The Difference Between Rule-making and Ruling

The Difference Between Rule-making and RulingSome parents mix the idea of rule-making with ruling their home. Reasonable rulemaking and proper boundaries will help a teenager mature into a confident adult, while living under a “ruler” can lead to frustration, rebellion and eroded self-esteem. Which kind of home is yours? One that has rules or one that is ruled?

Rules for your home should fall into three main areas of concern, which are foundational to all other character and maturity issues. They are honesty, obedience, and respect. After all, isn’t the ultimate intent of creating and enforcing rules in your home that of keeping a child’s poor choices from consuming him and destroying his relationships with others?

So, when you think about the rules that govern your home, you might want to ask yourself two questions. The first is, “How much will this rule matter after I am gone or when the child is out on his own?” The second is, “Will this help build my child’s character and cause him to become more mature or responsible?” If the rules for your older teenagers are not centering on character, then you’re most likely ruling your home instead.

“Ruling” works and is necessary when kids are younger, but as your children reach the teenage years they naturally begin weighing decisions on their own. When they choose to break the household rules, they need to deal with the resulting consequences. Teenagers understand consequences. That’s how they learn, not from lecturing or parental anger.

When a teenager butts heads with a “ruler,” conflict and frustration will result. The only thing they’ll then learn is either how to better hide their improper actions or how to scream louder than the ruler does. Neither of these modes are productive and can also lead to a legacy of poor parenting.

Rule-making in Your Home

Rules need to make sense. We can all think about rules set down by our own parents that made no sense at all and others that were beneficial to us (even though we may not have liked them).

Rules also should be relevant, attainable and beneficial, not a source of shame, frustration, or failure.

And rules need to be communicated in advance, right along with the consequences for breaking those rules. Think of it this way. If no one knows the rules, then your teenager will have to learn them by trial and error and will constantly get into trouble. Likewise, if consequences for breaking the rules aren’t known, then a teenager has no way to weigh those consequences against whatever pleasure they find in breaking the rule. This balancing of actions versus consequences is a critical skill for adolescents to learn and exercise.

Finally, rules need to evolve over time, as lessons are learned, kept in line with the growing maturity of your teenager. I’m not talking about “giving in.” I’m saying that out-of-date, irrelevant or demeaning rules will lead to animosity, loss of respect and rebellion by your teenager. They can also lead to consequence confusion, since outdated rules are often not enforced. So, regularly update your rules and restate them to your teenager (before they break the rule, not after), awarding them with freedom and added privileges for the progress they make.

Rules Are Enforced Through Reasonable Consequences

Consequences for teenagers should never hurt physically (other than aching muscles from work assignments). They should never be demeaning or undermine the child’s self-esteem. For teenagers, the loss of a privilege is the most reasonable and powerful consequence. Sometimes they don’t realize how many privileges they enjoy — at least not until they lose them for a time.

Think about some reasonable consequences for your home. And keep in mind how important it is that they are communicated well in advance so the teenager doesn’t attribute the consequences they receive to your poor mood or a bad day. When they break a rule they should know exactly what the consequence will be. And just like laws in our society, parents need to build in progressively stronger consequences for rules that are broken again and again (since the initial consequence was obviously not enough of a deterrent).

Setting up rules and enforcing consequences — more than any other thing you manage as a parent — is the best way to help your child learn right from wrong and to change from selfish to unselfish thinking.

Don’t Cut Off Relationship When They Do Wrong

When you line out the rules, make it clear that they are developed in the context of longing for your child to do well in life, more than a selfish need for you to be in control or your home to be pristine. Above all, keep in mind that your relationship with your child is more important than their breaking any rule.

Don’t correlate your teen’s rule-keeping or rule-breaking to your love or acceptance of them. Regularly let them know that you will continue to love them, even when they mess up. Express your sorrow when your teen experiences consequences, but take care not to express your disappointment in them. There’s a big difference between those two sentiments. One is caring and the other is destructive of your relationship.

The Parent’s Admonition: “There is nothing you can do to make me love you more, and nothing you can do to make me love you less.”

When your teenager breaks a rule (and they will!) show your deep love for them by refusing to let them off the hook. Teenagers mostly learn from consequences. So avoid taking the consequences away or lessening them. When consequences are known well in advance, it shouldn’t damage your relationship when they are handed out. Surely, your teenager weighed the consequences at the same time they chose to step over the line, and chose to do it anyway!

HOME ASSIGNMENT: If you have teenagers in your home, line out some rules for your home, and begin to think about what consequences to apply. Decide things like: who pays for what, what time frame is expected for certain things like curfew and chores, what you expect from them for school and grades, work, their spiritual life, their friends. Address issues like respect, honesty and obedience, with clear rules — no lying, no cheating, everyone gets respect. Call a family meeting and work on the rules and consequences together, so everyone is part of it. You’ll be surprised. Your teen will often suggest penalizing bad behavior with consequences more severe than you were thinking.

Remember, “ruling” your home is not a good measurement of the effectiveness of your rulemaking.

About the Author

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.  His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

Visit www.HeartlightMinistries.org to find out more about the residential counseling center for teens, or call Heartlight directly at 903. 668.2173.  For more information and helpful other resources for moms and dads, visit www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.

Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate Behavior

Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate BehaviorDon’t judge; but I’m a fan of the National Treasure movies.  Remember those films?  They starred Nicholas Cage as Benjamin Gates, a historian and modern fortune hunter who believed that America’s national monuments and historical artifacts contained a secret treasure map from the founding fathers.  While other researchers and academics laughed at his conspiracy theories, Benjamin Gates eventually proved that underneath the common symbols and landmarks we see in America was a trail of messages pointing to new discoveries.

What does the National Treasure have to do with parenting teens?  Just this:  Our child’s inappropriate behaviors, whether it’s blatant disrespect, substance abuse, continuous lying, sexual activity, stealing, out-of-control anger, or spiraling depression, are visible landmarks that stick out in our teen’s life.  But if we take the time to look underneath these monuments, we will find the true message our teens are trying to convey, but cannot find the words to do so.

All behavior, good or bad, is goal-oriented.  A teen doesn’t act up without a reason.  There is always a purpose and motivation behind a child’s actions.  That means that inappropriate behavior is a visible indicator of an invisible problem.  It’s the smoke that signals a hidden fire.  It’s the warning light on the dashboard telling us to check our engine.  Inappropriate behavior is a teen trying desperately to get help!

Heart Transformation Versus Behavior Modification

I get it.  When our precious son or daughter is spinning out of control, our natural impulse is to correct their behavior.  We want them to switch from doing wrong to doing right.  We want to stop the lying, halt the cheating, curb the anger, and put an end to whatever harmful habit our teen is engaged in.

But if we only address the behavior and not the motivation behind it, we’re not truly helping our kids.  It’s like the guy who went to see the doctor, because no matter what he touched on his body, it hurt.  “Doc, when I touch my arm, I get this shooting pain.  When I touch my leg, same thing.  Even when I touch my face, I almost pass out, it hurts so bad.  What’s the matter with me?” The doctor took one look and said, “You have a broken finger.”

When something is broken in your child’s life, it will affect everything else.  And unless we address a teen’s heart, we’re not addressing the real cause of the problem.  Focusing solely on the inappropriate actions is a form of behavior modification, but it is only a temporary Band-Aid.  Aim for heart transformation instead.  Investigate the reasons why your child is acting out, and address those concerns.

Becky is a funny, compassionate, and well-spoken student in the Heartlight program.  Born with a blood disorder that made many activities dangerous, Becky always had to work harder than most kids to stay connected to friends.  And as she got older, it seemed to become more and more difficult.  Becky told us that it wasn’t easy to fit in among her school friends, who liked to party, because that just wasn’t her scene.  Yet, at the same time, Becky was finding it hard to relate to her church friends, who seemed to have perfect, sin-free lives, while she did not.  As the gap widened between real connections, the lonelier Becky became.  So in order to be close with anyone, and to feel accepted, Becky would often sneak out of her house at night to meet up with boys and engage in risky sexual activity. “I knew it was wrong,” Becky confessed. “But those guys made me feel special, wanted, needed.  I so badly wanted friends I could relate to, that I settled for boys who really just took advantage of me.

Now, to help Becky and get her back on the right track, it would be easy to set up strict boundaries and rules, and point out the mistakes of sexual experimentation.  But after listening to this sweet, young lady speak, I realized it wasn’t behavior modification that she really needed.  She was desperate for connection, and in her immaturity, she was looking for it in all the wrong places.  So if we take time to affirm her, set up friends who care about her, involve her in social circles with people she can relate to, those inappropriate behaviors will no longer have the same pull on her life.  By addressing her heart, we’ve solved the problems with her behavior.

How to Find the Hidden Message

Now the question on the floor is, “Okay Mark, I need to look past the behavior to see what my son or daughter is really trying to say.  But how can I possibly decode those hidden messages?

First, to hear a teen’s heart, we need to actively listen.  That might mean withholding advice, judgment or comments for a while.  I have found that most teens know when their actions are out of line.  They don’t need mom and dad pointing that out.  So instead of rehashing the mistakes, ask questions and sit back and listen.  “What got you so angry?” or “How did that drug make you feel?” or “What made you go to that website?”  These types of probing questions can peel back the layers of inappropriate behavior and give you insight into your child’s heart.  Of course, in the moment, your teen may reply with the customary “I don’t know.”  But don’t let their first answer stop you.  In a gentle, loving and firm way, keep asking the questions that help you find the reason behind the behavior.

Second, don’t wait to address the behavior itself.  You can search for the motive behind the actions at the same time that you are dealing with the action itself.  While you’re taking away the car keys, you can say, “I don’t want to take the car privileges away from you again.  So let’s talk about why this happened and how we can keep it from happening in the future.”  The longer you wait to speak to the behavior, the harder it will be to deal with it correctly.  By confronting the behavior, you’re also letting your teen know that, while you do care about the reasons behind those actions, you love them enough not to sweep the inappropriate behavior under the rug.

Lastly, be open to what God wants to teach you through your child’s behavior.  Often, it’s the times of struggle, or hardships, or conflict that strengthen our relationships and deepen our character.  I Peter 1:6 says, “Though for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials … these have come so that the genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold—may result in the praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Look behind the trials of parenting a teen to see the faith, grace and hope God is building into your life.  Underneath all that inappropriate behavior you may find a map to the eternal treasures of peace, grace, and hope God has in store for both you and your teen.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a counseling facility for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. Check out our website, www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with effective parenting ideas, helpful articles, and practical tools and resources for moms and dads. Visit our website, where you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens podcast, or find a radio station near you to listen to our broadcasts. You can also call us directly at 1-866-700-3264 to find out about any upcoming events.


The Importance of Relationship with Your Teen


When it comes to how God parents His kids, we say “it’s not about the rules … it’s about the relationship.”  And the same goes for how we should parent our teens!  On this edition of Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston proves the importance of a healthy relationship with your child and how to create that type of strong connection.  Fostering a lasting bond with your teen on this edition of Parenting Today’s Teens.

Special Guest:  Reba Bowman