Years ago, we had several boys living with us in our home. They were assigned their own bathroom, but based on the worsening condition of those facilities, I realized these guys needed some help exercising maturity and self-control. I told them, “Fellas, from now on, you need to clean your own toilet and keep this bathroom tidy. If not, you could lose it.” Unfortunately, they ignored the rule and the mess got even worse. So, one day, I just took the entire toilet out! The toilet needed to be replaced anyway, but the boys didn’t need to know that. I thought not having it for a while would be a good learning experience for them.
When the boys got home from school, there was nothing but a little hole in the floor where the messy toilet used to stand. In disbelief, they asked me, “Where are we supposed to go?” I said, “I’m sorry, the rule was that you needed to keep the bathroom clean, and if you didn’t, you couldn’t have it.” Well, after a few days of dealing with just a hole in the ground, the boys came back to me and asked, “What do we need to do to get our toilet back?” Once they experienced the consequences, they saw the value of the rule, and put in the work necessary to reclaim their bathroom.
Rules are not just about getting the chores done, cleaning the house (or making it smell better). Like the story of the boys’ toilet, rules give us the opportunity to teach our teens important life principles about responsibility. So how do you know that the rules of your house are helping your kids instead of hurting them? Let me offer five essential characteristics of a good rule.
1. Rules Should Be Relevant
Boundaries that were necessary and acceptable when your child was seven will likely be outdated when he is seventeen. Good rules flex and grow along with your child. I believe that nothing good happens for a teenager after midnight, so curfews are a good boundary to establish. But while a 9 o’clock curfew is great for a 13-year-old, it’s probably too early for a sixteen-year-old. Good rules help our teens learn to make good decisions for themselves and wean them from their dependency on mom and dad. This happens when our rules stay relevant and current with the age and maturity of our child.
2. Rules Should Be Attainable
As parents, we all want great things for our kids. Encouraging your son or daughter to succeed is good, but if reaching a particular expectation set up by mom and dad seems impossible, a teen will shut down, quit or rebel. Our rules should be about getting kids where they need to go, and keeping them from where they shouldn’t be. So the rules we set up should be realistic and reasonable, allowing teens to fulfill (or maybe even exceed) expectations. You could reasonably say, “If you get a ‘D’ in any class, then we have to take away your cell phone for a week.” That’s a logical goal to shoot for. But if you insist, “Get straight A’s or you lose your cellphone for a week!” that expectation may be too demanding for your teen. It would be unfair to make your 8-year-old mow the lawn every week. But it’s an attainable goal to have your 14-year-old do some landscaping on the weekend. A good rule is always within reach for your child.
3. Rules Should Be Beneficial
Think about some of the rules in your house and ask yourself, “Will this help build up my kids’ character and cause them to become more mature and responsible?” If the answer is “no”, then you probably need to rethink that rule and your motivation for wanting to make it a rule. Good boundaries grow out of a good relationship with your child. It’s not about exerting control, wielding authority, or keeping your teen under your thumb. You want to help your teen become a dependable and responsible adult, and the rules of your home should be designed to get your son or daughter to that place. If the rule is not helpful, it may be time to toss it aside.
4. Rules Should Make Sense
Mom and dad … rules need to make sense. We can all remember rules set down by our own parents that made no sense at all. I can remember being told I was not allowed to grow my hair past my earlobes. Even as a teen I asked, “Why not?” It wasn’t because I was rebellious or wanted to shock people—I just wanted to fit in with the guys at my school who had cool, long hair. We need to listen to our teens and honestly hear their objections to some of the long-standing rules we’ve put in place. It’s not enough to say, “Do it because I said so!” Your teen might not be able to understand how a rule is beneficial, but you should have a logical reason for every rule, and be able to explain that reason to your teenager. If not, the rule doesn’t make sense and should be scrapped.
5. Rules Should Come From a Place of Love
I said it before, but it’s so true—Rules without relationship lead to rebellion. If there is no love but a lot of boundaries, that’s legalism, and kids feel stifled and smothered. If there is plenty of love but no boundaries, then there’s no structure, and kids go out-of-control. Good rules grow out of a loving willingness to provide guidance.
We were playing paintball with some kids at Heartlight, and the teens love plastering me with paint. When we were finished, I was surprised to find one of the boys refusing to clean his equipment. I went up to him and said, “We had a good time, and you know the rule for the course—everybody cleans their own equipment.” With a verbal onslaught, the young man told me he simply wasn’t going to do that. I remained calm and said to him, “Now we have another problem. In addition to breaking the equipment cleaning rule, you are also being disrespectful.” Then I laid out the consequences for breaking the rules. After a couple of days raking pine needles, the teen came to me and apologized. I brought the lesson home and reaffirmed him by saying, “You are a good man, but the way you responded in these situations hurts your relationships with the people you’re closest to. I want something better for you. By the way, this lesson is not about cleaning the stupid paintball stuff. This is about helping you be successful in life.”
It’s true that a bad rule can hurt a child. But a good rule, in the hands of a loving parent, can be the best thing in the life of a teen.