Rules and Relationships

Josh McDowell

When children enter adolescence, sometimes it seems like a metamorphosis gone bad. In some ways, it appears that beautiful butterflies are being transformed into ugly caterpillars. Almost overnight, these cute, cherubic, charming little kids who were a delight to be around suddenly turn into erratic, moody, and unruly teenagers. One minute they are all smiles, and the next minute they blow their stacks or stomp away, sullen and silent. Once-perfect kids can be forgetful, irresponsible, impulsive, contradictory, insolent, and confused- sometimes all in the same day!

sadyoungwomanthinkingA lot of young people are good kids whose priorities for school, work, money, time management, etc., are all out of whack- or at least they don't match their parents' priorities for them. They are no longer quick to obey or easy to control. In fact, we worry at times if they will soon be totally beyond our control.

So how do adults respond to emerging teenagers? In a generally sincere but misguided attempt to help, many adults think the primary answer to teenage angst and struggle is more structure. So we move in to lay down the law, tighten the reins, and provide needed instruction. We assume that our primary job is to fix the problem, to correct the misbehavior, to enforce the rules, or to right the wrong. But well-meaning efforts by parents and other caring adults often leave kids feeling even more alone and disconnected.

Clear Guidance

We must provide clear guidance and hold young people accountable for their actions, even when they feel confused and disconnected. And I believe they need to follow certain rules, even when they think they have the right to make up their own rules. But the critical is, How do we provide appropriate rules and guidelines for young people without prompting them to disconnect from us relationally and to be captured by the culture?

Present the rules in the right wayThe answer relates directly to how the rules are presented. For years, I have challenged parents and youth workers to present rules in the context of loving relationships. My deep belief, based on biblical principles, personal research, and my own experience with youth, is that young people do not respond to rules; they respond to relationships. Here are two formulas I often use to illustrate the contrast:

Rules - Relationship = Rebellion

Rules + Relationship = Positive Response

© Family First. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For more information, please visit