Jesus broke a lot of rules. He cured on the Sabbath. He ate with sinners. He allowed women in his company. He talked back to the Pharisees.
And when people called him out on it, he didn’t back down and mutter an apology. He justified his choices. He didn’t just justify them by saying “Hey, I’m God. Back off.” He justified them in PRINCIPLE. For example, “The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Or, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”.
Rules have their place. They help the house stay in one piece, allow things to function, and keep our boys looking reasonably decent! More importantly, they can help teach important virtues and values, like respect and responsibility.
But it’s also important to know that rules can, and sometimes SHOULD be broken.
My parents were visiting for a little while a few days ago around dinner time. We were engrossed in conversation when Paul (2) announced that he had washed his hands with his cucumber. I turned to look and, sure enough, his cucumber had been smashed to nothingness, his hands were drenched, and he was evidently very proud of himself.
As I moved to clean up the mess, my mom chuckled and asked why we didn’t give him a piece of plum and banana so he could discover what other fruits do/don’t have enough water to wash his hands with. I might have glared; I don’t intend fruit smashing to become an acceptable custom in our household anytime soon, even if the toddler is doing it to “wash his hands”.
But, all joking aside, it’s true that breaking rules is sometimes a good thing.
- Breaking rules is sometimes the only way to turn away from detrimental behaviors that have become acceptable or even expected.
- Discovering new things involves exploration and exploring frequently involves breaking some rules and treading on unchartered ground. Breaking the rules can be necessary to reach new levels of success.
- Breaking rules is a great way for kids, in particular, to LEARN.
In some sense, it’s a relief to know that breaking rules is OK. I break parenting “rules” all the time (hoping I’m not the only one!). Not because I’m against them, but because they just don’t work for my child. Kids aren’t prototypes and more often than not, they don’t match up with how they’re “supposed” to act or react according to the book. Why should they? The books aren’t about them – they’re about a generic average of a child that exists in the abstract but often not in reality.
Don’t get me wrong – parenting books can be very helpful, if you know your child well and can discern what advice given applies and what doesn’t. But your child is alive, growing, changing, and beautiful. Don’t define your child by the rules; define your expectations based on your child’s needs. They might actually work that way, and you and your child will both be happier.
But breaking rules isn’t always OK – we wouldn’t have rules at all if we didn’t have a need for them. So how do we determine when and whether rules should be kept or broken? These are the guidelines I use in determining when, and how, to make or break rules in our family.
1. Differentiate between “rules” and “conventions”. Conventions can be broken; rules can’t be broken. Conventions are things that are commonly expected and usually done. We often treat them as rules, but they don’t have to be. There’s nothing wrong with breaking conventions, as long as you can tolerate a few raised eyebrows. In my opinion, it’s worth breaking conventions to establish the family culture YOU want and watch your children thrive (and remember: YOU are the parent, and God has given YOU a special grace to know what is best for your child – you can get good advice, but no one else has the grace or the instinctive knowledge you do about your child).
2. Have a minimal, but clear set of rules that can’t be broken. These aren’t the “never leave your clothes on the floor” type of rule, but the “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your heart and all your will” type of rules. The Commandments. The Beatitudes. For us as a Catholic family, Church teachings. The unchanging moral beliefs and precepts your family adheres to. Other expectations might change in different times and circumstances, but these rules are unchanging, non-negotiable.
3. Young children need more rules to help keep them safe and to prevent the parents from going crazy. That’s fine. But these rules should be treated differently than the non-negotiable rules. They’re circumstantial, and can be removed as the child’s capacity for reasoning and decision-making increases.
The goal is to transition your child from “rule-based” living to principle-based living as soon as possible. Always ask yourself whether allowing your child to break a rule will hurt them or not. If it won’t hurt them or anyone else (spiritually or physically), let them break it – kids learn a lot about themselves, others and the world by exploring and experimenting. They also often learn parameters more quickly by doing the wrong thing once than by listening to us tell them what to do or not to do several times over.
4. Establish clear principles. These very much correspond to the non-negotiable set of rules, but give the meaning behind them. Why is it that our family always … and never …? Focus as much as possible on helping your children learn how to guide their behavior based on principles. This is important for 3 reasons.
- Rules are rigid and can’t take unforeseen circumstances into account, so no matter how many rules you come up with, they aren’t going to guide your children as to how to behave in all circumstances. Principles empower your child to decide for themselves how to act in each situation and how to make wise choices, applying the same principles in new situations.
- Principles help your child develop an internal sense of who they are, as opposed to rules, which remain more focused on external reactions.
- Principles give your child a greater sense of freedom and responsibility, enabling them to face life independently, without needing the scaffolding of rules for every situation.
5. Once your child has reached the age of reason, have intentional discussions with them regarding the importance and roles of rules. Talk with them and help them discover what rules are essential and how to determine when/how a rule can be broken.
6. Never make your child feel bad for breaking the rule – even if they break one of the non-negotiable rules. Bringing in emotions of shame lead, more often than not, to the child feeling rejected or resented. The main lesson they learn: hide things from your parents. Try to keep your discussions on the level of reason. Support and/or impose reasonable, valid consequences, but keep appealing to your child’s reason. Generally, they are struggling with enough hard emotions already due to self-guilt or blame that they don’t need more. They need our firm guidance, but also our understanding.
OK – that’s enough from me! I would love to hear how some of you feel about establishing rules for your family and how you determine if/when it’s OK to break them!