Walking the Tight Rope Between Rules and Grace

It is not that we keep His commandments first, and that then He loves; but that He loves us, and then we keep His commandments.  This is that grace, which is revealed to the humble, but hidden from the proud.


One of the toughest assignments in all of parenting is the balancing act between enforcing rules and giving grace.  On one hand we all agree that kids (especially of the teenage persuasion) need boundaries, order, and consequences.  Those clear lines in the sand mark where we require respect, responsibility, and honesty.  But if all we have are rules, then our home becomes a legalistic training ground, where performance measures the amount of love that is given and received.

On the other hand, we cannot survive without grace.  No one is perfect.  We all have flaws and foibles.  Those flaws become more noticeable as kids reach the teenager years, so prepare to deal with mistakes!  But grace is the action of moving towards your child regardless of what they’ve done or how badly they have behaved.  However, if grace isn’t partnered with rules, then it’s like placing a teenager into a wide open field and letting them run free until they’re lost.  Rules are the fences that allow us freedom to live in comfort and safety.

So you can see why the most common question parents ask me is about how to juggle rules and grace.  How can a mom or dad adhere to the rules while at the same time, doling out hearty portions of grace?  Let me give you some helpful tips.

Throw Away Legalistic Behaviors

If you have ever said anything like…

  • “It’s my way or the highway!”
  • “You’ll do it because I said it!”
  • “As long as you live in this house, it will be done this way!”
  • “You will respect me; I’m your father!”

…then it’s possible you may lean towards being a “rule-enforcer” rather than a “grace-giver.”  If these phrases sound familiar, then it’s time to re-evaluate your speech and actions to incorporate more grace into your home.  Throw away the legalistic jargon that frustrates rather than trains or guides your children.  To give grace means to communicate with teens why a rule is in place, what the consequence of breaking that rule is beforehand, and allowing freedom in the areas that aren’t worth the battle.

When your teen received that golden ticket that is a driver’s license, then you probably enacted a few rules regarding curfews, who can ride with them, and responsibility towards gas and insurance.  But did you take the time to explain why the 11 o’clock curfew is in place, or why everyone in the car has to wear seatbelts?  Just saying, “Do it, because I said so!” only tells your teenager that it’s the rules you’re concerned with, not their health or well being.

Rigid adherence to authority doesn’t teach or change kids.  Grace does.  It demonstrates you care more about them than you do about the letter of the law.  Grace speaks volumes to the heart of a struggling child.

Stick to the Consequences

If there is one guarantee in all of parenting it’s this — teenagers will break the rules at some point during their adolescence.  In fact, if your child hasn’t broken a rule yet, check their pulse!  When lines have been crossed, teenagers need discipline.  But giving grace does not mean we skirt around the consequences.  If we look at the example of Jesus, His offer of grace didn’t negate the law or the penalties of sin.  He paid the price on the cross so that He could offer us forgiveness.  The law of grace works the same way.  Discipline and rules apply, but we don’t move away from our kids during that time.  We move closer to them.

Let’s say your teen does break one of the car rules you’ve put into place.  They roll into the driveway around midnight and try to sneak in, only to get busted by a creaky door or a barking dog.  So you take away the license for a week (or a similar consequence).  Now, showing grace towards your child doesn’t mean giving them back the car privileges after a couple of days.  But it does mean you go to them during their time of restriction and say, “Let’s go grab some coffee.  I’ll drive!” or, “Want to go watch a movie, just the two of us?”  It’s a constant motion toward the relationship, while upholding the penalties for breaking the rules.

Anyone who knows me understands that I am BIG on consequences.  But I’m even BIGGER on relationships.  As one of my favorite authors Josh McDowell wrote, “Rules without relationships leads to rebellion.”  If I was to tweak this, I would say, “Rules without grace leads to a frustrated heart!

The Harder Path

I know that for some parents with struggling kids, showing grace is a monumental task.  You’ve been hurt and wounded by your child and though you still love them, you have a difficult time showing them grace.  I understand.  Grace isn’t easy.  It’s extremely tough to give certain people something they don’t deserve.  But let’s face it — none of us deserve grace.  If kindness was given solely on merit we’d all be in a heap of trouble!  Colossians 3:13 tells us to “be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else.  You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you.

There was a young man staying at the Heartlight Campus a few years back.  He was generally a sweet kid; funny, well spoken, and kind.  But he didn’t deal with emotions well at all, especially anger.  One day after coming back from school, he got so mad, he took a baseball bat and started beating on my truck!  Then, when one of my dogs came out to see what all the commotion was about, and this teenager turned around and kicked my dog.  I was furious!  But I took some time to calm down before I spoke or dealt with the situation.  I realized that I needed to forgive and show grace even in this circumstance.  Of course, this young guy had to pay for the repairs to my truck and the vet bills for my dog.  And during that time, I let him know that I forgave him, and I helped him take the dents out of my car.  I made a conscious effort to move towards this angry young man, not away from him.  It was not easy, but it made a huge difference in his life.

I know that grace is tough.  But think back on all the grace you have received in your life, and pour that back into your child.  In the midst of disappointment or even anger, let them know that the relationship is still important, and there’s nothing they could do to make you love them less.

It’s a precarious balancing act walking closely between rules and grace.  We cannot lean too much to one side or the other.  But once we find the correct balance — when consequences are delivered with grace, and kindness is bounded with rules — that’s when we we’ll see our kids and our home flourish.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

Discipline and Consequences


At some point, every parent wrestles with the question of discipline.  How can we hold our kids accountable and show love at the same time?  On this edition of Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston provides real-world advice on implementing discipline and consequences in your home.

Special Guest: Bill Ziegler

Crime, Punishment, and Grace

In high school English, I was forced to read the book Crime and Punishment.  Let me tell you, this is no short story.  It was a crime and a punishment that I even had to read it!  But I have to admit—once I got into the story, I was hooked.

Crime and Punishment follows the life of a normal guy who commits a heinous crime in a fit of rage.  Guilty and ashamed, he tries to cover up his offense and pretend it didn’t happen.  But try as he may, he can’t shake his conscience.  His guilt overwhelms him, even as a clever police inspector starts to put all the pieces together.  It’s a vivid portrayal of the truth that for every crime there’s a punishment—even if it’s simply a matter of a nagging conscience.

As parents, it’s our responsibility to determine the fitting punishment when our kids break rules and make poor choices.  This can be one of the hardest aspects of parenting can’t it?  It’s a challenge to balance correction and grace.  Maybe you’ve struggled over knowing whether you’re being too strict or too lenient.  As you learn to juggle crime, punishment and grace, here are a few practical guidelines to keep in mind.

Punishment Evolves

Over time, the consequences for breaking family boundaries should evolve and grow along with your child.  Time-outs might be effective for a five year old, but useless for your tween.  A major shift happens when we move from teaching our kids to then training our kids.

When our kids were young, most of the rules centered on behavior.  We expected our children to act according to our wishes:  Don’t run in the street.  Treat grown ups with respect.  Tantrums are not ok.  When our kids enter their teen years, our focus should shift from teaching appropriate behavior to training them to make good choices and be responsible for their own decisions.  Instead of thinking, mom and dad want me to do this … our teens should begin thinking along the lines of, I want to do this because it is good for me.  I don’t want to do that because it’s bad for me.

For that to happen, discipline has to be fine tuned with your teenager in mind.  Start by listing ten areas where you want your son or daughter to improve.  It could be a disrespectful attitude, a dirty mouth or laziness.  Then list ten things that bring your teen joy—like surfing, texting, driving, or spending time with friends.  Couple those lists together and let your child know that if they are disrespectful, the cell phone gets taken away.  Or if they continue to be lazy during the summer, no more surf trips.  This kind of discipline creates rules and boundaries, but also allows your teen freedom and makes them aware of the consequences of their actions.

Rules and Relationships

Growing up, my father was a very strong man who put us under strict procedures of behavior.  I obeyed those rules (most of the time) not because I knew my dad was trying to teach me something or because I thought they were good rules, but because I was afraid of my dad.  I understood the rules, but the relationship was lacking.  I learned about loyalty, honesty and the value of hard work, but I didn’t grasp the importance of love, grace or compassion.

Author Josh McDowell says that rules without relationship causes rebellion.  He’s right on.  If we are laying down the law, but not taking the time to understand or get to know our kids, it will cause nothing but resentment and hostility.  Of course if we emphasize the relationship without the rules, then we create an environment that gives kids the false impression that actions don’t matter and there are no consequences.  Rules and relationships go hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other.

Stand Firm

My friend Bill Ziegler is a principal at a middle school in Pennsylvania.  He was recently telling me about a student who had broken the rules of the school, and was to report to the principal.  Bill lovingly explained the consequences to the student and why they were put in place.  It seemed to be going well, until the student’s mother stormed into Bill’s office, shouting and using profanities about how her child shouldn’t have to be punished at all and criticizing the principal for coming down on her son.  After the mom left, the student came back into Bill’s office, and said Mr. Ziegler, sorry for my mom.  I accept the punishment, and I’ll try to do better.

Funny how the parent was the one upset about the consequences, and not the student who was receiving them.  Now it won’t always be that easy as it’s unlikely that your teen will accept the repercussions of discipline so well.  But we need to stand firm on the penalties for breaking the rules.

Parents who want to “rescue” their children from pain or suffering are actually hurting their kids more then they know.  It usually happens for three reasons:

  • Parents want to be friends with their kids
  • Parents can’t handle the constant nagging of their teen during punishment
  • Parents are afraid that if they punish their child, he or she will rebel even more, only worsening the problem.

Mom and Dad, your child doesn’t need another friend.  During these tough adolescent years they need you to be a parent—to correct them when they make a mistake and love them regardless of their behavior.  Don’t be afraid to let your kids face the consequences of their choices and actions.  If they get a speeding ticket, don’t pay for it yourself.  If they’re failing a class, don’t do their homework for them.  Yes, we should extend grace to our teens.  But showing grace doesn’t mean swooping in and saving the day when your kid messes up.  If their driving privileges have been taken away, grace would be offering them a ride.  Giving them the keys before the punishment is met—that’s caving in.  Setting aside time to help with homework is loving.  Writing their book report because you read it and they didn’t, is rescuing.  Teens learn independence and maturity when they face hard times more than when everything is going smooth.  Give them a chance to experience consequences so they can grow.

For every crime there is a punishment.  That’s the way of life.  Handing out discipline isn’t for the faint of heart.  I know it can be hard, draining, and exhausting.  But if we want to follow God’s plan for character growth, we need to let natural consequences shape our kids into mature adults.  Hebrews 12:6 says, Those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines.  No matter what your kids might think in the moment, punishment isn’t a cruel action.  When done in the right way, it can be an expression of love.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  And be sure to tune in for the weekly Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast!  Hear Mark on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.