Imposing Rules on Children: Is There a Better Way?

I’ve been thinking about rules and principles of living…

We all know what rules are. Life is full of them. Most
families have many rules by which their children must live, such as…
“You are allowed to play on the computer, or watch TV for x hours each

“You must eat everything on your plate.”

“You must never call anyone an unkind name.”

“Hitting is not allowed.”

“You must do your chores.”

“You must be in bed by…”

“You must complete your school work before going out to play.”

“Never exclude anyone from your games.”
Rules can be increased. They can be modified. The list of rules could
be endless.
Some people might say that family rules are essential because
they ensure a child knows what is right, and avoids what is wrong, and so he
will act appropriately.  If the rules are
broken, then the child will have to face the consequences, which might include punishment.
“My children know what the rules are. They know the consequences of breaking them. It’s not always easy but I have to be consistent and follow through with punishments, so I can teach them what is right and what is wrong.”
But do rules really teach children right from wrong? Or do
they teach children how to avoid punishment? Could it be that the motivation to
behave a certain way is coming from outside a child, and not from within? Maybe we impose rules on our children because we don’t trust our children to behave in a way we feel is appropriate,
without us controlling their actions. Perhaps we think rules are the only way. But…
What if a family decides to live by certain principles instead
of rules? Parents could decide that the principles of kindness, safety,
consideration, honesty, respect… are important. If a child chooses to be
kind then she will not name call or hit a sibling or tease mercilessly or
ignore someone in need. If a child is considerate, he will not play loud music
late at night when others are trying to sleep or leave a mess for someone else
to clean up or arrive late without a valid reason. With principles, rules are
But how do we encourage our children to adopt such
Does it once again begin with parents? Was my recent story Getting Kids to Help with the Chores, a story about putting a principle into action? I can’t just say, “Be kind,” or “It’s important to be considerate,”
or “Show love towards your siblings,” or “Be forgiving.” Children need to see me doing all these things.
I used to think I actively lived the principles I wanted my
children to adopt. Then I listened carefully to myself:
“How did you manage to do that? You’re so clumsy! You should
have taken more care.”

“You don’t like the taste? Don’t be silly! There’s nothing
wrong with it.”

“I don’t want to hear any more about it. Be quiet!”

“If you don’t finish that work, I’m going to send you to

“In a minute… In a minute… I’m busy!”

“It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in it. You have to do it.”
At times I could be unkind, mean, insensitive, inconsiderate and not show respect and love towards my children. I excused myself. I am the mother. Parenting is hard and tiring
and children don’t listen. Or do they? I think they listen very carefully to us
and adopt our standards, whether they are good or bad.
So if we act towards our children as we want them to act
towards others, they will adopt our principles. Could it be that easy? Or is
there something more? These are just musings. I’d love to hear your ideas.

And if it is all about the example we give to
our children, is that really as easy as it sounds? Actually I think it can be very difficult
indeed. But still I try. It’s important. It’s the better thing to do.

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  1. Reply

    I agree with this, Sue. Rules are a bit like a bandaid solution to sin, don't you think?

    I think it's like the Ten Commandments and the New Convenant. Jesus taught love but the commandments are based on love.

    I've noticed that frequent confession helps form the children's characters. As you say, it starts with me – if I go often, then they follow. Sometimes, it takes gentle encouragement, but not force. I do remind them to be kind but, like you, I try to be a kind role model myself.

    I'm so glad of Confession, when we fail! It's a real comfort and source of encouragement. I don't think I could cope with the falls without it.

    Great post, Sue – thank you!

    1. Reply


      Yes, I was thinking about the ten commandments too. They are a set of rules, but Jesus summarised the whole law:

      Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength;
      and Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

      Yes, all the rules follow the principle of love. I guess if we loved God and our neighbour perfectly we would never break any of the commandments. We wouldn't even have to think about the rules.

      Our children sometimes fail and so do we. I sometimes wonder why we expect so much of our children when we are not perfect either. I am also glad of confession. As long as we keep trying.

      Thank you for the added thoughts, and for reading my post!

  2. Reply

    Sue, I love your blog. It is always so thought provoking. But these last few posts have left me frustrated. I love the concept behind them. Leading by example, not having a million rules, etc. my question is this. . . How does this work when the kids are super young? I have a three year old and a one year old so far. I can't imagine what would happen if we didn't have rules and expectations of behavior. If we only led through example? I just don't know. Perhaps when they are young they need the more intensive guidelines? And then when they are older, it might be easier to transition into what you are describing. I love hearing your musings and interactions with your older kids – that is what I hope to look like some day. Those are my musings . . .

    1. Reply


      I agree: it must be frustrating hearing the end of the story and not the beginning! I have been thinking about your comment all morning, musing over what we exactly did when our children were younger like yours. Did we have rules and expectations?

      Like most parents we have made a lot of mistakes, trying out various forms of parenting to see what fits our family. I haven't got all the answers because, as you can see, even after 26 years of parenting I am still musing! But I will share some ideas I do remember worked well for us.

      With my first child everything went well until she became a toddler and starting 'getting herself into trouble'. Then I started making rules such as what she could and couldn't touch (this was a big one!), what part of the garden she could play in, when she had to have a nap… It was such hard work policing the rules. In the end I tried to see life through a child's eyes and modified her environment so I didn't have to make rules. Little ones can't understand the reason behind a lot of rules. They see a shelf of books and they want to explore. They don't think about the damage they could do or the mess. They aren't deliberately 'naughty'.

      Gradually I gave away trying to control things like sleep and food, even the choice of clothing. I'm not saying it happened quickly. I'm a slow learner!

      I tried to make it easy for my children to cope with difficult environments such as the church by taking along toys and treats and being willing to get up and go outside if they got fed up. A lot of people told me I was making a rod for my back and I'd come to regret not being firm with them. But children change and mature and I've never regretted seeing to their current needs. For example, it did feel at times that I'd never again sit through a whole Mass as I was up and down so many times with my youngest child. But in time, her attention span increased and one day she was happy to sit still for an hour. It happened in her time, not mine. The same with sleeping the night, and moving into her own bed.

      My comment is too long for publication (over 4096 characters apparently!) I should have written another post! I will post this reply in two parts.

    2. Reply

      Part 2….

      Little children are like sponges. If we cover them with love they ooze love back. Loved children feel right inside. I'm sure they want to copy us. But sometimes what they see or hear isn't worth copying. I wonder if adult peer pressure makes it difficult for us to treat our children gently. My second son just would not conform as a small child. He wouldn't sit and play with the other children if I took him to play group. He didn't want to eat with the others, when it was time. He just wanted to do what HE wanted to do. I would get angry with him because he was the only child that wasn't 'behaving' and I thought the other mothers were judging me.

      What happens if a child hits another? Aren't those situations awful? I am not keen on lecturing little children. I wouldn't hit them back or make them feel bad by punishing them. I'm not sure I agree with a forced apology either. They are just acting like little children. Maybe they just need taking away from the situation and redirecting. Again, we feel so bad when our child does something like this to someone else's child, and maybe we overreact. Problems like this seem so big when our children are small, but they fade away with time.

      Now I am thinking about holding hands when crossing roads. I did have a rule about needing to do this. It was for their own safety. Maybe carrying a child across a road, or using a stroller or having a harness would work better for an individual child, I don't know. So maybe some rules are necessary but on the whole I think the less rules the better, especially as young children don't understand the reasons behind them. And maybe the reasons aren't that important anyway. Sometimes we make up rules we could do without. Rules only provide an opportunity for a battle, and then punishment.

      This comment is just some thoughts off the top of my head. I don't know if I have addressed your comment in a helpful way but I can think some more. Thank you so much for stopping by and giving me more to think about! And thank you for your kind words about my blog. They are appreciated!

  3. Reply

    I don't think there is an easy answer to this one.

    Life is full of rules. Imagine the accidents at intersections, places of employment, sports and social clubs, armies/navies/airforce, even learning centres. No smoking, no swearing, no hitting/fighting, walking around naked, etc. I sort of think many are necessary. I am wondering if we don't impose some rules could children think that "rules" don't apply to them? I did once have a child at a Guide meeting tell me she didn't have to clean up with the other children cause she didn't have to at home. She even told me she made the rules … lol She told me lots of other things too about what she would or wouldn't do … she was a bit of strong spirited whisp of a girl and only five!

    I do think that they way we impose them can be over the top and we do have too many rules … and often simply to suit us (so we don't have to cook or clean again, want some quiet time or think other people are judging us).

    The wording (and tonality) is important too, or kids will just get sick of hearing you. Last night my girls didn't want to go to bed, I was tempted to tell them to just go to bed (I have the flu and wanted peace). Instead I said well if they thought they would still feel Ok in the morning and not at all cranky or tired then that was fine. They both decided that it would be better if they went to sleep and woke early to play some game they had in mind. They are near 9 and 11 and I don't know that it would have worked when they were really little though.

    This one is a real difficult one for me … I am a bit of a stickler for rules (as in me following them, not with others). I always have been and it's vaguely annoying … lol.

    1. Reply


      Yes, there are lots of things to consider!

      Life is full of rules as you pointed out and we have to obey them as good citizens. My children come into contact with these rules all the time and see me obeying them. They know that sometimes we have to go by the rules. I wonder if 'practising' obeying rules for the sake of it is really necessary. We all seem to learn what we need to do when the occasion arises. The girls are growing up knowing they will have to obey the traffic laws if they ever want to drive a car. They are going to have to vote because that's the law…. I don't think they want to smoke or walk about naked!!

      I doubt if the girl that was in your Guide group was encouraged to live by principles. No rules and no principles either. If she lived by the principle of being considerate, maybe she would have helped even if it wasn't a rule at home. She sounds like a real handful. Dealing with other people's children is challenging at times!

      Wording… oh yes! Careful wording can make all the difference. I'm sorry to hear you are unwell. Sounds like your girls worked out everything perfectly to suite you all!

      It's a hard topic as you say, and a very emotional one too. Sometimes parents get accused of not discipling their children enough, and then sometimes they are accused of being too strict with them. I guess we are all just trying to do what is right for our children and hope no one will judge us. It is quite scary writing about such things in this public arena! It would be much easier to live life quietly without anyone knowing what we do. It's good though to chat and mull things over, and I like considering new ideas. Thank you for adding some more thoughts to the discussion!

    • Kari
    • June 17, 2013


    Like some of the other commenters, I have mixed reactions to this post. It is all so beautiful– in theory. But, the reality is children DO need the firm guidance of their parents at times. In my experience, quite a lot of times.

    It is important to try our best to live what we want to teach, of course. I remember as a child my mother saying, "Do what I say not what I do." As as adult and a mother myself I now understand what she was trying to say is that she was not yet where she wanted to be. As a child, it just seemed unfair and confusing though, as to why the rules should be different for her.

    Also, I know that there are areas I struggle with (and that I know my children SEE me struggle with) that I do not want them to imitate (ie. my tendency towards impatience). Rules can help them to see that our actions are not always perfect but we must ALL strive for something better.

    Also, and this one amuses me, at times. But, children, (at least, MY children) seem to learn my bad habits from example, but not necessarily my good ones. I lose patience with other drivers when I am behind the wheel and they lose patience with each other upon occasion. That makes sense.

    But,at Mass, Tim and I are always very reverent and we always participate, but our children sometimes misbehave and they rarely participate in singing or praying aloud. They have never seen their parents model such behavior and our parish is almost all elderly people who are also quite reverent and willing to participate- so where does the misbehavior come from?

    I think it is just immaturity which is natural and unavoidable. Consistent, realistic, reasonable rules really do help children to learn to behave and grow. And rules help our children to see that we love them enough to help teach them right from wrong, and what is safe. The Bible even instructs us to do so.

    "No rules, just good example" probably works to some degree for older children, not for younger children (my oldest is 14 but my youngest is only 3). And, probably not for every area of life.

    You always come up with so many fascinating subjects to share and discuss!

    Thanks and God Bless, Kari

    1. Reply


      Thank you for your long comment. Your examples are very interesting. Something to ponder. It is good to discuss such things.

      I would agree that children do need firm guidance, which I give to mine. Guidance and rules are not the same thing though. Maybe I haven't explained my ideas very well. I do talk to my children and I correct them when they are in the wrong. I don't just keep quiet and hope they'll learn everything from my actions. My kids listen to me, not because they fear punishment if they break the rules, but because they respect what I have to say. They often come and ask my opinion about all sorts of situations. We do lots of talking, but not lecturing.

      I just can't get away from the idea that rules if broken must result in punishment. The punishment must be big enough to be effective. Punishments often stop working and have to be increased. And I really wonder if kids conform their behaviour only to avoid the punishment.

      "And rules help our children to see that we love them enough to help teach them right from wrong, and what is safe. The Bible even instructs us to do so." I am also helping my children learn right from wrong. My children also know I love them enough to listen to them, guide them, model the virtues I know they need to adopt… The Bible instructs us to discipline our children which means we need to train them. Maybe we can do that in ways other than imposing rules.

      I agree that younger children need to be treated in a different manner to older ones. Little ones don't understand the reason for many things. It's our duty to keep them safe above all things. We might make a rule that they can't play on the street. However I would start by making sure they had no access to the street. I would firmly remove a child from an inappropriate situation. I would redirect inappropriate actions. I would also talk about the whys of it all.

      "Do what I say not what I do." I also feel children must see parents striving to do better. Yes, it's something we all need to do. But maybe failure isn't as important as trying. Kids just need to see us continue to pick ourselves up after falling, and push ourselves to do better. And to hear us apologise when we need to. We have to allow our kids to make mistakes and accept their apologies, before they also attempt to do better. It's the same for everyone.

      Maybe the inappropriate behaviour at Mass is just age related. Sitting in a church for long periods of time isn't really child friendly. Also Mass is difficult for young children to understand. Whenever I was tempted to think my younger kids would never 'behave' in Mass, I just looked at my older ones. The all got there in the end.

      Sometimes I think it would be good to meet each other and observe our children in action. I think you'd like my kids despite us not living by a system of rules! Even though I am biased, they, like yours, are very good kids.

      God bless!

    2. Reply


      I'm having second thoughts about using the word 'training' to describe how we bring up children. That word is more appropriate for a dog! Language is so tricky!

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