Teaching Children the Difference Between Rules & Laws

Society depends on rules and laws to function properly. Most children have an innate sense of social justice and fairness, especially as it relates to their own feelings and desires and the behavior of others. According to Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom in his New York Times article "The Moral Life of Babies," this sense of justice is evident in babies younger than one year old. A child's understanding of justice can be shaped by his parents. You can teach your children the difference between rules and laws and the critical role justice plays in our lives and in the world. Start by creating a moral code at home. Set up rules and consequences and explain them in a way your children can understand. Remember to be a good role model since many children learn best by example.

Rules Versus Laws

Rules are standards of behavior that must be followed in certain environments or situations. Generally, rules pertain to families and organizations such as schools or clubs and are created to guide our choices and actions. Most rules have consequences, which are usually less severe than the consequences for breaking laws. Consequences for rules may include scolding or the loss of benefits or privileges. For example, a child who breaks a rule about not playing with a ball in the house may lose the privilege of playing with the ball for the rest of the day or week. Laws are created by governments and publicly enforced by police and court systems. Laws are voted on and have legal implications when they are broken. When a person breaks a law, she may go to court and be charged with a crime. She may face a penalty such as a fine, community service or jail time.

Reasons for Rules and Laws

While rules and laws are slightly different, they both serve the purpose of reinforcing morals and values, keeping people safe and preventing social chaos. Teach your children that systems of justice are based on the difference between right and wrong, and keep communities in order. The same principles apply to everyone and that makes things fair. Give them examples they can relate to. For instance, discuss the rules of a game or sport. Review household rules such as washing hands before eating. Explain that if we do not wash our hands, bacteria can end up in our mouths and cause us to get sick. On a grander level, explain that schools may have rules that require children to be vaccinated. Vaccines ensure that all the children in the school will be safe and healthy. You can also give examples of laws. For instance, teach your children that traffic lights prevent car crashes. By law, red lights require drivers to stop so that other drivers may go. This helps people avoid accidents and ensures that everyone has a chance to drive.


One reason people follow rules and laws is to avoid negative consequences. Teach your children about consequences by setting up punishments when household rules are broken. In the article "Better Kid Care: Getting Children to Follow Rules," the National Network for Child Care emphasizes the importance of logical consequences. Children are more likely to follow rules if the consequences for breaking the rules make sense. For example, if your child does not clean up her toys when she is done playing, the consequence may be that she does not get to play with those toys again that day, or she may have to clean up the toys instead of doing something she enjoys. Going to bed early is not a logical consequence for not cleaning up toys. You can explain that society has more severe consequences for breaking laws, such as paying a fine or going to jail. The reason for these punishments is to prevent a person from repeating the crime and to discourage others from committing similar crimes.

Preparing for Adulthood

Rules help children prepare for adulthood and life in the greater community. While the consequences for breaking a rule are less severe than the consequences for breaking a law, rules teach children how to respect boundaries and authority. If your children break a household rule, they have to face you. If they break a school rule, they may have to face a teacher or principal. If they break a law, they may have to face the police or even a judge and jury. Explain that communities help develop laws. You can invite your children to assist you in generating household rules. As written by Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, EdD, and Ellen Booth Church in their article "Ages and Stages: Helping Children Adjust to Rules & Routines," "The more children participate in the process, the better they understand and follow the rules."

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