Thoughts on rules

As a parent, I put a lot of thought into rules, maybe more than most.  This may surprise many of my friends and family, since what they saw from the outside may have looked like a definite lack of rules.  It was this very fact, however — that we had fewer rules than many families — which made me think long and hard about the ones I did set.  They had to be important enough to justify the time and effort required to enforce them because I was not interested in nagging about needless rules.

Like many things, I found it helpful to have an overall sense of purpose.  My mission is to get my kids to adulthood intact, ready and able to contribute to society.  To get there I needed to keep them safe from harm, nurtured physically/emotionally/mentally and spiritually, prepared to be self-sufficient and capable of achieving their highest purpose.  It may sound corny, but achieving these ends is a very important part of my own contribution to society.

Unschooling meant that there were rules I didn’t have, like bedtime rules, and homework rules.  We had bedtime routines, but they were fluid, allowing our kids to listen to their own bodies to determine what was best for them.  They were always exploring what they wanted and learning constantly so there was no need for me to require them to study, do homework or take classes.  I guess the absence of these two rule categories accounted for a huge difference between our home and the average schooling home.

Still, we did have some rules, like limited screen time, limited sweets, contributing to household chores and reading the book before seeing the movie.  For the most part, I tried to keep the following points in mind when setting rules:

  • The fewer the better
  • Use natural consequences
  • Use positive language
  • Be honest

There are a lot of advantages to having fewer rules.  It means fewer things to remember and fewer things to be challenged.  Trying to make a rule for every possible situation is futile.  It becomes an administrative burden, begs temptation to find loopholes as language becomes very specific, but most importantly, it discourages personal responsibility.  If most of your actions are governed by rules set by others, you get no practice applying your own judgment to situations.  This is not a good preparation for conscious living in changing circumstances, something that we value highly in our adult peers, and certainly a character trait we want for our children.

As our kids became teenagers, fewer rules meant less ear fatigue and less tuning us out.  Fewer rules also sent the message that we trusted their judgment.  And because they’d been given lots of practice exercising their own judgment through the years in ever-increasing amounts, this trust was warranted.

One or two broad rules that covered many situations took the place of many small rules.  My favorite over-arching rule is that you have the freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else or hinder their freedom.  This rule served as the basis for many other rules without having to spell them out.  Every time it was called on, the idea was reinforced, solidifying its importance.  Its use allowed us to remind our kids that we thought they were capable of thinking before they acted, reinforcing the power of positive suggestion.  It gave us many opportunities to remind them to be aware of others and to see their actions through the eyes of others:  their siblings, their parents, their friends, others in the community, even extending to those they might never meet, such as those downstream from them or those who will come after them in future generations.  It gave many opportunities to explain that it’s not only possible to live without harming others, it’s actually a key part of living a more fulfilling life.

Stating rules positively is a small thing that brought big benefits.  Whenever possible I tried to say what I wanted rather than what I didn’t want.  The positive Hold it steady instead of Don’t spill it, suggests very different messages to the brain.  We have a tendency to act on words heard.  So, when we hear the word spill, we are more likely to accidently spill, than if that idea hasn’t been introduced.

Natural consequences are a parent’s best friend.  They teach more than words ever will.  They take the fall for mistakes made, leaving you to be the loving parent you want to be.  I made liberal use of them.  Forgot your jacket?  Then you experience cold.  Did being late cost you something: a relationship, a missed opportunity, an accident caused by rushing?  Then it’s a good lesson in time management.  The real world is full of natural consequences, so introducing them early makes good sense.  There are plenty of opportunities for applying age-appropriate consequences that grow as the child grows.

The other thing I found imperative about rules was the importance of being honest about them.  I wanted to be able to explain any rule to my child’s satisfaction that they chose to challenge.  Honestly explaining the reason for rules we had, such as health, safety, or respect for those you shared space with, established credibility.  The more transparent we were, the more they trusted us, which came in especially handy as they became teenagers and beyond.  By then we had years of accumulated trust and they had little need to question our agenda.  We were always ready to explain our reasoning, open to listen, but able to stand our ground on the issues we felt strongly about.

Our open and honest discussion of rules meant many opportunities to express our values and priorities.  This, plus the constant application of natural consequences set them in good stead when they went away to college.  By this time, they were experienced with making their own decisions and clear in thinking through the natural consequences of their actions.  They knew that they would be held accountable for their own behaviors, and acted accordingly. They have demonstrated confidence in coping with new situations that many of their peers lack.

Too often rules are a way of holding power over someone else, a way of controlling them.  Communicating the reasoning behind them was an important way to share trust and empower them.  That empowerment paid priceless dividends in strong relationships based on trust.  We also have been surprised and delighted many times over by the decisions our kids are making.  They seem much more thoughtful about their choices than we were at that age.  So, it seems that my mission to get them to adulthood intact and ready to contribute to society is on track so far.

© Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One Reply to “Thoughts on rules”

  1. Hi Jean,

    As a parent, coach, and business owner, I wholly concur with your take on rules; the fewer the better, but the ones in place must be clearly understood and adhered to.

    Recently I started a compliance management web platform ( to see that youth and amateur sports coaches adhere to a standard set of guidelines in order to ensure the safety our children. When COVID hit we were pretty much shut down until we developed an app to help parents assess their children’s COVID-related health status before leaving the home and arriving at the field of play. We called it Clear2Play. Now, we have been asked by several schools to offer the same service. We’ve begun doing so under the Clear2Play banner. We’d like to offer it as Clear2Learn.

    I wonder if you’d be willing to sell us your domain?

    Bill Kerig