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Establishing Family Rules

When I was growing up there was one major rule—don’t make mom or dad mad.  If we broke that rule, we got whacked when Dad got home.  It was a “My way, and there is no highway” kind of arrangement.

I remember once “borrowing” the motorcycle without permission.  Of course, I wrecked it.  Dad responded with serious consequences.  Rather than fixing the bike that we loved to ride, he donated it to the school for their shop class.  But he went a step further; he withdrew from our relationship.  Our relationship wasn’t the best in the world anyway, but he basically didn’t speak to my brother and me for a few weeks.   I had disappointed him and he cut me off as a result.

That was the only way he knew how to deal with problems, but that kind of militaristic approach just doesn’t work today.  We live in a more relational culture.  Most parents today have better relationships with their children than parents did when I was growing up…but while that’s largely a good thing, there is a downside as well.  If our teens don’t “buy in” to the rules, the relational approach makes enforcing those rules difficult.

We have horses at Heartlight.  I love the way a teen opens up when you get them on a horse—or even just around a horse.  It’s almost like magic.  But because we have horses, we also have fences.  The fences keep the horses safe while they also allow them to run freely within their limits.  Rules in your family serve the same function.  Though it may seem contradictory, when they have specific limits on their behavior, your teens actually have a greater degree of freedom.  The difference is that we don’t talk to the horses about where the fences should go!  Unlike fences, rules cannot be touched or seen, so they need to be pointed out and understood in order for them to corral behavior.

So, let me share some ideas for successfully creating rules for your household.  The earlier you start this process the better.  If there’s still time for you to do this while your children are still tweens, it will be easier than if you wait until they’re old enough to drive.  If yours is already in the teens, start today.  Preferably before the sun goes down.

Have your teenager help you establish the rules and consequences.

If you establish the rules unilaterally, especially if your home has been relationally focused, you’ll probably face significant push back from your teen.  They aren’t going to understand why they have no say in the process and they’ll be less likely to follow the rules as a result.

Sit down together and discuss what you think behavior in your home should look like.  This is a time to turn off the cell phones, the television and the laptop and focus on what you’re doing.  Talk about how your family expects to deal with issues like dating, driving, cell phones, church, school work, friends, media . . . the list can go on and on, but be sure to major on the majors.  Discuss (don’t dictate) what kinds of behavior fits with your family’s values and which don’t, and include some rules for the adults in the family as well, so the kids don’t think this process is just targeting them.  Talk through the reasons behind the rules that you are establishing and get everyone’s opinion about what consequences should be applied for breaking the rules.  You’ll be surprised how tough your kids will be on themselves when consequences are being discussed, so you might have to lessen them to be realistic.

In working with thousands of teens over the years, there are some warning signs that point to great trouble ahead.  Disrespect and dishonesty are two of those for which violations should have clear and steep consequences, so that your teens know what to expect if they cross one of those lines. So, tackle those first.  Never bend on character or moral issues, but allow some slack in other areas so your teen feels there is some give and take.

The point is this, by getting their input in drawing up this document, you are giving them a sense of ownership of the rules and foreknowledge of what consequences to expect. It allows them to weigh the consequences against breaking the rules.  So, as you work through this process over several weeks, have the final document typed and printed out so that it is clear for everyone to see.

If you need more help and to get some examples of such a document, see the kit (workbook and CD), “Our Family Belief System” here. (or go to

Allow the consequences to play out.

Once you have laid down the rules and the consequences with your children, don’t back down when it comes to enforcing them.  Teens are masterful at trying to get exceptions made “just this once.”  Parents are often afraid that if they enforce the consequences that have been set they will damage their relationship with their child.  The truth is just the opposite.  Kids actually want their parents to be consistent, and they can live with the consequences, so let them be involved in setting those consequences.  I’m not a big fan of, “I told you so,” but it’s appropriate to remind them when they step over the line that they chose the consequences and will now have to live with them.

Proverbs 19:19 says, “If you rescue [an angry child] once, you will have to do it again.”  It’s far better for the consequences to teach them; you don’t want all the teaching of teenagers to come from you.  Don’t give in, but don’t give up either. Your child will push against every rule you have  and even violate each one at one point or another.  So keep at it.  Keep letting the consequences work in your favor.  And keep giving them unrelenting love as you go through that process with them.

Beliefs and values never change; rules do.

Don’t think of your rules as written in stone.  That’s one of the nice things about having them on your computer; they can be easily adjusted over time.  So check your rules every six months to make sure they still apply to the maturity of your child.

Sometimes parents don’t adjust the rules and they make the mistake of holding a sixteen year old to the same exact rules they had for him as a twelve year old.  This can be exasperating for an older teen.  I’m not suggesting you let him do things that are wrong.  But some things that are procedural can be relaxed as they mature.  For instance, bedtime and curfew can be moved to a later hour, more independence and decision making can be transferred, and more responsibility can be added.

There are obviously limits, however.  One of the things that I believe pretty strongly is the old saying that nothing good ever happens after midnight.  So when our kids got older, we moved their curfew, but we never moved it past midnight.  It’s a very positive thing when you show some flexibility.  The problem some parents have is that they aren’t willing to change on anything.  The world has changed, and we want to be sure we’re only holding on to the things that are worth holding—and not holding on to things just because “that’s the way it was when I was growing up.”

Above all else, I encourage you to work diligently to keep your relationship strong.  As you can probably tell, I think rules are really important, but the relationship you have with your child is even more important.  Take the time to involve them and help them take ownership of the rules.  I think you’ll find the fights decreasing and the relationships and harmony in your home increasing.  It’s worth the effort!

We talked about this issue in depth on our radio program last week called “Teen Ownership of Family Rules.”  To listen online look for the program dated May 7, 2011 at

Our topic on the weekend radio program this week is “The Importance of Pain” It’s difficult to watch our kids go through a painful time. But sometimes these uncomfortable moments are crucial for development!  Guest—Barry St. Clair.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit, or to read other articles by Mark, visit

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.