Living by Principles instead of by Rules

Ideas and examples by various unschoolers about how living by principles instead of by rules
makes life with children easier and more peaceful.

Rebecca C.   (by e-mail, 2024):

It's like rules don't encourage thinking and principles invite pausing, thinking, contemplating, perspective-taking, consideration, learning.
in response to Principles instead of Rules
on Just Add Light and Stir

Deb Lewis wrote:
[In an unschooling rules vs. principles discussion], one person had to look up both words in order to make her point they meant "exactly" the same thing, and then, didn't make her point.

A principle internally motivates you to do the things that seem good and right. People develop principles by living with people with principles and seeing the real benefits of such a life.

A rule externally compels you, through force, threat or punishment, to do the things someone else has deemed good or right. People follow or break rules.

Which is the hope most parents have for their kids? Do they hope their kids will comply with and follow rules, or do they hope their kids will live their lives making choices that are good and right?

Most people heard sometime, somewhere "we have to have rules" and they swallowed it because they were punished if they didn't, and so, here they are today, talking about rules without any thought to what rules really are.

For a lot of people, thinking too deeply about what they believe is too painful. It's just easier to do what was done to them.

Deb Lewis

I'm having to remind myself that the principle is that my two year old be safe, not that he hold my hand in streets or stay close enough to grab.


Peace and calm are really good things all in and of themselves. Enjoyment/JOY is better for health than all the "health rules" in the world.

(Sandra, July 2, 2004, in a long-gone forum. But wait! That discussion is found!)

Someone wrote: Rules, principles, is there really a difference?

Joyce Fetteroll responded:

Someone said that principles can be summed up in one word. Rules can't. I'm not sure if I can always do that but it's a helpful distinction to get someone started on figuring out the difference.

For instance a principle might be kindness. A rule is "Don't hit your sister." If there's a principle of treating each other kindly then there isn't a need for a rule that says "Don't hit." "Don't hit," only says "Don't hit." Kids do pick up that it doesn't say don't pinch, don't poke until she cries, don't pull hair ... But as a child is helped to find better (kinder) tools to use to get what they want and their understanding of kindness grows it's understood that anything that hurts someone is unkind so there isn't a need to spell out every hurtful thing that kids aren't allowed to do.


Two stories that led me/Sandra away from rules and toward principles:
A structured homeschooling family was visiting us for a few days around 1997. I was going to make cookies. This was when we still lived in our other, smaller house. Her oldest girl was helping me, and at the "add one teaspoon of baking powder" part, she stood expectantly and impatiently with the one-teaspoon with heaping baking powder in her hand, looking at me. I looked back. She said "I need a knife." She wanted to level it off, but at her house, that was only done with a knife. At my house, that was done with the edge of the lid of the baking powder can, or by shaking it off, or with the handle of a spoon, or any old thing. But the rule at her house was you level your measurements off with a butter knife.

This is a good example of the difference between principles and rules, and between resourcefulness and pattern-following.

Once I was at my mother-in-law's house and had offered to help with the dishes. She said I could dry, and handed me a thin cotton dishtowel. After a full sink of dishes the towel was way more wet than dry. I asked for another towel. She kind of laughed and said "You don't need another one. You can use that one."

I never offered to help her with dishes again. One time I did them for her, but I used two towels without asking. 🙂

It's a waste of time to wipe a dish with a wet towel. Although it satisfied her need for following procedure, it did NOT meet my requirements of time well spent.

All of those instances served to help me clarify what I believed and why, and to continue to encourage my children to ask "why?" rather than "what?" and "how?"

Sandra Dodd

I told those stories in a comment at Just Add Light in 2010, here: Following directions
The dishtowel story, another telling, is at Understanding the Value of Principles, at the bottom.

Julie Sweeney:
I find the hardest part of discussing a philosophy of education is that rather than explore the philosophical underpinnings, many times people want steps, rules to follow, and the "right" practices. For me, unschooling discussion changed how I thought about my children, how I thought about what learning is, how I understood intellectual development. Some models of behavior or suggestions for how to implement the philosophy were helpful, but I found myself at times tempted to measure how well I applied the philosophy by what I was "doing" rather than by how my family space felt!

I discovered over time that the essence of unschooling in my family looked like us—a curiosity to discover together new learning and relating experiences that created family harmony and promoted enthusiastic shared education.
—Julie Sweeney, February 2012

Leah Rose wrote:

For a long time I was hung up on Not Having Rules. It was, to a significant degree, how I identified our family as unschoolers. But no one was telling me "you're not really unschoolers if you have rules." It was, ironically, an internal rule I concocted by reading into the wonderful stories here from longtime unschoolers, describing how the peace and connection flowed in their families. That's what I wanted for my family and I got stuck on the idea that the peace and connection flowed from not having rules to enforce. To my way of thinking, rules and expectations created discord. Therefore, no rules or expectations = no discord.

Of course, that didn't quite turn out to be the magic formula I believed it would be. Turns out that peace isn't actually the absence of discord. It's the presence of trust, and it arises when every member of the family is able to relax into the experience of feeling seen and valued, into the knowledge that his or her needs matter and will be met as often as possible -- not *never* denied, but not denied on a whim or without a thoughtful reason. Turns out a peaceful family isn't one in which there are no conflicts. It's one in which there is a solid enough foundation of trust and connection to allow for conflicts to arise and be resolved without injuring the relationships. It took me a long time to see that.

In reflecting back I also can see how attached I was to the desire to *identify* as an unschooler. I think it's human nature to seek an identity, to want to connect our experience of being to a defined construct that can provide guidance and context for our thinking and actions. But it's also very easy to grasp an identity too hard, and clinging creates blind spots, inspires reactive rather than reflective thinking. So I have come to see that it helps peace and learning to notice when we are clinging or tightening around an identity, an idea, or even a hope. I think that's why breathing and baby steps are such useful suggestions for new unschoolers. Both help us to stay in the moment, to relax right where we are rather than leaping ahead or getting mired in "shoulds." They help us cultivate soft, open ground upon which we can rest with joy, and know enough confidence to take the next step.

—Leah Rose, February 2019

A kid's perspective by April:

Here's an interesting topic my 10 year son has raised. He brought it up again last night for about the 3rd time in the last month. He is perplexed. His question was basically this. "Why is that I don't have any real rules, you don't make me do things and you don't punish me and yet I do what you ask, help around the house and don't disobey you?" He then went on to discuss a few of his friends who are always trying to get out of what they are told to do, who don't do what their parent's ask until they 'have' to, who often disobey the rules. These are good kids, by the way, from very nice families. But very traditionally parented. He finds the kids' attitudes very perplexing and uncomfortable.

We talked about it a bit. He was trying to figure out what was different in the families. He is my child that has pretty much always been unschooled. He also happens to be a very easy going kind of person. I was trying to be somewhat tactful about the parenting techniques of his friends' parents during the conversation but in the end he concluded that the biggest difference he could see what that of respect. Those kids don't have the same respect from their parents that he has. And therefore, they don't respect their parents. Pretty insightful I think.

He's still very confused by the whole disobedience part, and getting out of doing things. Even though we don't have rules and chores, he probably helps out as much or more than his friends do. I don't think he quite gets the whole rule thing which is why he is struggling with the disobeying part. He gets that some families have a lot of rules, but he doesn't understand why the kids are so determined to try to get around the rules.

Anyway, this has been a big issue for him lately. He is probably just realizing how different our family is from most other families.

Mom to Kate-19, Lisa-17, Karl-15, & Ben-10

Tim T:
It seems to me that rules control others and principles guide them. Hence, if rules, I don't have to think for myself. Like in a school setting - bells rings, stand up, move, sit down, write this, look here, look there. Jail, military, school - all very rule bound. And from what I've seen the bastion of free-thought and academic freedom is actually very rule-bound - Universities, with their flavour of "teachers."

Principles, on other hand, are guides to respectful living, freedom, and openness. We can value completely different interpretations of the principles. In his book on how to create a volunteer board that works, John Carver points out that setting guidelines allows "any reasonable interpretation" of a broad guideline, rather than tying the organization up in knots with rule books.

The best **theoretical** example I've heard of is the way the US congress governs the Pres. Broad guidelines, like "commonly accepted practices." They don't tie him tight with a rulebook. Not sure that it really works that way, or works that well as a form of governance, but it may form an example.

As in Sandra's example, it seems to me that she lives by setting those guidelines, accepts reasonable interpretations, and make suggestions to help the kids (others?) live more fully.

My (morning) thots,
Tim T

Several responses to that:

-=- Jail, military, school - all very rule bound. -=-

I understand that those would have rules, too.

When I was teaching I had a rule that I didn't want writing turned in on notebook paper torn out of a spiral, with all the fringe on it. A pile of 130 of those is a big pile, and I trailed litter (a $300 fine in New Mexico 🙂). If they used spiral paper, they needed to cut that edge off. I had scissors for them to use. I would give them plain notebook paper too, if they didn't have any. Some of the kids acted like I was ruining their lives saying "cut that edge off or I don't want it."

I don't mind following rules. The principle that it's best to do what others need you to do in a situation covers that. 🙂 I obey most of the laws of which I'm aware (though it's been years since I filed a statement of intent to homeschool, and Holly reads speed limit signs to me sometimes in a meaningful way).

My kids don't mind following rules when they join clubs or attend meetings in places with rules. The gaming store where they play (and where Kirby came to work after a while) has a language rule. They can say "crap" but nothing else of its sort or worse. There's a 25¢ fine. If they don't have a quarter they do pushups. But because of that rule, families go there that wouldn't go if it had the atmosphere of a sleazy bowling alley. (It has the atmosphere of a geeky gaming store.)

I think one reason they don't mind following rules is that they haven't already "had it up to here" with rules, as kids have who have a whole life of home rules and school rules. They find rules kind of fascinating and charming, honestly. When Holly's had a dress code for a dance class or acting class she is THRILLED.

Maybe also because they haven't been forced to take classes or go to gaming shops (?!?) they know they're there voluntarily, and part of the contract is that they abide by the rules. No problem.

Probably some families make rules so that their kids will learn to follow rules. It's possible. Too much practice can kill the joy, though. Being forced to play an instrument can create an adult who doesn't even bother to own one of the instruments he knows how to play, because now that he's out of school he doesn't "have to." If someone made me practice eating before every meal, I wouldn't be very hungry.

So here I have kids who can sleep as long as they want, who set their alarms and get up; who have all kinds of clothes and no rules, who dress well and appropriately to the situation; who don't have to come home but they DO come home.

Something important is happening.



Good thots, IMHO. I think people get over-ruled when they are constantly overruled. We used to find ways to argue the rules in school, but teachers/administrators just exercised their power over us, keeping us "in the spirit of the rule." Then we all went kinda passive. Passion-less. "Just jump thru the hoops..."

I see my kids and now you tell me your kids are pursuing life on their own terms. That has got to be the ultimate aim of this "venture," no?

My thots
Tim T


Not a concrete example, alas, but from the perspective of someone who spent nearly a decade as a corporate lawyer, "rules" are things you get around by clever thinking. But who would want to "get around" a principle? If you stop believing in the principle, you might change it—but it isn't something that you try to circumvent.

I think that focussing on principles helps me to behave appropriately. If I believe as a principle is that "we should be kind to each other", then my reaction to Lydia tossing a piece of apple at me in a moment of anger is different than if the "rule" was "we don't throw things."

Principles also leave more room for children to learn to make choices. If the principle is that we try not to break things, then maybe she can roll a ball in the dining room, but not throw it, or throw it gently, or throw a softer ball, or throw a harder ball in a different room. She can decide what it is that she feels like doing, within the constraint of not breaking the china or denting the teapots—rather than having a "rule" like "no throwing balls in the house [which would prompt my inner lawyer (and hers!) to argue over what is a "ball," or what is "throwing"—or what "is" "is"].



I've been thinking a lot more about the rules vs. principles thread that Sandra brought up a little while back. I went and bought The Spirited Child, which Joyce recommended, and one of the things it talks about is clarifying your rules and enforcing them consistently. So, I tried to reflect on what the rules around our house really are and how I would define a rule rather than a principle.

I ended up defining rules as "I will not allow you..." statements, and only came up with two: I will not allow you to hurt anyone and I will not allow you to destroy things (like walls, people's hard work, etc.). So, I decided to ask Emily, my oldest (6), what our rules around the house were. She just stared at me blankly, so I asked her what she thought "rules" were. She thought a minute and said, "I think they have to do with slaves and slavery." What a profound statement I thought that was!



It's much safer and more realistic to live by principles (honesty, courtesy, respect, thoughtfulness...) and demonstrate them in your daily life, than to imagine some scenario which respresents lack of principle and make a rule to prevent that scenario. That's totally backwards. Rules in the absence of principle are often found to be irrelevant by children. Principles lived fully make rules unnecessary.

Karen Tucker

Kes by boats
photo (a link) by Janine Davies

Somone on UnschoolingBasics asked:
Do unschoolers here have ANY rules at your house? Is the unschooling life a life of zero rules? Or is it not forcing the issue on little things like bed times or clothes or how much they eat?
Dawn's reponse:
The philosophy at our home---
Treat all family members (including animals) the way that you would want to be treated. This covers a multitude of areas such as property, feelings, privacy, etc. I believe that this is a good basic philosophy for all areas of life; marriage, parenting, employment, neighbors, friendships, even just driving down the road. I hope that if my children take anything from our home it will be this. I feel that helping children grasp the concept of empathy far outweighs the benefits of rules.
—Dawn / southernbelle

Lisa B:
Just wanted to share an interesting situation with you guys. We have a house guest this week... a friend of my 14 yr old's is visiting us. The plan was for them to attend a zookeeper day camp this week that they were both excited about. Today on the way my daughter became ill , immediately our guest wanted to know if she HAD to attend the day camp alone (she is a very shy, anxious child who attends public school) . I asked her if she wanted to... her response was "No but you paid for me to go and I am not sick, my mom would make me go but I don't want to go without Anna" So I told her she didn't have to go and that if Anna was well they could both go tomorrow (we were basically within sight of the zoo when Anna's nausea turned ugly so we drove in to tell them we were ill and couldn't attend today)

Anyway this led to a discussion on the way home about arbitrary rules and respect etc. Every time this child comes to my house her mother says things like "Well I told her she had to do this or that or to make sure with you about this or that etc... but she said it would be fine because you are 'cool' " Not sure my friend likes that but that is the view of her child regarding me.

I asked B today on the way back in the car how all the rules at her house made her feel. She said they make her feel anxious and untrusted , that her mother tells her she is a good kid and then makes all kinds of rules and that makes her feel like her mother is lying. Then I asked her about the rules at my house....she said well the rules at your house make sense, they are rules that make everyone feel safe, protected and trusted. We have very few rules and mostly they are rules of consideration and rules of safety (like if you light a candle it should be resting on something inflammable like a saucer or candle holder.... my friend's rule would be don't light candles).

Anyway I thought that was really interesting since so many people say kids need rules they like rules etc. A.S Neill (Summerhill) does say that kids like rules and will make lots of rules for themselves (so we don't need to I think is what he is saying!).

For years I have heard if kids don't have rules and limits they are unhappy. What I have seen proved to me over and over is that if kids are given arbitrary rules they feel untrusted ! Now I have proof directly from the mouth of a child who lives her life bound by rules all made by other people. Interestingly enough she lives with a step sister (same age) that sneaks, lies, cheats, breaks rules, skips school, runs away, has been asked to leave two schools, and so on.... the parents' answer to her behavior is to make more rules! UGH!

It just seems to me that if we give kids so many rules about sleeping, eating, behaving and everything else how will they ever learn to make their own decisions? How can these people expect their kids to make good choices in life if they are constantly making rules that say clearly "you are not trusted to make the right choice" ???

Just thought this was interesting!
Lisa Blocker (on the UnschoolingBasics list, June 2007)


Sandra wrote to Lisa: Lisa, I hope you don't mind I've saved the excellent thing you wrote. If I should take your name off (or at least your last name?) ...

Lisa responded:I don't mind my name being on it at all! It was such an "ah ha!" for me... I KNEW arbitrary rules were not the way I wanted to go with my kids ... in fact my 16 yr old recently told an adult leader in her Sea Scout troop that "maybe I am spoiled but if I don't agree with something my mom says we are doing or not doing we discuss it." The very wise leader said "no that's not being spoiled, that's being respected!"

bike chained to an anchor

Should there be a rule against chaining a bicycle to an anchor?
Is it a good idea to do that?

It depends.

(that photo is a link)

"I was all, 'what is all this rules vs. principles stuff anyway?' Now, in my unschooling, it seems like the most important part." (Maya's new writing)

Rules are prescriptive and in the past have lead to me doing things from a place of fear (I must do the 'right' thing) which isn't useful for unschooling. With time I'm beginning to understand how principles offer a much more responsive and responsible place to be unschooling from. (Click that quote for more about seeing differently, by Zoe Thompson-Moore.)

Ben Lovejoy's transformed and transforming thoughts on principles

What wanting rules looks like, being some account of getting from "just tell me" to understanding the principle of principles. Now including Rules and Principles and Math

Logic and Parenting, by Joyce Fetteroll ("If the reasons behind rules make sense, then there isn't a reason to make a rule....If the reasons behind rules are nonsense, then people memorize nonsense...")

Principles of Unschooling, by Pam Sorooshian

How to Raise a Respected Child, by Sandra Dodd, concerning respecting children and giving them choices, and some unexpected results.

Rulebound: More on how Principles can replace rules

"Self regulation" and other controls

What might turn your child into a zombie?
Rules, mostly. (Or a zombie attack.)