I'm A Freak About Rules — Deal With It

by Lisa Sadikman
Originally Published: 
parenting rules
El Nariz/

I’m a rules freak. I love the structure and clear roles they create, the way they make sense of the chaos and overwhelm that is parenting. Establishing and following rules based on my parenting style, beliefs, and basic common sense is how I’ve survived motherhood so far. Knowing what to do when and for how long is what keeps me sane.

When the shit is hitting the fan, follow the rules. Baby hysterically crying? Nurse, burp, swaddle, sway, repeat. Preschooler refusing to go to bed? Explain what exhausted means and let them stay up with the light on surrounded by books for as long as they can hack it. Fifth-grader blowing off homework? No screen time until it’s done. You’ve been up in the middle of the night twice this week because the little one is having nightmares? Wake up your husband. It’s his turn and he knows it. Rules are what make my world go ‘round, so don’t even think about messing with them.

Ha! Easier said than done. I have three girls ages 5, 11, and 14. The age range alone means there are different rules for each kid, plus someone’s always crossing the line. One needs reminders about limiting screen time while the other needs (firm, calm) reminders to speak respectfully to her parents. The 5-year-old needs rules about everything. “No, you can’t draw on the wall in permanent marker, and yes, you have to take a bath tonight because you skipped it the last two.” I’m a firm believer that setting boundaries is how you teach children to take care of themselves and to be safe, kind, honest and respectful.

My girls know what’s expected of them and take their lumps when they don’t meet those expectations. Better than that, I know what’s expected of me. My kids rely on me to be consistent with my requests and values. They expect me to expect certain behaviors and actions from them. They expect me to be clear about what’s right or wrong, safe or dangerous, kind or unkind. That said, I wish I could tell you that my kids happily follow the rules with a smile on their faces and a skip in their step, but that would be creepy and totally lying (no lying; it’s a rule).

I don’t set haphazard rules just to torture my kids or ones that don’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean they don’t break them. When that happens, things get a little wonky — for me. Apart from having to dole out any consequences I might have attached to breaking a rule, I feel totally off-balance. I second guess my parenting decisions and wonder if I’m too rigid. This happens mostly with the teenager whose refusal to fall in line leaves me dazed and confused. It seems the rules that served us well for all these years, the ones I lovingly crafted to keep her safe, teach her how to be a good person and generally make my life and hers easier, are no longer working their magic. Instead, she questions my rationale, pushes boundaries, and stubbornly defends her position.

Why does she have to go to bed at 10 p.m. when she’s not even tired and has another hour of homework? While her request isn’t unreasonable, is it okay for her to change the rules or simply ignore them? If she does ignore them, does that warrant a consequence from me or is the fatigue she’ll feel tomorrow consequence enough? Whatever the case, it’s clear that what’s more important to her than avoiding punishment is being heard. I have to give her credit for her perseverance and willingness to speak up, no matter how much it upends my comfort zone. I don’t want to force her to act and behave a certain way because those are the rules; I want her to do it because she wants to, because it fits with who she is as a person, and because I’ve raised a good human.

Could it be that the rules need a little tweaking? The fact that I’m even asking myself that question makes me squirm. I’m not ready to let go of or renegotiate the rules that for so long have defined my motherhood. If the rules change, not only will I not be in charge as much as I once was, but it also means my daughter is getting to that point where she no longer needs me to be. As bittersweet as it is for me, I know my girl has to grow up and one day create her very own set of rules to live by. This is just the beginning.

In the meantime, there are still plenty of rules this rules freak mom is happy to enforce: no cleats on the wood floors, no R-rated movies, no boys in your room, don’t touch my desk, and yes, we have to kiss each other goodnight no matter what. Why? Because I love you…and rules.

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