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What Rules Are For

We're surrounded by rules. Even though we know and understand that rules are a necessary part of living with other people, they sometimes feel arbitrary, almost as if they've been put there to intentionally keep us from enjoying life to the fullest.

Think back to the Ten Commandments--if we're honest with ourselves, don't we sometimes feel like God just imposed them on us to test us, or just to make life difficult?

I think this is why we sometimes, as parents, have a hard time being consistent in training our children and disciplining them; we hate feeling like a meanie or a scold--we've come to view rules as the province of schoolmarms and legalists, and we want our kids to like us.

The truth is, we aren't really sure why the rules are there--are they really all THAT important? Sure, we can get on board with "Thou shalt not kill," but does my 3-year-old really need to be taught that? Can't we leave it at "be nice"?

Here is what we have forgotten, or maybe honestly did not know: All those "Thou Shalt Nots" are there to protect The Good. Because we tend to equate "good" with "what causes me the least discomfort and/or greatest satisfaction in any given moment" we tend to think of rules as an imposition, a killjoy. We don't like imposing and enforcing rules on our kids because it makes them unhappy, which makes them holler and resist, which makes our life difficult, so we avoid rules or restrictions of any kind.

Because we tend to equate "good" with "what causes me the least discomfort", we tend to think of rules as an imposition, a killjoy.

What would happen if instead of defining our happiness as "that which causes me the least amount of grief" we started thinking in terms of genuine Good--that which makes it possible for me to be what I'm created to be?

For example, let's pretend that humans are made to be the happiest version of themselves when they regularly get to bed at 10:00; if this were true, then making a rule requiring lights out by 10:00 would not be an imposition, it would simply be protecting that good, that route to true happiness. You'll live, of course, if you disregard the rule and go to bed at 9:00, but you may never know true happiness!

If you look carefully at the Ten Commandments, you'll understand them as protecting the good things that are required for human flourishing--true happiness.

We are commanded to honor and love God, not because he's a narcissist, but because we're made to be our best human selves--that for which we are created--when we recognize God's goodness and love for us, and respond to this love in grateful worship. This relationship between our Creator and ourselves is capital-G Good, and must be protected. We're commanded to honor our parents because this relationship is a good thing--for us, for them, and for society at large--and must be protected.

And you can go through all of the commandments and see the same thing: human life, marriage, personal property, all are good things that need protecting.

So, when you tell your children "We only eat in the kitchen", it's not because you're crabby, and it's not because the Living Room furniture is or is not expensive to replace--that is irrelevant!--it's because God has given us material things for our use, and we have a responsibility to protect them from damage and destruction. Not only that, but in protecting these things, and teaching our children to protect them, we have the opportunity, at least, to teach gratitude for what we've been given, as well as personal responsibility, both of which are part of what all parents are obligated to teach their children.

Don't be afraid of rules, of establishing them or enforcing them; simply obeying rules won't make you a legalistic scold. And don't be afraid of your children's displeasure! It lasts only a moment, but the lessons of self-control and responsibility can last a lifetime.

Instead, view rules as tools to help you instill virtues in yourself and your children. By setting boundaries, rules help us resist our natural tendency to be careless, thoughtless, and irresponsible. Used wisely and lovingly, rules point us and our children to a Good that is higher than immediate satisfaction or self-indulgence, and can help us to become truly good and virtuous people. That's something the world could use more of.

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