What rules should you have for your teenagers? And should you have any rules?

Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question, and this week’s is from a mom who is struggling with what boundaries she should set for her teens. She writes:

Reader Question

One of my biggest parenting struggles with my girls is teaching modest dressing.  I shared the pinterest poster with my girls.  I can always use more advice with modesty.  I have a real hard time seeing cleavage, I don’t want my girls to show that, but there is so much of it, even at our church among people who work with the kids.  Also, a Pandora’s Box issue, but my 18 year old has expressed interest in getting a tattoo.  I don’t feel they are right.  I know that nothing will take a person’s salvation away, but I feel like a person who gets a tattoo is desecrating their temple that God gave them. Also I don’t know what dating standards to teach our kids. I get the impression that my oldest thinks we are too strict. I don’t want to raise children who are more likely to rebel however, I also want to raise them with God’s standards, not the world’s. Letting your kids go is sure a hard, painful job.

I get it. I do.

But one of the big risks we run is in raising kids to think that a relationship with Jesus is all about the things you shouldn’t do.

When my mom was little, most of the Christian message that she heard had to do with accepting Jesus as your Saviour. She remembers as a little girl thinking that the best life would be one where you knew beforehand exactly when you were going to die, so that you could accept Jesus right then. The reason? That way you could knit on Sundays. She wanted to be able to knit on Sundays.

My mom did not understand the gospel then–that it was about a living, breathing relationship with Christ, and that becoming a Christian wasn’t really the point. The point was living with Christ, and being transformed and becoming a different person. Yes, salvation is obviously central, but there is so much more to it than that. There is the joy of relationship.

I tell that story to say that a constant danger when we are raising kids is giving the impression that the Christian life is about rules and being in the “saved” crowd, rather than about living for Jesus.

And because we want our kids to be saved so much, we often look for signs that they are as dedicated as we are, or at least as we want to be. So if we associate tattoos with living an ungodly life, for example, we get scared. Does this mean that she’s not saved? Is she not truly committed to Jesus?

If you’re going to parent your kids into the kingdom, you need to strip away the trappings of what you believe your children’s lives should look like, and go back to a relationship with Jesus.

If we are spending more emotional energy worrying about what our daughters are wearing rather than dedicating that energy to growing a good relationship with them, then it is quite likely they will believe that we think the Christian life is about rules.

Here’s a fact: Your children, even if they love God whole heartedly, will likely choose to live out that faith in a way that your generation did not. If you get upset about that, you will drive them away, rather than pulling them closer.

Here’s a picture of my future son-in-law and my daughter:

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David has a sleeve tattoo that tells his salvation story, and then a cross tattoo on his left index finger. He has several others as well. My daughters don’t have tattoos, and this certainly wasn’t something I pictured my girls doing. But you know what? David has his own unique expression of faith, and his sleeve tattoo opens a ton of doors for conversation about his past battles and the victories that God has won in his life.

Look at what the fruit of the Spirit is–what our kids lives will look like if they’re following Jesus:

Galatians 5:22-23

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Those things are all POSITIVE things, not NEGATIVE things. It does not say that the fruit of the Spirit is not wearing having tattoos and not wearing your neckline too low and not listening to the wrong kinds of music. Again, I am not saying that I don’t have particular opinions on some of those things, but God speaks to us all differently. How many of us who are worried about what are kids are wearing are simultaneously struggling with overeating–which the Bible also mentions is wrong? We all do tons of things wrong, but God convicts us of different things in a different order. I think the important question is not “is my child culturally reflecting Jesus exactly as I would” but rather “Is my child showing character traits that shows that he or she knows Jesus?” And if they are–then spend your emotional energy focusing on that and reinforcing that in their lives!

Seriously, if they know Jesus, the rest will take care of itself, because the Holy Spirit will teach them. If they don’t know Jesus, then no amount of stressing rules is going to get them there.

The question you need to ask, then, is this one: “Is my parenting helping my kids know Jesus, or is it just reinforcing rules?”

I’m going to let Rebecca jump in here, because her book Why I Didn’t Rebel talks a lot about the effects that rules have on kids, especially in chapter two. In this chapter she tells the stories of Shiloh and Megan. Shiloh seemed to be doing well because she acted, talked and looked like the perfect Christian girl. But in her home, she felt smothered by the rules her parents had to make her a good Christian, like when she did devotions, who prayed at dinner, and how many Bible chapters she had to read a day. By the end of her high school experience, she was ready to burst and started to rebel.

Megan, on the other hand, came from a family where there weren’t many rules at all, but when she got particularly out of hand her parents would swoop in with a Bible verse to set her straight. “We don’t hit because the Bible says it’s wrong, you must obey your parents because the Bible says so.” But this didn’t exactly work because Megan didn’t believe the Bible yet herself. One girl had too many rules, the other girl had too few rules but the rules she did have were about being the perfect Christian girl–something she was never interested in being.

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.


At the very end of the chapter, Rebecca closes with this:

From Why I Didn't Rebel:

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. A sower goes out to plant his seeds and some seeds end up on the rock, where they shoot up quickly but lack any root; some end up on the path, where birds snatch them away; some end up among thorns, where they are strangled by worry; but some end up on good soil, where they flourish and multiply. Obviously the good soil the option that parents desperately want for their children. And often parents’ way of making sure their children are the good soil is by implementing tons of faith-based rules.

But what if rules don’t actually work in creating good soil? Rules do not encourage personal growth—they merely dictate behaviour. Shiloh didn’t truly follow God until she met a friend who challenged her in high school to go beyond the rules and truly give her life to Christ, not just go through the motions. Megan came back to the faith after seeing the joy that Christians who were living by the Spirit, contrasted by the rules-based religion her parents had tried to force on her. In both of these cases, the girls became good soil by transcending the rules, not by following them. They became good soil despite the rules.

The rest of us, who didn’t rebel, were raised not to follow rules but to make good decisions, and that carried into our faith lives. Instead of trying to control our faith, my parents gave us independence. Their belief that we had the Holy Spirit as much as they did shaped how my parents raised us—instead of controlling us they gave us freedom to make our own decisions, guided by our knowledge of Him. And through repeated practice, we learned discretion and how to identify when something was or was not from God. And that is how good soil was created in our lives.

Maybe the answer isn’t to force kids to follow rules; maybe it’s to allow them to hear from God themselves.

The book delves into what it means to raise kids who understand and love God so that their faith stays strong as they become adults. Rebecca tackles a lot of hard questions like the one we’re talking about today, so if you’re finding the teenage years daunting, check out Why I Didn’t Rebel.

How do you think you can know when you’re striking the right balance between rules and freedom? Have any tips? Share them in the comments below!