Don't negotiate the rules - believe in them

Rules are not made to please teenagers. If they put you at ease that's enough reason to enforce them


From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

April 15, 2008 at 9:48 AM EDT

In my last column I wrote about how rules for teenagers do work as long as you keep them in place and don't get discouraged when they don't work perfectly.

But how do you know what rules to make in the first place? Is there a secret to making rules that will always work? Sure - it's as follows:

"Okay, Mister. Here's the deal and I would not want to be you if you even think about disobeying. Cellphone use with no restrictions. Bedtime is when you fall asleep. Use the Internet, but understand that your Internet use will be completely unmonitored. Illegal substances - use your own judgment. You got all that, Mister?"

"Yes, sir."

There is only one guaranteed way to make rules that teenagers will follow all the time: Only make rules that give them complete freedom to do anything they want.

Rules are not made to please teenagers. They're made because parents deem them necessary.

"Don't ever get in the car if the driver has been drinking."

"Clean off the table every night after supper."

"Don't hit your younger brother."

Even if the rules are fair and reasonable, your kids are not going to like most of them. And if they disagree with them, they'll fight you tooth and nail.

"You cannot go to the concert. You have an algebra test tomorrow."

"No. No. No. It's the only time Blades of Confusion is playing anywhere in the area. It's my only chance to see them - ever. It's not fair. You can't."

So how do you decide what the rules should be? When, for example, should your 14-year-old daughter be required to come home on a given Friday night? How about 10 p.m.?

"What? That is so unreasonable. Come here. I want to show you on the Internet. You can ask 10 of my friends. You pick which ones. You'll see. Nobody has to be in before 11."

How do you know you're right? The answer is that you can't know with certainty. You can talk to others, which can be helpful. But ultimately you have to go with what you feel comfortable with. That should be the standard.

Your rules have authority not because you are right, but because you are the one who has the final responsibility for deciding what is in the best interests of your child. You may take what they say under advisement - you may, having heard what they had to say, change a rule. But you are the one who decides, not them.

After all, what if every rule you made had to be submitted to the teenage advisement board?

"We're sorry Mr. Millstrom, but we find Shawna's arguments more compelling. Her Friday curfew will be 12:30 a.m."

When you set the rules, give them your reasons - not to convince them you're right, but to tell them why you have decided upon the rule. Keep the reasons simple, clear and as honest as you can.

"You have to eat dinner with us because it makes me happy for us to eat together as a family."

"You cannot go to school looking like a tramp because I worry that it can give you a bad reputation."

"You have to be in at 10 p.m. because I feel that is late enough for someone your age to be out."

Remember, the basis of your rules is not that you are right, but that you believe you are right.

"You've got to be kidding. Are you saying that if I'm right and my dad is wrong, I still lose because he's an idiot and I can't convince him that he's wrong even though he is wrong?"

Actually, that is the deal.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?:

A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.*****

My strategy for rules

You only have a limited amount of energy, so don't waste too much effort on rules you can live with being broken. Think of rules as falling into two categories:

Rules for which you will do whatever it takes to make sure they hold up. "Don't drink and drive." "When you are out always let us know where you are."

Rules of lesser importance. "Don't tease your sister." "Don't swear in the house." "Don't leave dirty dishes in the TV room."

Anthony E. Wolf