Expectations, Rules, and What We’re About

Moses (by Rembrandt)

When Hannah was about 4 or 5, we were dealing with some issue about her behavior. (I can’t remember what it was, so that should tell you how important it was.) We were sitting around the table and talking, trying to get to the root of the matter, when she excitedly came up with an idea. “I know,” she exclaimed, “Let’s make a rule about this!”

What Hannah said cut right to me. I like to see things in black and white, and whatever is gray confuses and frustrates my world. Few people or organizations like a procedure better than I do. But God is showing me that so much of life cannot be put in a box. I’m not saying that we need to let things be chaotic, but that my heart needs to trust in the Spirit, not in my own comfort and security.

I knew enough to explain to Hannah then that we cannot have a rule for every situation in our family. We have to have guiding principles that fall under two main categories: honoring God and loving others. Jesus said that these are the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:26-40).

When we opened the after school program in Allendale, I knew that we needed to have clear expectations and rules. We needed to have a common “law” as a foundation. Many of these ideas came from my experience in working with kids, my own parenting, children’s ministry blogs, and ministries like The Frazee Dream Center.

Our Strongest Contribution
In our program, we focus on three main areas: Academic Success, Healthy Living, and Character Development. The last one is what we consider to be our unique and strongest contribution. Even if a child doesn’t make the best grades, good character will get him far in life.

Additionally, whereas Academics and Heath are what the child accomplishes for himself or herself,  Character is about how he or she treats others. We want to help these children realize that they can and should be blessings for others.

The membership applications for the after school program includes a list of rules. Rules are needed for safety (“No fighting,” “No weapons,” etc) and efficiency (“Members are expected to participate in activities,” “Members must be signed in and out each day,” etc). But, these kids could not be expected to memorize a list of 12-15 rules, nor did I want them to think that if they kept those to the letter, then everything would be fine.

We needed some general categories that we could always come back to. Also, I wanted to call them “expectations” instead of rules, knowing that they have rules all day long, and I didn’t want them to feel like we were piling more on top. Here are the expectations that we came up with and communicated since day 1:

  1. Respect the Leaders.  Follow directions.
  2. Respect Each Other.  Including no fighting or profanity.
  3. Respect the Stuff.  Take care of what we have. It’s ours!
  4. Respect Yourself.  Do your best.
  5. Smile and Have Fun!

Obviously, the common theme that we want to teach these kids is respect. But we put in the last one, explaining that everyone cannot have fun if we don’t do the other four things. These expectations have served as a great reference point for conversations with the kids in our program.

But over the last few months, I have noticed that these expectations were often too vague for the kids to apply. I like the principles in the expectations, but we also need to have some clear rules for them. More specifically, during homework and instructional times their behaviors are often destructive and distracting, leading to unpleasant consequences, unless I show them mercy.

I “borrowed” some rules for homework time from another source, but quickly realized that two of their three rules didn’t apply to our situation. I had to remember that specific rules are not usually universal. But I reworked them and came up with these three:

  1. Be quiet.  Even if you don’t have work to do or don’t want to learn, others do.
  2. Be seated.  Especially in the group I work with, we have a number of kids (some with ADHD) who like to wander, or run, around.
  3. Be patient.  During homework time, there may be 8-10 kids who need help with homework, but only 1 or 2 leaders. They need to wait until we can help them, or move on to another problem.

Notice that even though we apply these rules during academic settings (one of our main areas), they are really about Character Development (our strongest contribution).

What We’re About
I’m glad that we established some clear rules, but we know that for a long-term impact, we need to reach their hearts. So, this past week I came up with some things that they need to be on the inside. All those other expectations and rules they can follow externally, but we told them that it’s what is on the inside that counts and will help them for their success over the next 20 years.

Based on a suggestion from Joanna, we were able to put these in ABCD format:

  1. Always Forgive Quickly.  Instead of responding with anger, they need to let things go.
  2. Be Respectful.  This topic is covered in our expectations.
  3. Consider Others First.  They need to be generous and selfless.
  4. Desire Success.  We want them to have a hope of accomplishing great things.

For the most part, we can “make” them obey and be seated (or face consequences), but we can’t make them forgive, respect, be considerate, or desire success in their hearts. Those are their own choices.

The Gospel Message
I consider the program that I work in to be “morally-positive, spiritually-neutral.” It’s not that I cannot mention God (I have a few times), but I have to be cautious about when, why, and how.

I think of my high school football coach, Robert Maddox, who I remember teaching us practical lessons from Jesus’ parables and who always encouraged us to set our priorities in this order: God, family, school, and then football.

Do I wish this was Christ-centered organization? In a lot of ways I do, as it would free us up to discuss certain topics. But there is also value in Christians serving outside of the church, in the culture. And there are a lot of ways that we can communicate biblical and gospel principles. For example:

  • When we talk about respecting leaders, we can bring up that the leaders sacrifice their time and energy for the kids’ benefit. To respect and obey is to show trust.
  • When we remind them to take care of our facilities and equipment, we tell them that they have been given responsibility, and that they need to be trustworthy.
  • We tell them to forgive quickly when someone hurts them, just as they have been forgiven when they have hurt others.
  • We should consider others first, just as others have put us first.

Whether it’s in regards to parenting my own kids, or about training children in this after school program, I have a lot to learn in order to help them succeed. And I have a lot to learn in order to be able to have a Kingdom-level impact in the lives of kids. I have fallen short, and will continue to do so. But my weaknesses will show that Christ’s grace is enough for me, and His power is perfected in my weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).

Christ’s grace and power. That’s what I’m about.

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5 responses to “Expectations, Rules, and What We’re About”

  1. Anonymous says :

    Rules (laws) are good, but they they should be used lawfully (1 Tim 1:8)

    Rom 3…For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

    In terms of helping so shape a child's heart, the rules exist to show that they cannot keep them, and thus are unworthy. There are consequences to not following rules. Children need to recognize that someone greater than they, who did keep the ALL the rules, received their due punishment, and was not overcome by it.

    Many good object lessons exist here for the penal substitutionary atonement.

  2. Joey Espinosa says :

    Great points. While working with children at Grace Church, we tried to work hard to NOT produce moralists. But I've been (half-)joking that down here, we would do good to MAKE moralists. 🙂

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