“Can I really only have one cookie?” “Do I have to go to bed now?” “But I don’t want to do that now!” Sound familiar? As a parent, guardian, or someone who works with children, you likely often hear kids challenging what they’re told. It’s part of human nature to push against the rules placed on us, while learning to question things and think for yourself can be a good thing. But healthy, God-honoring rules actually help to keep peace and promote happiness.
Rules set firm guidelines for behavior and expectations, helping to foster harmony and good relationships in areas like a family, friendship, or classroom. When we teach kids about rules, we’re not only setting them up for a healthy life, we’re helping them learn about God. Here are three ideas on how to teach kids about rules.
1. Teach Kids Why Rules are Good.
First, talk with kids about why God gives us rules and how following them can be for our own good. The 10 Commandments are a great example of this in action—when one of them is broken, chaos follows. Explain to kids that because we aren’t perfect like God and can make mistakes, God gave us rules and boundaries to help keep us safe and happy as we go about our day at home, school, or other places.
It’s good to make sure rules are clearly defined and that any consequences for breaking them are known beforehand. Whenever you can, share the reason for the rules with the child and why you have them. For example, when explaining a rule about not eating snacks whenever they want, you might say something like: “You’re not allowed to eat snacks without permission. If you’re always eating snacks, you won’t get the nutrients you need from dinner.” Try to show how your rules are meant to both help the child and honor God or reflect His character.
Be aware that as you start pointing to the reasons for your rules, you might find that some of your reasons aren’t very well thought through and need some adjustment. All rules should promote peace, build trust, and show consideration for others—including those in authority. If you find it’s hard to explain why a rule is good, maybe that’s a rule you and your child should reevaluate together or change as a family.
2. Lead by Example, Explaining Consequences
Have you ever been speeding while driving? (Be honest!) While it’s tempting for all of us to push boundaries and break rules in our life when we think it doesn’t matter much, the second way to help kids learn about rules is to lead by example, hold yourself accountable, and explain the consequences of what happens when rules are broken.
Understanding the cost of stepping outside of limits helps kids learn to value rules. It also points to the loving care we can see in the rules God places on His children to protect us. His rules and boundaries for how to live are for our good, and when we cross those lines there are consequences. Those consequences may not happen right away, which makes it easy to feel like we got away with it, but creating a habit of breaking rules can make the inevitable consequence even worse.
Using the example of speeding, to explain consequences of breaking rules you can say to your kids, “I know we’re running late and I’m very tempted to speed, but I know if I get pulled over by a police officer, we’ll be even more late. Also, the cost of a ticket is really expensive and I don’t want to pay that. Worst of all, speeding could cause a bad accident and someone could get hurt. If you ever see me speeding, please remind me that it’s NOT worth it.”
You can also talk to kids about ways to get rid of the initial temptation to break rules. For example, you can tell them something like, “let’s be sure to leave on time so I’m not tempted to speed.” By using yourself in this example, it helps take away the feeling kids might have that rules are “bad” or something designed strictly to limit them. Everyone needs rules, even adults!
3. Teach Kids to Respect Authority
Whenever I find a kid that refuses to follow rules, it’s usually because they don’t respect those in authority over them. They assume that if they don’t like whoever is in charge, they shouldn’t have to listen to them. Have you ever felt that way about a boss or other authority figure? Even if we don’t get along with the people in charge, God still wants us to respect them.
However, there’s a difference between respect and obedience. Obedience is demanded, while respect is earned. God calls us to respect those in authority—like teachers, babysitters, police officers, and others—and in that respect, to obey them and the rules they set. Respecting someone doesn’t mean that you have to like them or agree on everything, but it does mean you respect their intelligence, that God put them in a place of power for a reason, and that you trust they ultimately have your best interest at heart. People in places of authority earn our respect by doing their best to protect, honor, and serve us—even if we don’t agree all the time.
That said, although we all have to deal with people we don’t always like or get along with, we should never have to put up with abuse or cruel behavior and kids shouldn’t either. Abuse of authority is a serious problem that needs to be addressed right away. Teach kids that if someone in authority causes them to feel uncomfortable about whether something is right, they do not have to obey that person as respect is earned. What’s more, teach kids to come talk to you about it, as all people in power need to be held accountable to others. If you have reason to believe someone is abusing their authority over a child in a way that is causing emotional or physical harm, speak up. Children in an abusive situation do not have the power to set boundaries to keep themselves safe and it’s up to you to step in.
If respect is earned and you often find kids don’t listen to you, ask yourself why that is. Are they simply acting out or is there something in how you treat them that should be addressed? Do you offer the same respect to the child that you yourself ask for in return?
Obedience might be demanded by shouting at them or through threat of consequences, but respect can only be earned by taking the time to sit, listen, and engage with children about why rules are important and how following them will help them. After all, rules were created by God to keep us happy and healthy. That’s something we should be excited to follow!