In her memoir Composed, Rosanne Cash talks about the one thing she wishes she did differently in parenting young children. “If I had thought more about their development,” she writes, “I would have been stricter. I would have been diligent about imparting life lessons and establishing regulations and tasks.” Only in retrospect did she realize she set only a single hard-and-fast rule: no juice after 5pm. Why? Something about being convinced sugar makes it harder to get the kids to sleep. In any case, although she knows she did the best she could, Rosanne looks back and sees that it’s a lack of structure, a lack of rules that is really what makes it difficult to put a child to bed. Or as another empty-nester, Cosmo Kramer, put it, “Hey, a rule is a rule, and let’s face it, without rules there’s chaos.”
They’re right! Part of the job of a parent is coming up with the rules of the house and enforcing them (and for them to make sense too!). Winging it and letting things slide might seem easier, but the chaos that flows from it will keep you up at night.
So what are the rules of your house? What’s expected of your kids—in terms of chores, behaviors, and habits? What’s forbidden? What don’t we do in this house? Are you firm about the rules? Do you make sure everyone follows them, including yourself? And then, crucially, what is the logic behind these rules and can you explain them in a way that gets real buy in and understanding? We wrote this guide to help you answer those questions. Let’s get right into it:
Benefits of having rules for your children
Having rules will give them structure
If you talk to a sleep expert about sleep training your infant, they’ll tell you: Kids need structure and routine. If you talk to an educational expert about helping your kid do better in school, they’ll tell you: Kids need structure and routine. If you talk to a behavioral expert about helping your kid behave, they’ll tell you: Structure and routine. Pretty much whatever the problem or whatever the issue, that’s the solution.
Which makes sense. The world is scary. So much of it is new and overwhelming. It’s hard to communicate all the complexity or the importance of this or that. So if you give them structure and routine, they can relax. They can explore. They can get comfortable and accept things. They can trust and feel safe. They can focus on learning or making friends or making sense of their new surroundings.
Lisa Damour, a psychologist specializing in teenage girls, cited studies showing that in spite of both affection and discipline being necessary to create happy well-adjusted adults, the latter is the more important one because it gives children the tools they will eventually need to succeed in the real world. This isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t give your children affection. You should, if you want them to be happy. But simply, that structure is what will ultimately be of more use of them as they get older and have to take on more responsibilities.
So we know structure and routine is important to kids, but what about you? Do you maintain structure and routine for yourself? You put them to bed at the same time each night, but do you wing it yourself? You plan their dinners in advance…but what about your lunch at work? You give them quiet play time in the afternoon and downtime on the weekends. But do you get that yourself?
Structure and routine is essential no matter who you are or how old you are. It’s important for kids and it’s important for dads. And guess what—when you keep a routine it’s easier to keep them on one.
Having rules will teach them accountability
The Navy SEAL Jocko Willink often translates the leadership lessons he’s learned on and off the battlefield to the way that he approaches parenting. He says that rather than keep his kids in “a stringent box of discipline,” he creates a more flexible box for them where they can learn, maneuver, and explore. But if they make a bad decision, then he makes sure that they suffer the consequences. For example, he doesn’t make his kids go to bed at a strict time but if “they don’t want to wake up early in the morning for school and now they’re late for school, guess what? They’re going to suffer the consequences.” In this way, he holds them accountable for their own decisions and teaches them to be more self-reliant.
And this is something we can also apply to our experiences with our own children. When your child does something they aren’t supposed to, are you holding them accountable for their actions, for not following the rules, or are you shielding them from the consequences?
Understand, a child that never has to answer for their errors will grow to be an adult that can’t hold themselves accountable when you are no longer there to do it.
So, have rules for them. Hold them accountable for their actions. And soon enough, they’ll be able to hold themselves accountable.
Having rules will help them succeed
The legendary basketball coach John Wooden grew up in Hall, Indiana. His father was a farmer. At John’s eighth grade graduation, his father handed him a piece of paper. On that piece of paper were seven handwritten rules. “Son,” he said, “Try to live up to this.”
- Be true to yourself.
- Help others.
- Make each day your masterpiece.
- Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
- Make friendship a fine art.
- Build a shelter against a rainy day by the life you live.
- Pray for guidance and counsel, and give thanks for your blessings each day.
Coach Wooden would keep that piece of paper in his wallet until the day he died. He would share those principles with thousands of students and athletes over his 43 year career. He would pass them along to millions more through his writing and speaking. Those were the rules he tried to live by, that he had been given by his father (who in turn had probably learned many of them from his father). And those were the rules that played a part in his massive success, both on and off the court.
As fathers, we have to think not just about what we’re doing to help our children succeed now, but also what we’re teaching them to help them succeed in the moments where we aren’t there to help guide them. Every child is different but what they all have in common is that one day, they will also be adults and they will have to make their own decisions. By instilling these values in them while they’re still under your wing, you ensure that no matter what obstacles they face and no matter how far apart you may be from them, they will have a foundation they can constantly look to.
So, think. What rules can you pass down to your kids? What are you going to want them to know when you’re not around? But most importantly, what character would you like them to have?
Having rules for your kids will keep you in check
You want your kids to be strong, to be honest, to work hard, to help others, to be respectful, to be resilient, to value their education, to keep their rooms clean, to not talk back to their mother, to honor their commitments, to fall in with the right crowd, to enjoy life.
Of course you want those things. Everyone does. It’s why you’re going through such an effort to give them rules and structure and a foundation. If only there was some magical school where you could send them to learn it. Or some book you could give them to read, right?
Well it turns out there is. Your house is that school. So is your car. You are that book. Your behavior is the lesson plan. It is the lecture. “We must be what we wish our children to be,” John S.C. Abbot said. “They will form their characters from ours.”
You want your son to respect women or your daughter to pick the right spouse? Well, make sure you do that yourself—make sure you model what respect and good relationships look like. You want them to tell the truth? Then show them honesty. Show them generosity. Show them kindness. Keep your house clean before you demand their room be. Bounce back from your own failures. Examine your own flaws. Always be improving. Take criticism. Have a sense of humor. Surround them with good people. Let them see how hard you work. Let them listen to how their mother should be spoken to.
Remember, all the rules you enforce for your children are for nothing if you don’t set the example by following them yourself. Your character forms theirs. You show them who they can be—what they should be. So be who you want them to be. It’s the only way.
What to think about when setting rules for your children
Just care about their character
Every parent worries about how their kids will do. What kind of job will they have? Will they meet the right person? Are they prepared for the real world? These are important questions and, depending on how old your kids are, very hard to know how to address because the answer lies so far off in the future.
Thankfully the ancients have some helpful advice for parents trying to set their kids up to be good people and contributing members of society. It comes from Heraclitus who said that character is fate. Or character is destiny, depending on the translation. What he meant was: Develop good character and all will be well. Fail to, and nothing will.
As dads, we need to think less about what college we want our kids to get into and a lot more about whether we’ve taught them the value of hard work. We need to think less about preparing them for a particular trade or class and more about preparing them for the setbacks and struggles of life. If we can teach them to be honest, teach them to care about other people, teach them how to solve problems, teach them to give their best effort at everything—this will ensure that whatever job they get they will succeed at. This will help them not only find, but stay with, the right person when they find them. This will make sure they can handle what the world throws at them.
It’s why it’s worth repeating again. We need to care about their character. The rest is fated from it.
Make sure your rules are actually important
A person who sets sensible rules and sticks to them is called a leader. But a person who makes arbitrary rules without explaining them…that is a tyrant.
You know the kind of people we’re talking about. The ones who make up rules on the spot. The ones who just thought of a way to make things more convenient for them. The ones who have one response to that one-word question our children learn early and that has a special way of driving us nuts: “Why?” Because I said so!
For a long time, there was an arbitrary rule in Jeannie Gaffigan’s house. Something to do with this slime craze and it not being allowed in the house. Sure, the kids are having fun, but it’s a pain in the ass to clean up, and who do you think is going to be the one left with the scrubber and the paper towels in their hands?
Recently though, she had a change of heart about her no-slime rule. It came after a battle with a benign but life threatening brain tumor. She recently talked it on Marc Maron’s podcast:
“My nine year old just turned 10. She is into making slime. You know, this is a big thing, right? It’s this whole little science thing. So my daughter is really into this slime thing and I had a list of rules and regulations for slime in the house and how to deal with it because I was finding it in places that are like—AH! But after the surgery, I realized that I never asked, ‘can you teach me how to make the slime?’ I never engaged with the slime. I engaged with the control of the slime.”
We don’t want to deal with the mess. So we come up with a rule. We’re too tired when we get home from work. Rule. We just got that carpet and it was expensive. Rule. We’re adults, this is silly. Rule. Our kids could be making better use of their time. Rule. We just don’t have the patience right now. Rule.
What we seem to have less rules about are with ourselves. Why not a rule about being interested? How about a rule about playing and having fun together? Or a rule about encouraging their fascinations rather than curtailing them? Make this the rule: no arbitrary rules. No more, “Because I said so.”
Examples of rules to set for your children
In the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules For Life, rule number 5 is: “Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.” It’s kind of harsh, kind of funny, and kind of hard to dispute. “Parents are the arbiters of society,” he writes. “They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.” If we let them whine their way to playing with the iPad, if we let them not take “no” for an answer, if we let them bully their younger sibling, if we let them walk past the person holding the door without saying “thank you”—you “doom them to a life of comparative isolation.” Do you like to spend time with people who are whiny or spoiled or ungrateful or selfish or cruel or disrespectful? That’s Peterson’s point. As dads, we have to be the bad guy from time to time. We have to put our foot down. We have to teach them that some behaviors just aren’t tolerated—not by us, not by anyone.
Your children won’t always have you there to take care of them and watch after their every move. So your job is to set rules that will teach them how to take care of themselves, how to properly socialize with others, and how to behave in the real world. There has to be some hard-and-fast rules of the house. Here are some recommendations:
Clean Up After Yourself
The New Zealand All Blacks are the most successful rugby franchise of all time. They have a legacy that rivals the great teams in nearly every other sport, from the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots to the US Women’s National Soccer Team. How have they done this?
By being tough, of course. By being extremely talented, obviously. But there is a lesser known and counter-intuitive element to their success as well: they clean up after themselves. James Kerr portrays the team tidying up the locker room after a game in his book, Legacy:
“Sweeping the sheds.
Doing it properly.
So no one else has to.
Because no one looks after the All Blacks.
The All Blacks look after themselves.”
It’s so easy to clean up after your kids—you’re older, smarter and better at it. It’s just as easy to make them do it—after all, you’re bigger, stronger, and have all the money. But both of these approaches miss the point. You don’t want it to be compulsory, you want it to be compelling.
The point is for them to look after themselves, and to find pride and satisfaction in that. Cleaning up after yourself isn’t just a chore. It’s a statement of priority. It’s an illustration of who you are. How we do anything is how we do everything, is the lesson parents have to pass along to their kids. Leaving a mess isn’t just a mess—it shows that you’re a mess.
Sweeping the sheds is important. Being neat and clean and responsible is essential. Don’t do it for them. Don’t bully them about it. Teach them why it matters.
Be Kind To Others
There was an episode of the television show 30 Rock several years ago where Tina Fey’s character was nervous to attend her twenty year high school reunion in the small town she grew up in. She remembered being awkward and sad and having very few friends so she wasn’t looking forward to seeing all these people again, particularly the ones that weren’t nice to her. Prodded to attend, she shows up and finds that her class wasn’t looking forward to seeing her either. Why? Because actually she had been the bully. She was smart and clever and sarcastic in a school filled with people who were definitively not that, and while Tina Fey may have thought she was the victim, everyone who found themselves on the other side of her quips and jokes disagreed.
It’s a funny conceit, one that is all the more relevant for kids growing up today, where bullying can take on far more insidious and digital forms. There are a lot of ways to be a jerk and most of them don’t involve punching people or taking their lunch money.
This is something to think about for all of us who are trying to raise smart kids. We have to make sure to take the time to teach them a lesson that Jeff Bezos’ grandfather stopped to teach his whip smart grandson who had once said something that had unintentionally hurt his grandmother’s feelings. “Jeff,” he told him, “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
It’s easier to be clever than it is to be kind. It takes work to be a nice person. Especially when you’re powerful or important (as the example of Jeff Bezos and many of Amazon’s policies illustrated). It requires extra effort to stop and think about how what you say and do affects other people. It’s hard for us to do now, as adults, but it’s harder still when you’re a kid and you don’t feel that great about yourself as it is. But a truly successful person—a truly great kid—is the result of parents who take the time to equip them with this skill and reward them for their kindness and compassion, not just their intelligence or their grades.
Of course, you want to teach your kids to be smart. You want to teach them to be funny and to be interesting and able to look at the world with a clever eye. But be careful because these traits, if not balanced with empathy and with curiosity, can become a wicked and lonely combination.
Do The Work
David Carr, one of this century’s great journalists—a man whose life was cut surprisingly short when he collapsed suddenly on the floor of the New York Times building—not only wrote many great articles while he was here, but he was also a great father.
Carr battled back from a crack addiction to get sole custody of his two young daughters, who he raised into being successful, well-adjusted adults. In her memoir, All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr describes a conversation they had on the day before an important job interview/meeting in New York City. She had not taken it particularly seriously yet, and her father was concerned. “You are not smart nor pretty enough to not shower every day,” he told her (humorously, of course). Meaning: She better not just roll out of bed and show up to this thing. And he had some very specific advice for her on how to nail it:
Bring a notebook (to take notes and to show you are there to learn)
Do 2-3 hours of research on each person before the meeting (so you know what you’re talking about and so you don’t waste the limited time alloted to you on the basics)
Be early (on time is late!)
Offer to pay the check (even if it’s expensive. They paid you with their time, which is worth a lot)
Know the people’s background
“Above all,” he said, “do your fucking homework.”
There’s an apt Latin expression: Materiam superabat opus (The workmanship was better than the material.) The material we’ve been given genetically, emotionally, financially—we can’t control that. We can control what we make of that material.
We have to teach our kids that. That where we decide to put our energy decides what we’ll ultimately accomplish. That there is no triumph without toil. That we have to do our fucking homework. Make it a rule. Because it will set them up to succeed (and Erin Lee Carr’s memoir and her brilliant documentaries are proof).
How to enforce rules you set for your children
Live up to your own rules
There are some very basic Dad laws that we all know. Work hard. Be a good sport. Do your best. Mind your manners. Say please and thank you. Be polite. Respect others. Keep your hands to yourself. These are the basic rules of parenting that every parent knows and tries to get their kids to follow.
There are a million others—whether they are cliches or truisms—that we believe are essential to growing up. That’s why we repeat them generation after generation. What we think less about is whether we’re actually following them ourselves. In his interview with Tim Ferriss, the billionaire Charles Koch explained that the main lesson he learned from his father’s very hands-on parenting was that you can’t lecture your kids on anything you don’t live up to. You can’t tell your kids to respect others and then talk rudely to a customer service representative on the phone. You can’t tell them that it’s important to find your passion and follow it, and meanwhile work their entire childhood at a job that pays well but makes you miserable. You can’t tell them that family is important if your actions don’t show it.
It’s not that you have to be perfect, but you do have to live up to your own standards—or actively show them what the struggle to get there looks like. Otherwise, you ought to shut your mouth. Because what you’re showing your kids is the worst lesson of all: hypocrisy. You’re showing them that the principles we claim to hold dear as a society are meaningless, that all you have to do is pay lip service to them, that no one has to actually do anything about them.
Don’t lecture your kids. Live the way you want them to live. Live up to your standards, and they’ll do the same.
Don’t make promises you don’t keep
It’s easy to make threats as a dad. If you don’t stop that, I’m going to turn the TV off. If you don’t start being nicer to your brother, we’re going to go home. You have to pick up your clothes first, or else there is no snack. You do it when they’re little, and if you remember your own childhood, it keeps happening all the way through—about curfew, about grades, about keeping their room clean, about how you talk to people.
But while making threats is easy, keeping one’s word is harder. Because the link you made between a clean room and the TV was totally artificial and you didn’t really mean it. Because you still want to go to the basketball game with your daughter, and really don’t want to have to enforce it as a punishment. Think about Obama and the red line he drew in Syria. He meant it…but he didn’t really mean it, and when his bluff got called, the whole national security picture changed.
As a parent, it’s critical that you mean what you say. So enforce every threat with the firmness of a dictator? No, how about you make fewer threats? How about you stop forcing things together that you’re not serious about? This way when you do make a causal link, it’s because it matters. When you draw a line, know that it’s worth enforcing. Know that you will enforce it.
So your kids learn that words mean something. Specifically that your words mean something.
You Can Be The Bad Guy
To better illustrate his parenting philosophy, Peterson tells the story of a child he saw throwing a tantrum in an airport, “screaming violently at five-second intervals,” irritating everybody around him, while his parents did absolutely nothing to intervene or resolve the situation. “Thirty seconds of carefully directed problem-solving would’ve brought the shameful episode to a halt,” Peterson says.
What could that parent have done? What can we do if we ever find ourselves as that parent? From Seneca, we get some advice: “Let a child hear the truth, and sometimes fear it: let him always reverence it. Let him rise in the presence of his elders. Let him obtain nothing by flying into a passion: let him be given when he is quiet what was refused him when he cried for it.”
We have to be the bad guy sometimes. Because the world is filled with objective facts. Life isn’t always fair. Actions have consequences. We don’t want to hurt their feelings or be the bad guy, but we’re not saving them from anything by pretending life is anything but what it is, we’re actually making things worse. Eventually the world is going to intrude on whatever bubble you’ve created and it will not only be unmerciful, your children will be unprepared and fragile.
This is partly what Bette Davis meant when she said, “if you’ve never been hated by your child, you’ve never been a parent.” If your kids are never mad at Dad, if they never feel like Dad is being unfair, it’s because Dad isn’t doing his job. It means he’s not being strict enough, it means he’s insulating them from the consequences of their actions, it means he is bending the world to their preferences rather than the other way around.
Life is not always fun or nice, which means Dad can’t be either. Life can be cruel. Dads should never be that…and in a way, the cruelest thing we can do is leave our kids sheltered and unprepared for what is to come.
Punishments aren’t supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to deter bad behavior. That’s why kids get grounded or sent to their room. That’s why we take away their toys or iPad privileges. It’s supposed to send a message: Listen or you lose out.
Randall Stutman is probably one of the most influential coaches you’ve never heard of. Basically every Wall Street bank and hedge fund of any significance has hired him as an advisor at one point or another. A lot of the CEOs and executives ask him about parenting. He has one piece of advice relating to consequences for bad behavior: Punishment should make them better.
It’s pretty fitting advice coming from a coach too. Think about it: A basketball coach who is disappointed in someone’s effort, makes them go do sprints, or pushups. It’s not fun and it makes the kid stronger. A football player who didn’t make their GPA has to go to extra study sessions. An athlete who gets in trouble off the court might have to do community service or write an apology letter. These are more than simple deterrents. They’re punishments that make them better both as players and as people.
When you get upset, when you catch your kid doing something they’re not supposed to do, Dad, make sure that you don’t punish out of emotion or out of fear. Take a minute. Come up with a punishment that makes them better. Something they wouldn’t choose to do, but is good for them. Vocab drills. Memorizing state capitals. Volunteering somewhere. Picking up trash. Painting the house.
They won’t like it, but one day, they may actually thank you for it.