractive. It certainly adds to the excitement if you decide to break the rule!

It's natural for your children to want to test out the rules. They are curious to know what will happen if this rule is broken.

Knowing When Rules Can Be Broken

There are times when some rules can be broken. For example, my children knew the playground rules for their elementary school by heart. These rules were designed to keep all the kids safe when hundreds of kids might be in the playground area.

Some of the rules were:

  • No walking up the slide to get to the top.
  • No jumping off the swings.
  • No standing on the snake beam.
One summer day we walked up to the playground. They were the only kids on the playground and delighted in announcing every playground rule as they broke it. Knowingly breaking the rules added to their fun!

They understood the intent behind the rules well enough to choose which ones to break. For example, they didn't break the rule of "no pushing someone off the equipment" but they did walk up the slide to get to the top.

Internalizing the Reasons behind the Rules

It's impossible to specify enough rules to keep our kids safe in every possible situation. This is why it's important for children to understand the reasons behind the rules so that they can use that reasoning as their ultimate guide.

One family developed many rules around the use of the internet. One of the biggest rules was never to give away personal information like your real name, phone number or email address to strangers. A related rule was to never use "stranger hook-up" websites.

13-year-old Rachel knew these rules by heart. Her parents had discussed them often with her. However, when a friend excitedly told her about a new website where they could meet boys, Rachel was eager to try it out. What fun they had! They met boys from all over country! These boys made Rachel feel wonderful with all their compliments so she decided to give them her name, number and email address.

Rachel experienced some serious natural consequences when these "boys" started hounding her through cellphone and email. When one showed up in Seattle and wanted to get together, the police became involved.

Her parents decided to help Rachel by limiting these types of choices for a while. When she's more prepared to handle her cellphone and computer responsibly, she'll have another chance. Rachel now has a much better understanding of the reasons behind her parents' internet rules.

Obeying the Letter of the Law but Not the Spirit

I saw a young boy and his teenage brother doing some challenging skateboarding tricks. Both kids had helmets with them; however, those helmets were in their hands, not on their heads! I imagined that their parents had told them to take their helmets and that's exactly what they did.

While the boys had followed their parents' instructions, they ignored the intention of those instructions. Clearly the helmets do not do any good if they're not being worn.

While your job as a parent is to keep your children safe, you have to transfer some of this responsibility to your children as they grow older. Only set rules that you truly care enough about to enforce. If your child breaks a rule, it's time for a serious discussion about what happened and what needs to change in the future so that better choices are made.

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

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