The word “multitasking” sums up much of what parents do. We might read a story to the toddler while feeding the baby. We might cook dinner while simultaneously helping with Year 5 maths homework. We might use an evening walk to exercise our family dog (as well as ourselves), to model responsible pet-ownership, and to stroll side-by-side with our teenager, deep in heart-to-heart conversation.
The rules parents set for their growing children, similarly, can serve multiple functions all at once. In our homes, obedience is not desirable merely for its own sake or for the smooth functioning of our families; obedience is desirable as a stepping stone along the path to wisdom and godliness. Ultimately, we hope that the little people who depend on us to teach them right from wrong will become mature disciples of Christ and independently functioning adults, perhaps with families of their own to nurture and guide.
As a parent who longs for her children to know the Lord and walk in His ways, I want to set rules not just for safety and structure in the present, but also providing guidance for what lies ahead. Furthermore, I want the rules to reflect the nature of our family relationships: loving, grace-filled and equipping my dependent sons and daughter to be my brothers and sister in Christ. Here are some of the guidelines I have found worthwhile along the way.
Explain the reasons behind the rules.
“Because I said so, that’s why!” may get the desired result of training your children in obedience, and keeping them safe, but much more than that is possible---and who can afford to miss any opportunity to talk about how we, as followers of Jesus, live out our Christian values in the world? Proverbs 22:6 tells us “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). In explaining the reason behind your rules, you are equipping your child with tools for future decision-making.
In particular, try to show how you rely on God’s word in making rules for the family as well as in making decisions in your own life. In some families, Sunday birthday parties and sporting commitments are avoided because of a commitment to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”. Rules about looking after our pets, or even switching off unused lights, might be linked to how we try to be good stewards of God’s creation. Meaningful reasons will help children accept and comply with rules.
Seek the wise counsel of more experienced parents.
Especially as we tread in unfamiliar territory, it can be helpful to listen to parents of older kids, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself.” Wisdom from others can help us choose which rules are worth setting. By avoiding unnecessary rules, we help our children accept the ones we think are important enough to put in place.
I have been blessed (for the past couple of decades!) to be in a Bible study group with women whose children are just a bit older than my own. Listening to frustration about how Facebook seemed to be an ever-present distraction to their teens helped me decide not to allow my own kids to have Facebook until after their HSC exams.
Set rules for a season.
Many of the rules we give to our offspring (about bedtimes, fashion choices, safe use of kitchen appliances or social media to name a few) will most likely become irrelevant as they grow up and as the world we live in changes. As they mature, our children might be able to manage situations or things that were once beyond them. If you find that a rule you set is difficult for your child to accept, you might agree to a periodic review. Even if a rule seems unfair or unreasonable to your child, they may be better able to accept it and obey it if they know it may not be forever.
Similarly, our family’s rule about PlayStation use was different during the school term than it was during holiday periods. Trying to help my kids learn time-management skills for life, I thought of Ecclesiastes 3 and made different rules for different times. This helped make the rule more palatable and acceptable, even during the long weeks when the games were locked away.
Acknowledge the impact rules have on your kids, and help them to manage any hardships.
My “No Facebook until after the HSC” rule posed difficulties for my kids that I had not anticipated at first. So much social interaction and social event organisation happened on Facebook that my children were occasionally left out and felt some social isolation. The problem wasn’t bad enough to make me want to change my mind, but if I hadn’t acknowledged that there was a downside to the rule, I think my kids would have struggled more to accept it. They understood the rule came from a loving parent, not an enemy. So, when Year 12 class notes were being shared via Facebook, I brainstormed with my daughter about how to get a reliable friend to email the notes to her instead.
In summary, let your rules be an expression of your love for your child rather than simply a tool for managing them. As parents, we can let our Heavenly Father, in His perfect love, shape us by His word, by the witness of His people, and even through our own mistakes. In turn, we can help our children to accept and benefit from our rules.