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“Help! I Don’t Know What I’m Doing!” - Three Types of Rules to Help All Parents

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Have you as a parent ever heard someone without children say, “I’m not ready to be a parent”? If you have, I predict that outwardly you may have smiled and nodded at them, perhaps saying something like, “Yeah, parenting can be crazy tough”; but inside you were thinking, No one is ever ready to be a parent. You think I know what I’m doing? . . . Wait, where’s my son?

This, of course, is the honest truth. No one is ever fully prepared for all the different surprises—some wonderful, some downright terrifying—that are thrust upon us, sometimes at breakneck speed, when we enter the overwhelming world of parenting

Every child is different. Every parent is different. Every situation is different. And as parents of multiple children will wholeheartedly agree, many methods or guidelines that worked with the first child will epically fail with the second child! All this leads parents everywhere to hide themselves in a closet, close the door, and scream, “Help! I don’t know what I’m doing!”

As a parent of three children myself, who all now have their own children, I fully empathize with you. How is one to know which rules will work with a child and which rules will completely backfire? Sometimes what we most need as parents are some basic guidelines and easy-to-remember suggestions to help us trek through whatever new minefield we find ourselves in today. For this reason, I want to share with you three types of parenting rules to consider for your specific child and situation:

  • Golden Rule Principles
  • Age and Stage Rules (negotiable and changing)
  • Ageless and Stageless Rules (nonnegotiable and unchanging)

Golden Rule Principles

First, many rules are based on the Golden Rule: treat others as you want them to treat you. We discover these rules by asking the children how they would like to be treated. This serves as the reason for the rule. From that we establish a common-sense rule that they, too, should follow in applying to others. 

For instance, we ask, “If your brother borrows something from you with permission, then should he return it in the same condition?” The child says, “Yes.” We then respond, “Well, if you borrow something with permission from your brother, then you need to return it in the same condition.” 

Or we ask, “If your sister uses your video game, then should she put the device back on the charger so you have a full charge when you play?” The child says, “Absolutely.” At this we reply, “So, too, if you use something of mine and wear down the battery, then you need to recharge the battery.”

The Golden Rule principles have stand-alone value. The rule makes inherent sense. Some call this natural law. It is tough to argue against the Golden Rule principles. With Golden Rule principles, the parent is not so much the creator of the rule but the one who recognizes and enforces nature’s truth. The rule reflects a universal morality that kids get! They can see it. That is why such rules empower the parent and cause the children to be treated fairly.

The demand on the parent is to learn to state the rule around the theme of treating others as the child wishes to be treated. This takes a little thought but isn’t that tough. For instance, if mom fixes the meals, then the kids who are old enough to dress themselves can help set the table and clean up afterward. As we think about it, a dad should be able to realize and say to the kids, “If you fixed the meals, would you want those you fed to watch you do everything or lend you a helping hand? Put it this way, if you built a fort outside to play in (or a playhouse) and all of your friends wanted to play in that fort (or playhouse) but just stood there and watched you build it without ever helping you, that would make you feel horrible because it's unfair. Not only would you not want them to enjoy the fort/playhouse, but you would be hurt by their unwillingness to help you. In the same way with Mom, when she works and works and works, it is only fair that we pitch in in various ways to help her.”

Think about what you want your children to do. At first, this rule demands something of them, which they don’t like. However, follow that up with this question: “What if your brothers and sisters did not follow this rule toward you? What would you feel? For example, though you need to return what you borrow, which can be a hassle, we also expect your brothers and sisters to return what they borrow from you. You want that, don’t you? Or should we do away with the rule and let them take things from you and not return them?”

Rules of the Barn

What are some of these common-sense rules that we can justify by way of Golden Rule principles? Have you heard of the rules of the barn? If you open something, then close it. If you turn something on, then turn it off. If you unlock it, then lock it. If you make a mess, then clean it up. If you move it, then put it back. Why? Each of these is based on the Golden Rule. For instance, we can say to the child, “If someone unlocks the lock on your bike but does not relock the bike and someone steals your bike, how will you feel?” The child knows that he will be very upset. He also knows that if it were a role reversal his sibling would be very upset. So, it is only fair that we apply to others what we want them to apply to ourselves. 

The beautiful thing here is that God designed us to live by the Golden Rule. We can help our kids discover that most rules exist to treat others in the way that we want to be treated. We can help our children see that rules are all about fair play.

Rules exist to treat everyone fairly. For example, in track and field, runners race around the quarter-mile track, in an event called the 440. The runners shoot out of the blocks to be the first across the finish line after completing the track one time around. However, what do we think when one of the racers suddenly leaves the track and crosses the open field to the other side of the track to get in front of everybody? Obviously, that's cheating! That’s not fair. Thus, we read in 2 Timothy 2:5, “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” In other words, rules keep things fair among those doing the same tasks. The one who does not abide by the rules is not playing fair. In the home, as best as we can, we create rules among equals that are fair and ensure fairness.

Of course, the challenge of parenting is that we have to keep coaching kids on the rules. Kids are selfish! As water takes the path of least resistance down the hill, so will kids take the path that is easiest for them. For instance, it is easier to borrow than to return, and they will want to make themselves an exception to the rule. Or, they will have an excuse. In thinking of their room, it is easier to make a mess than to clean up the mess. So even though they know it is fair to help mom out by tidying up their room, it is easier to be lazy and hope that mom overlooks their “forgetfulness.” In almost every area, it is easier not to do what we are asked when what we are asked to do is less fun than what we are doing! Thus, as parents we must keep preaching the Golden Rule.

Age and Stage Rules

Second, there are the “age and stage rules.” These are negotiable rules that change as the child moves through phases. A four-year-old boy must take his parent’s hand when crossing a busy street. Therefore a parent can have the rule: If you cross the street, then you must do so with an adult and take their hand. “Why?” he asks. We reply, "We want you to be safe and we do not want you to get hurt. We love you too much to see you get hurt." Eventually, though, he doesn’t have to take our hand when crossing the street. Why? It is negotiable based on his age. As the boy in New York City gets older, one day he makes an appeal for his parents to let him cross without holding their hand. As he makes his case to cross without holding our hand, his mom realizes, “Yes, he is responsible enough to cross Park Avenue without holding my hand.” Thus, the age and stage rule changes in time. The negotiable rule is not etched in stone like the Ten Commandments.

When should we change a negotiable rule? That varies according to the age and stage of the child. However, I can say this dogmatically: We change the negotiable rules apart from the child’s emotional complaint. If a rule is to change, it should not change when the child complains. We must not send the message, “Complain and the rule will go away.” If we change the rule, we do so later and unrelated to the complaint. Tonight the rule sticks.

The challenge is to stay engaged in applying the rules when children complain. Few children like rules! Thus, we cannot parent on the fly or when it fits our schedule. If we do, we will probably give in to their complaints and not stick to the rules or we will yell and scream to scare them into conformity.

As for complaints, the younger will complain they have to obey rules the older do not, and the older will complain that the younger gets away with murder. The four-year-old must come in from playing before the twelve-year-old must come in for the evening. Joy, my daughter, loves to tell the story of having to go to bed as a four-year-old before her older brothers and how she looked out the window on a summer evening to watch them play ball in the backyard. She wrote, “The backyard! I would stand on my bed and watch you play with the boys and the neighborhood children while I had nothing to do but make shadow puppets on the wall to pass the time. Oh wait. I couldn't even do that because it was still light out!!! I rest my case.”

How many rules are there? There is no set number. We have rules dealing with curfew, bedtime hour, TV watching, wearing clean clothes, healthy eating, doing homework on time, fastening the seatbelts, using your inside voices, and the list goes on. Because of the countless rules, we need to consider what is necessary and fair. We do not want too many rules nor too few. Too many rules make us a dictatorial parent. Too few rules make us an indulgent parent. 

One reason God designed the family unit to be led by both a mom and a dad is so they would work together as a two-parent team: two are better than one at figuring out what seems best concerning the rules. Together a mom and dad can collaborate on what seems best for the child at this age and stage. In most cases, if we set our minds to it, we can figure out what is necessary and fair. We can also figure out if we are making a mountain out of a molehill. Some of us are too tightly wound. We are anal. We need to lighten up. We may need outside counsel if we have charts and lists and are overwhelming our children with our regulations. We must not become legalists who lack grace. We need others to speak into this for the sake of our children. Better that we are embarrassed in a couple of counseling sessions than we shame our children for a lifetime.

Ageless and Stageless Rules

Third, there are the nonnegotiable rules, which I call the “ageless and stageless rules.” For example, we don’t lie, cheat, or steal. More than a rule, we might call it a divine law. It makes no difference how old the child is or what developmental challenge hovers over the child; we do not lie, cheat, or steal. Why? If we are to be credible people, who others love and respect, then we will not lie to, steal from, or cheat other people. No exceptions. Or, another example: If we are to be individuals whom other people want to be around, then we won’t explode in anger and destroy things and hurt people. We can say that as a family, we have zero tolerance for willfully breaking things and injuring others. Though we give grace to the toddler who throws the temper tantrum, we know a day is coming when that kind of behavior must absolutely cease. It will be nonnegotiable. 

Or, another such rule, if we can call it that, is that we don’t do things that hurt God’s heart but instead show our desire to trust and obey Him. For example, if we love God, then we don’t take God’s name in vain. Instead, we thank God for the good times and the less-than-good times. We seek to serve Him, not curse Him. With these “ageless and stageless rules,” we don’t negotiate. God has spoken on most of these things. Yes, we give grace and forgive when we fail and confess. We pour out tons of grace on our kids. But grace doesn’t mean we call that which is wrong an okay thing to do (Isaiah 5:20). Instead, we confess the wrong and begin again. The ageless and stageless rule has stood the test of time.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. What Golden Rule principles do you need to remind your child of today? Do you think he or she will rise to the challenge of treating others how they want to be treated themselves? Why or why not?
  2. Reread what Emerson called “the rules of the barn.” Do you think those would work with your children? Why or why not?
  3. What is an age and stage rule that you have that your child has respected? Why do they respect this rule? What is an age and stage rule that your child does not understand why they need to obey it? How can you discuss this with them so that they might better understand it, or at least respect you more as the parent for enforcing this rule, even if they don’t fully understand it?
  4. Are there any nonnegotiable, “ageless and stageless” rules that your child has trouble following? Since these are “ageless” and will always be, how might you approach teaching and enforcing them in a way your child might better receive?