Parenting Beyond the Rulebook

August 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm (Positive Discipline)

Recently, each of my kids has made a comment about family rules lately that made me realize: we don’t have any. Well, nothing formal anyway.

Not to give you the impression that our home is a chaotic free-for-all, devoid of any kind of morality. I like order and manners and helpful contributions as much as any parent. We just do not have a concrete list of rules that  that govern our family–a list of dos and don’ts–and I have never once spoken the words, “That’s the rule.”

I didn’t even realize this until one day we were playing the game of If and a question read, If you could get rid of one rule in your house, what would it be? For a minute, no one answered. I thought the kids were simply trying to narrow their answers down. But then Elia said, “Ummm…we don’t have any rules.”

We don’t? Do we not get done what needs to get done every day? Do we not aim to treat each other kindly? To respect our ourselves, each other, our friends, elders, teachers, and our personal property? Do we really not articulate that these are important practices by which to live? How is it, then, that we do them anyway, and more importantly that our kids internalize these values–without stated rules?

Maybe our family rules are more like principles that are felt and understood than declared. Maybe we have rules, but they’re not “Rules.” Maybe our rules have never been formalized because they are lived.

Upon returning from a playdate one day, JJ had this to say:

JJ: I had a good time, but the one thing I don’t like about my friend’s house is that they have rules.

Me: Rules?

JJ: Yeah, they have rules that you can’t do certain stuff or that you have to do other stuff! They always say,  “Well, that’s our rule.”

Me: And we don’t have rules?

JJ: No! We just do what needs to be done. But it’s not a rule. We just know.

And oh, how I love that our kids just know.

To be clear, I get rules. I don’t have anything against them, especially the more people that exist in an environment. Rules keep people safe. They create organization and regulation and ensure fairness. Our kids also understand them. They follow rules where rules exist. They just prefer not to be “ruled.”

“No dogs on the furniture.” Hmm…

Rules provide external guidance and structure, much like a trellis that holds up a viney plant; the trellis directs the plant which way to grow. Without it, the plant falls to the ground; it doesn’t have adequate internal strength to grow taller than the structure provided. On the other hand, there are trees that reach truly exceptional heights because the structure is built from within. (And the roots are deeply secure, but that’s another analogy!) The sturdier the internal structure and the more secure the roots, the greater the capacity for growth.

People also have this capacity for strength and security. And we can begin to develop it in our children’s youth, not by structuring their growth around an externally imposed set of rules, but by fostering their strength from the inside out.

We teach our kids to live the rules, not follow the rules. To just know: Do what needs to be done.

So how does our family set boundaries with no rules? How do we live the rules instead of administer the rules? How do our kids learn about behavior without a set of rules to follow?

We live by example. Instead of having a rule that we don’t hit each other, we don’t hit each other. Instead of having a rule that everyone must share, we are thoughtful and generous with our possessions. Instead of having a rule to say please and thank you, we say please and thank you. Our actions are authentic, not driven by rules.

We connect before we correct. Mostly, I mean an ongoing, long-term connection–we strive for a close, loving, respectful relationship between ourselves and our kids, and this is what guides any behavior corrections. Children are apt to follow the lead of someone to whom they are emotionally connected.

We give directions as we go. If our kids are doing something that needs to stop, we ask them to stop. And they stop.

We are kind and firm. Our kids know that we understand where their behavior is coming from (kindness in empathy), and the answer is no (firmness). “I know you enjoy the fun of jumping on the couch…but please don’t.”

We problem solve. If a behavior happens one time or over and over and over again, we don’t institute a rule and an impending consequence, we get to the root of what is going on and brainstorm ways to solve the problem to change the behavior.

We have family meetings. We regularly discuss behaviors and habits in the house and collaboratively decide what do about them.

We look for the need behind the behavior. “Rule-breaking behavior” is not just behavior that breaks a rule. There’s more to it–a need that a child is trying to meet (though inappropriately). Instead of making a rule to stop the behavior, our approach is to meet the need to stop the behavior

We follow rules where rules exist. Pretty much any type of activity, class, camp, event, or kid-centered business has a concrete set of dos and don’ts for participants. If we want to take part, we do what the organization deems necessary to be safe and respectful. Wait in line? Take off your shoes?  Go one at a time?  Don’t touch the equipment? Clean up your work area? No running? Must be a certain age to ride? We understand why rules exist in the world.

At home, we just live in a way that we don’t let rules get in the way of our relationship.


  1. Amanda said,

    This is wonderful. I never quite realized it – to put a finger on it exactly, but this is our family, our household. In fifteen years & five children, we’ve never had rules. And things have always gone very smoothly & turned out well. Over-structure has always made me uncomfortable when around other families (usually their kids are bucking it the whole way & difficult to be around.) Now I see why. Thank you!

  2. Laura Parker said,

    Here is a general question I have been needing some perspective on and your rules article reminded me to ask. My son is three, and when we went to a friend’s house the other day to play we were interacting with another child who has a pretty particular way he likes his things. My son doesn’t know this because he hasn’t developed the understanding yet that sometimes other kids don’t want to share or that they have a fort built and don’t want it messed with. I also didn’t know exactly what the 3 1/2 wanted, though I had an idea that he really just wanted his own space or for my son to respect the unwritten, unsaid rules that were made up in his mind. So, when the fort got wrecked by my son, and the other kid reacted by doing something (I don’t know what because I was not watching), my son reacted back by hitting the other kid. I went to ask the other kid what happened because he was crying, and he told me that my son hit him. At this point I recognized that my son just needed to have me orchestrate something for him, because he was directionless in the house of our friends, partially because some things he is allowed to touch and some things he isn’t, but it is not his usual environment so he is unaware of what those things are. I took his outside to play ball with me. The conflict I am having in a difference in parenting styles and communication because I was accused of not punishing my son. I already know that I don’t want to “punish” him, and to tell him no honey, we don’t hit our friends doesn’t really seem to get through to him. The positive part of the interaction was that I was able to give him what he wanted and what I wanted, which was to connect with him and have fun. But, there is a left over unsettled feeling with the parent, which we have planned to discuss our differences in a time when the kids do not need as much of our attention. I am wondering if there was anything else you might have done with your own kids immediately after my son hit the other boy other than checking in with the little boy who got hurt and asking him what happened. My son was already moving on by the time I was done finding out the other little boy’s story. Sometimes if it flows I will ask my sons to check in with who ever is hurt and see if they are okay, whether they are the ones who hurt them or not, as an act of curtesy and friendship. As it was, the little boy seemed satisfied that he was heard and then I was able to tend to my son and interact with him.

    • The Monko said,

      I’ve been where you were. One of my friends asked me to force my son to apologise to her child for pushing about 5 minutes after the event happened and all kids where happily doing something else having forgotten about it. Its very difficult when parents impose their rules of play on you as well as your child isn’t it.

      One thing I do tend to do if my son hits someone (even is its a result of frustration caused by the other child) is to remind them (loudly so the other parent hears) that hitting isn’t nice and it will upset the other child, sometimes I might also say “if you wanted X to happen here is how you could have done it”. My son already knows that hitting hurts others but I guess it doesn’t hurt to remind him and by acknowledging the other child’s pain you placate the other parent. What I don’t do is insist my son says sorry or punish him any further. They are still at the learning stage aren’t they (my son turns three in October).

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Laura, it sounds like you handled the situation very appropriately…you had a lot of understanding for what was going on, and you acknowledged the kids’ feelings and needs. You realized your son needed to find an activity that he could do, and you helped him redirect that energy. Kudos for handling that situation so well!

      One thing I’ve done that helps me and the other parent and child feel better (due to that unsettled feeling you mentioned), is to apologize to the child on behalf of my own. Which is maybe what you did when you said you ‘checked in’ with the other boy…while my child is in my presence, I would get down on the level of the other child and tell him, “I am so sorry ___ hit you! You were angry about what happened and hitting made it worse. I am very sorry you got hurt, and I won’t let that happen again.”

      So, while I’m not requiring my child to give a forced apology, I am modeling a genuine one. I would also offer to rebuild his fort with him and ask my child if he’d like to help. I would also apologize separately to the parent for my child’s hurtful behavior and let her know I understand her and her child’s feelings and needs. Something like, “I really am so sorry this happened. You need to know that ___ is safe–not that he’ll get hurt whenever there’s a conflict. I’ll make sure I stay right with my son while we’re here.”

      As the child grows up, he’ll understand how to make amends after a mistake, and how to take more of the lead in helping someone feel better.

  3. Cate H. said,

    Thank you, Kelly, for another wonderful entry. Your words are always so inspiring and encourage me to keep on trucking down the AP road as much as I could. I have to say I often get off track but you always bring me right back. So, thank you, again!

  4. katepickle said,

    Loved this post!
    Recently I’ve been wondering if an written list of rules posted somewhere in our house might help my 8 year old twins curb some of their difficult behavior at the moment… but it doesn’t feel right to me. It feels too… too external… like they would be ‘obeying’ but perhaps not understanding.

    Our house is like yours… no explicit rules, but perhaps a need to work on some connection, role modelling and problem solving right now.

  5. Jo said,

    Love this! Nice to know I’m not the only parent without a list of household rules. Have shared.

  6. The Monko said,

    Kelly, I really loved this post. I realised that we are the same in our house, we don’t have set rules, which means what needs to be done can adapt with the situation. Some might suggest that this leaves uncertainty in the mind of the child but I think it means they realise that as parents we are happy to be responsive to our child’s needs. Great post

  7. Tasha Goddard (WAHM-BAM!) said,

    Oh gosh, this sounds great and his how I naturally incline to be, but my husband is more rules-based. Unfortunately, the conflict between the two styles causes more problems and I end up backing his rules up but then sometimes relaxing them when he’s not around – which is inconsistent and confusing.

    My eldest daughter (six) is at a stage where she’s becoming very confrontational in particular with me (it feels like the classic mother-daughter tension that is ‘supposed to’ come about in teenage years, but much earlier). I think much of it may be down to this conflict in parenting styles and that, actually my husband I really need to sort out our own rules – rather than rules for the girls – to make sure that there is perhaps a compromised but set way to behave. I don’t think I could persuade him to get of rules entirely, though!

    Thanks for sharing how you do things; it’s very interesting.

  8. Kate said,

    I dont know what to do with some of this. I love the sound of it but our son has recently, in the last few weeks and especially in the last week, started throwing things -and I mean EVERYTHING…from dinner at the table each evening, to his clothes, shoes, rocks and pebbles we had set out for him to play with, books, my husbands ipad…he often ends up with one of the items hitting us and really hurting us. He is 2 and 10 months and very articulate and doesnt say why but comes a few moments after and says sorry of his own accord and hugs and then minutes later does it again. We are totally at our wits end, normally gentle attachment parenting but I felt all my rules and dont do that and shouting coming out. I know that when I shout on the occasions it has happened that I have scared him and we have talked about me trying not to do that again…but I get so frustrated – we dont have any idea why or what other strategies to try…we did leaning in and hugging, ignoring, talking about and listening to him about it, asking why, saying that it hurts, I now do burst into tears in utter despair…I love the concept of no rules but frankly I am so sick of the throwing and hurt I dont know what to do.

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Kate, that sounds like a very exhausting stage your son is in and I can absolutely relate to the frustration, anger and despair you feel right now! Age 2 can be very trying as toddlers explore their world, discover new sensations and abilities, and become very autonomous.

      Something important they lack, though, is self control…they get so caught up in the emotions of doing something fun or exciting, they simply cannot stop to think about what is right or wrong, safe or dangerous, appropriate or inappropriate. He sees an object, has the impulse to pick it up and throw it, and he does. The neural connections in his brain are not developed enough to make a pathway from the emotions of the midbrain (“Wow, this is so fun!”) to the logic of his prefrontal cortex (“Hm, but Mom says not to because it’s not safe.”)

      So this is where we step in to help. It’s not the throwing that is the problem, it’s the safety. And to help him be successful, we can accept the throwing impulse (including the senses of exploration, discovery, autonomy that go with it), but assist in safety & damage prevention. We do this until he outgrows this stage and by then he’ll have the impulse under control.

      Some ways to work with the throwing, instead of against it are:

      -Toddler-proof your house for everything throwable. Be diligent in putting up everything dangerous or breakable if thrown. Stay right with him if you’re nervous he might find something you missed. Be ready to remove something from his grasp or reach at the last minute. Also be ready to replace it with something he can throw. Give him his food one course at a time or one *bite* at a time if throwing is a big temptation at meals. You are preventing him from throwing anything inappropriate by not giving him anything inappropriate to throw. This will only be temporary as he grows out of this stage, but prevention is important in helping him succeed.

      -Play throwing games with him. Play in all kinds of different environments, not just a “standard” game of catch outside. Throw Nerf balls down the stairs, bounce sponges off the bathroom mirrors, throw rocks into a puddle outside…In each type of engagement, you are throwing right along with him, teaching him how and what and where to throw. Embrace the throwing, get creative with it, and teach him how.

      -Give him everything possible that is OK to throw as often as possible. Accept that this is a huge part of his development right now and find everything everywhere that he can throw safely…kleenexes, stuffed animals, pillows, packing peanuts, etc. But it doesn’t always have to be a soft toy…even at the playground sandbox, accept his need to throw sand, just direct him away from everyone. Let him know that it’s OK to throw, AND everyone must stay safe.

      These kind of stages are when kids make huge leaps in development. The amount of exploration and learning that is occurring are making tons of new pathways in the brain. Try to exhaust his capacity for throwing every day. You most likely won’t, but it will go a long way toward meeting his need for physicality and autonomy. Understand that he can’t control his impulses, but you can help by giving him as many possible SAFE throwing experiences as possible to aid in this brain development.

      He will gradually outgrow this stage (he WILL)! The more you can work with him through it (rather than try to fight the impulse), the less problematic it will be. Hang in there, and I’d certainly be happy to talk more offline if you like!

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