Why we need rules to raise good kids - and how to know when to bend them
By Dr Justin Coulson |
Why we need rules to raise good kids

“Oh mum… but why?”

Our kids hate rules. They see rules as something to push against. Hard. Rules stifle their freedom. Rules get in the way of exploration. Rules stop all the fun!

Explaining to our kids (and even to some grown-ups) why rules matter can be challenging. Some people – mostly kids – think rules are silly, and only exist because their parents don’t trust them and can’t leave them to their own devices. This may be true for some people, but generally, it’s not true at all.

Rules matter. Research tells us that rules help our children (and us) in a number of ways:

Safety and health

Imagine you’re driving down the highway in a fancy sports car – and there are no road rules. You can go as fast as you like. You push the accelerator to the floor and watch the speedo: 150km/h, 180km/h, 220km/h! You’re flying! You see a truck heading towards you on the other side of the road. As you approach, the truck veers into your lane. You can’t stop …

You crash and somehow survive. You are angry at the truck driver. But the truck driver didn’t do anything wrong. There were no rules. He was perfectly within his rights to drive the way he did because the rules didn’t exist.

In the same way, rules keep us safe and healthy, whether they relate to where our kids can play (and with whom), what they eat, where and when they sleep, and so on. And when kids keep the rules, they’re safer and healthier than when they don’t.


Feelings of security and safety also come from rules because they make life predictable. Rules provide structure and order to our children’s lives. They help families function effectively. Researchers have discovered that children raised in chaotic environments have lower wellbeing and adjustmentmore disruptive behaviour and greater stress than children raised in environments where structure and order were the norm.


Perhaps the most obvious need for rules is socialisation, or teaching children what is expected of them, and how to behave to make life comfortable for themselves and those around them.

The rules for when to break the rules

But rules aren’t the be all and end all. A good deal of research shows that just as children struggle without rules, they also struggle when rules dominate their every decision and action. Further, with many rules (though not all), we can’t simply set and forget. Staying on top of rules, renegotiating rules and even breaking rules are all a critical part of thoughtful, attuned parenting. This means we need to be flexible at times. 

Context matters

There are certain contexts where it might be OK to throw the rule book out the window! For example, we may have a rule that says ‘no matter how much you whine, you go to school’. But some days it may be ok to have a ‘Mental Health Day’ and give the kids a break. We let the kids go nuts on sugar at birthday parties, but not at breakfast. Rules change according to context – as they should.

Sometimes we break rules because it suits us, too. We are exhausted and buy take-out to eat in front of the TV. We have too much to do so we switch on the computer for the kids to play while we catch up on our to-do list.

The context matters. Being too rigid makes us robots, rather than humans.

Relationships matter

There are times when being kind to our kids matters more than whether they’re keeping the rules. Perhaps they’re over-tired little toddlers and cannot clean their mess up. The rule might be ‘no stories until everything is tidy’, but on occasion it might be better to provide them with love and security over rules and demands.

The rule might be that ‘friends don’t play on school days’, but maybe school was horrible and a friend is the best remedy. Or perhaps a friend is moving to a new school, and we decide that homework and chores can wait so relationships can be built and strengthened.

Development matters

Some rules stay the same no matter how old our kids are. For example, ‘no drinking until at least 18′. But other rules can change over time. Rules about bedtime, computer usage, entertainment choices, curfews and so on can all change as our children mature.

When we put it all together, rules matter – a great deal – for our children’s wellbeing and success in life. But they are only part of a complex and delicate prescription that also comprises parental wisdom, warmth and attunement to raise children who not only know what the rules are, but follow them because they understand why the rules are.

This article was written by Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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