Chapter 7: So Many Rules
It’s never been clear to me exactly when kids are old enough to have a rational discussion about our family policies, procedures, and general expectations for living in our home. I’ve often found myself in the middle of a long conversation with Isaac, trying to find a solution regarding his inability to distinguish the difference between food and dirt. Courtney’s stopped me several times as I try to discuss with babies their need to possess better self-control. She is so much better than me about having reasonable expectations for what our kids are capable of at each stage in their development. One of the adventures of parenting has been figuring out with Courtney how we’ll enforce rules and which rules matter the most to us. We constantly feel like we’re figuring out how to deal with each situation as it comes, and for now we’re just grateful that we’ve got several years before we have any teenagers under our roof.
Because the world around us, including our kitchen, is full of possible dangers, it’s been so important that we both teach the children about rules and find ways to reinforce those rules. The reinforcement of the rules has been the biggest challenge as we keep struggling to find the best way to show the children negative consequences for rule-breaking in a way that still respects their personal dignity. When our kids are babies, most of our enforcement comes by way of quickly moving the little one away from the situation or item we want them to avoid. As the kids get older we’re able to begin to have conversations with them about the rules. We still have so much to learn in determining how to communicate our expectations differently to kids at different developmental stages with different personalities. What worked for Ellie when she was three won’t necessarily work for Francis at the same age, and Isaac is likely to be different than both of his older siblings when he turns three. It’s been a frustrating realization that the lessons we learn with our first child don’t all translate to the next one; we need to learn how to best communicate with each kid and how to adjust and adapt as they grow up.
Through my exasperated attempts to debate with toddlers, I’ve come to realize that many of our rules just don’t make sense to them. Even rules that are obvious to adults seem cruelly unfair to little kids. When Ellie first learned to ride a bike, she was shocked to find out that we were opposed to her riding across the street. It’s important to know that the street in question is a major road with a high speed limit, a blind curve, and plenty of traffic all day long. But to Ellie all that mattered was that she was capable of riding her bike, so our rule came across to her as our doubting her biking abilities. Despite our attempts to explain the logic, she couldn’t see the reasoning, and we had to frequently take the bike from her until we had all walked across the road and she could resume riding on the sidewalk.
Isaac has been blessed with an incredibly strong stomach. As the third kid, our inability to watch his every move has been a scary combination with his desire to eat everything that he can fit in his mouth. He and I have had several heartfelt conversations prompted by him eating some nonfood item he found around the house, yet each of these conversations ends with him laughing in my face. No matter how persuasively I argue or how thoroughly I explain the potential dangers to him, Isaac remains blissfully unaware of the threat posed by his taste for Legos, wood chips, and marbles.
Francis is cursed with his father’s impulsivity. He responds to situations fairly dramatically, and I see many of my own struggles in his reactions. Attempts to share toys with Ellie sometimes ends in Francis throwing himself on the couch and yelling “IT’S NOT FAIR!” at the top of his lungs. Just a week ago we were on a trip as a family and driving on the highway. Francis was frustrated by something that didn’t go his way, and a second later, the car dashboard lit up to notify me that his door had been opened. Thankfully we were able to pull over before anything worse happened, but neither Courtney nor I could convince our son of the severe consequences that could’ve resulted from his attempt to open the car door while traveling at a high speed.
From the time they wouldn’t let me ride laying face first on my brother’s skateboard to the movies they wouldn’t let me watch, I was convinced that my parents were actively working against my happiness when I was growing up. It seemed like every fun idea I came up with was met with a new rule prohibiting it. My friends and I were so proud when we learned how to ride our bikes with no hands, and within a day my parents outlawed my riding hands-free downhill on the busy street in our neighborhood. Maybe one of my friends almost hit a car, and maybe my mom was the driver of the car, but it still seemed overprotective to take away our fun just because of one bad experience. Even in the safe confines of our yard, they kept eliminating every opportunity for fun. I wasn’t allowed to mix the gasoline from our lawnmower with the other chemicals I found around the house, and they even forbade us from a competition to see how long we could hang on the garage door as it went up. They’d often couch their restrictions in phrases like “because we love you,” but these rules felt like nothing like love at the time.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in learning about God. Until around fifth grade, the concept of sin made sense to me. It seemed fairly simple: God didn’t want people doing really bad things, so He gave us commandments and rules to follow. I knew lying wasn’t good, I felt bad the few times I swore, and I knew that I needed to be nicer to other people. Then the teenage years came and I was saddened to learn that God had even more rules than my overprotective parents. Not only were my good ideas against my parents’ policies, but apparently God also had issues with my creativity.
I didn’t understand why God would even care that much about how I spent my time or what I thought about. I was blessed to grow up in an era when internet access was generally limited to a family’s one computer, usually located in a main room of the house. I was also blessed to go through puberty in an era when slow download speeds meant a greater chance of getting caught if I tried to view pornography. I felt guilt and shame after each time I looked at porn, but I didn’t see how it could be that harmful. Surely there were worse things I could be doing, so why was it a big deal?
The summer after my freshman year of high school, I went with my friends to a Steubenville Youth Conference in Steubenville, Ohio. Technically I didn’t go anywhere since the conference was a mile from my house, but regardless, I traveled there. Specifically, my mom drove me there, but back to the story. One night of the conference, the speaker was talking about how Jesus has the power to set us free from sin. I looked around and hoped that all the bad kids in the crowd were hearing the message, because I was sure they had real problems that they needed God to fix.
After all, I was a good kid who didn’t really stray too far from the path. I knew that I struggled with sin, but I figured my sin wasn’t so important that God needed to “set me free” as if I was chained to my sin. Throughout the talk that night, my mind kept going to the issue of pornography and the fact that I had been unable to stop looking at it. Several times after viewing porn in junior high and my freshman year, I felt ashamed and decided I wouldn’t go back to it. Then a few weeks or days later, I’d fall again to the sin and commit once more to not fall again. As I reflected on this, I realized that maybe I was also in need of a freedom I couldn’t win for myself. I offered a quiet prayer with all the honesty and awkwardness that only a 15-year-old kid with a bowl cut and braces could pray. In my heart I admitted to God that I was unable to stop myself from looking at pornography, and I asked Him to do in my life what I couldn’t do.
I looked around after saying the prayer, wondering what would happen next. I didn’t hear any voice from Heaven, I didn’t feel anything differently, and I wondered if God had even heard me. I feared that my prayer might have been too unfiltered; I wasn’t sure if it was legal to use the word “porn” when addressing God. But from that moment forward, He did the impossible. When I had the opportunity to look at porn, He had removed the desire from my heart. And in those moments when I had the desire to see porn, I never had the opportunity. This experience began to shift my understanding of God’s rules.
In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, shortly after Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, we hear of Jesus offering freedom to His followers. Like me, they were offended that He would imply that they were enslaved to anything. Jesus replies, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains” (John 8:34-35). I knew that God had rescued me from the attachment to this sin, and it made me rethink the way I viewed God’s commands. I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to be holy, especially if it would cost anything in my life, but I knew I wanted to be free. Even though the existence of rules seemed contrary to my notions of freedom, I saw how my repeated free decisions to sin actually led to a restriction of my freedom and an attachment to sin. Maybe there was a reason for God’s rules after all, even if they seemed from a distance to be ruining my fun.
Now as a parent, I notice myself being even more strict with my kids than my parents were with me. When Ellie was a year old, I brought her to play in the kids’ area in the middle of the mall. It seemed low stakes, as the floor was well padded and there wasn’t anything that big that she could climb on (and fall from). I hadn’t anticipated the fact that other clumsy toddlers would be there at the same time as my daughter. I spent an incredibly stressful 20 minutes beside her, fearing every possible bad outcome and suspecting every other kid as a potential danger to her well-being. To everyone else in the play area that morning, I must’ve looked crazy. I was constantly scanning the area and reaching to catch Ellie every two seconds when I thought she might fall.
Courtney and I have to keep updating our rules as our children get older. Their abilities change and the potential risks change with each stage in the child’s development. We realize that most of the rules probably don’t make sense to the kids now, and I’m sure my children have moments where they’re as convinced as I was that they are stuck with parents who won’t let them do anything exciting. But the only reason we have rules at all is because we love our kids. Our restrictions aren’t coming from a place of jealousy or a desire to control our children; we want them to thrive and to live life to the fullest. We are able to see things coming that the kids are completely unaware of, such as the likelihood of injury as two boys swing sticks at each other as hard as they can or the guaranteed burns if we let Isaac touch the intriguing glowing glass door on our fireplace. Even with our imperfect love for our children, we desire their happiness so much that we’re willing to deal with their complaining and whining about our rules.
If you surveyed our kids, I bet they’d tell you that they dislike 100% of our rules. Even though Ellie could probably provide a reason for why we have half of the rules that we do, she’d still tell you that she wishes she could do what she wants. Almost every night we find ourselves in an argument with at least one of the children on the topic of bedtime. The arguments almost always takes place within two minutes of our telling the kids to head upstairs for bed, and our adversaries are relentless in their attempts to delay the inevitable. Emotional appeals, newfound hunger, promises of improved behavior, the realization that certain toys haven’t been played with enough that day, crying, accusations of unfairness, and even complaints that a pillow is “too comfy” have all been used by Ellie and Francis as weapons in the war against going to bed. Isaac seems to be even more opposed to bedtime in all its forms, but his arguments are much more concise. Pleas of “NO BED!” with intermittent whining, scratching, and fierce hugging for emphasis, are repeated until Isaac gives in and goes to sleep. Every night we get to watch our kids go through the five stages of grief in about twenty minutes; it’s really fascinating.
Like the rest of our rules, our insistence that our children sleep at night simply comes from a desire for them to be fully alive and so they won’t be emotional train wrecks the next day. By the next morning when it’s time to wake up for school, Ellie and Francis are clinging to their beds and wishing they had slept longer. Conversely, in the moments before going to sleep, an enforced bedtime seems like the cruelest rule to them. Courtney and I know that most of our rules are unpopular when they conflict with what our kids want to do in a given moment. Even as an adult I can empathize with my kids; when there’s something I really want, the desire seems so urgent and the thought of denying myself seems a burden too great to bear. I’m reminded especially of this during Fridays in Lent, when I can’t eat burgers even though I know they alone could quench my hunger, calm my restlessness, and solve my existential crises.
We can try our best to explain to our children the rationale behind our restrictions, but most of our answers won’t satisfy them at such young ages. It took many years, and becoming a father myself, before many of my parents’ rules finally made sense to me. Several of the things I found annoying about my mom and dad are now some of the virtues I admire the most in them. This isn’t to say that I now agree with every rule my parents had in our home, but even with the few I would change, I know they were trying their best to love us and protect us.
God’s rules, unlike mine or those of my parents, are all coming from a perfect Father who knows what He’s doing. He’s not a first-time parent stumbling His way through this thing; He knows better than we do what we need and how to protect us from dangers that we are aware of. Unlike Courtney and I, God is capable of remaining completely attentive to each of His children at the same time, so none of His laws are for the sake of crowd control. As the mystical body of Christ, the Church is entrusted with passing on the fullness of truth. At different points in my life, there have been various Church teachings that I’ve struggled to understand. These teachings either conflicted with my desires or they seemed unfair and arbitrary, but in time I’ve come to see the wisdom and love behind what we profess as Catholics. As a loving mother, the Church’s concern for her children’s well-being is greater than any desire for affirmation or appreciation from the prevailing culture. In the midst of our questions, we can trust that the rules and doctrines the Church sets forth are for our good. God our Father loves us too much to leave us wandering without direction, and He desires us to live free from the snares of sin.