Rules, Principles, and Wisdom

When people live by principles, they naturally look to do what is right, when they live by rules; they naturally look to do what they can get away with.

My 7th grade daughter came to me with a homework assignment the other day.  The Road Closed Signquestion her teacher gave her was: For what principle, would you be willing to break the law?

The question made me realize that there are multiple paradigms under which we live in our society, and the paradigm within which we choose to live has a radical affect on the quality and value of our life.

When our children our young, we fill their world with rules:  Do not touch the stove, wear your bike helmet, do not talk to strangers.  These rules are good and they setup boundaries for our kids to keep them safe.  There is, however, deep within us, a driving need for freedom, a need to explore the world, to see what it has to offer us.  In short, there is, within us, a need to break the rules.

We see this in kids from a very early age.  You tell your son not to punch his sister, and he’ll whack her with a baseball bat.  “But I didn’t punch her mom!”

One of the trickiest things parents have to do is to wean their kids off rules as soon as it is practicable.  This process begins in the pre-teen years.

In my book Essence of Wisdom for Parents,I recommended that you transition from directing to steering.  This weaning is a component of the transition.

As our kids move into middle school, they become exposed to completely new ways of thought.  They have good teachers that teach them to question everything, to explore, to investigate.  School is also a place where kids learn to be accepting and respectful of other people and their way of thinking.  And of course, they have friends.  Friends who are raised under very different rules than yours.  In America today, it is common to find that your kids friends are raised within a different culture altogether.

As your children come to realize that the rules are completely different in different households, they will use the great analytical skills they have learned in school to deduce that rules are arbitrary.  If you have taught them that being good implies following the household rules, then how do they reconcile this with the fact that other households have different rules?  They will reason to themselves: “Does this mean the other kids aren’t good because they don’t know my rules?  Of course not!  My friends are good!” It can only mean that there are no absolutes when it comes to rules.  There is no way to define good or bad by the rules if the rules are different for different people.

Once people come to this conclusion, they then become free to indulge their selfish desires by looking for ways to skirt the rules.  Life is no longer about being good, it’s about not getting caught.

If left unchecked, these attitudes can persist into adulthood. They manifest themselves in little ways and big ways.  I have seen people saunter across a busy parking lot, holding up traffic because they have a right to the parking lot just like everyone else.  I have seen people protesting gay marriage at a service member’s funeral, because the law says they can do it.  And of course, many of us have met people who cheat on their taxes with inflated deductions or underreported income because they think that they won’t get caught.

It’s interesting to note in the first few chapters of the Bible, Adam and Eve had a great relationship with God, but Satan came around and tricked Eve into a rule-based paradigm.  Once Eve stopped living by principles and instead started living by rules, it was only a matter of time before she would ruin her relationships.

Living in the rule-based paradigm can be a miserable, selfish place to be and none of us wishes it on any of our children.  Therefore,

A good parent works to transform their children’s worldview from one that is rule-based to one that is principle based.

This involves upping the conversation level a bit, talking through your own life’s decisions with your kids.  In my house, we talk about caring for people.  If the kids come home and start talking about the mean kid at school, then I am going to ask them if this kid has any truly good friends.  When the answer is no, I’m going to ask them how would they feel if they didn’t have any good friends, don’t you think you might be mean too sometimes?

The biggest principle that I want my kids to understand is that we are relational creatures that have a need to be loved and a responsibility to love others, even, and maybe especially, when they do not seem to deserve it – and we will get the most enjoyment from life when we do this.

I know that if they understand this principle, then they will not need to have the rules “no hitting”, “no name calling”, “no stealing”, etc.  They will instead look for ways of sharing a compliment, or even a simple smile towards that mean kid at school.

When people live by principles, they naturally look to do what is right, when they live by rules; they naturally look to do what they can get away with.

The next difficult step, after instilling some of these principles, is the application of them.  There is so much that we, as adults, take for granted because of our experiences.  We know that telling someone that their haircut looks funny can really damage a friendship.  Kids do not necessary know this.  They do not have the experience to understand the impact that their words and actions will have on themselves and others.

Therefore, it is important to let them see how you think, let them see how you work to predict the consequences of your actions.  You must teach them that

Wisdom is taking the time to predict the consequences of your choices.

Wisdom, fortunately, is something that you can teach.  There are really two ways to gain wisdom: you can gain it from your own experiences, or you can gain it from others.  All you have to do is teach your kids to pay attention.

When I read an article about a young teen who’s been in a car accident, I share it with my children or post it on the fridge.

I’ve also talked with my kids about the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome, helping them to understand that this is a natural, but unfounded line of thinking.

Are these great conversations with my teens?  You must be kidding.  I get grunted at like all the other parents.  But as my teens have progressed from middle school into high school, our conversations aren’t about rules anymore.  Instead, they have a whole lot more open-ended questions.  I don’t order them to do their homework.  Now I simply ask them, if they have budgeted time to finish it if they go out.  The answer to me is always “yes”, but they live the consequences of staying up late to finish it on Sunday night. Of course

Most wisdom seems to be accumulated through pain.

One final thought to share with your children is to not be ashamed of or discouraged by the pains of life.  It is, in fact truly part of the great experience.  If we are never duped by a cheat, how could we fully appreciate a person with integrity? If we never experienced great pain, we would likely never recognize great joy.

How about, care to share a time that found yourself caught between principals and rules?  Ever find yourself “working the system” while ignoring your principals?



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