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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Less Rules, More Equations


You’ve read it before. Kids from Generation iY have grown up in a world where they seldom delay gratification and they’ve been given things that earlier generations had to work for. Why? I believe it’s the messages permeating our culture. Moms and dads hear: “The more you give your child the better parent you are.” Kids feel entitled to have what’s advertised on TV and movies hearing: “This is the new cool thing. Everybody is getting it. If you don’t have it, you’re not cool.” At school, home, and on sports teams, students are rewarded for mediocre effort or for simply showing up. When they make a mistake, an adult often steps in and resolves it for them. Consequently, their awareness of consequences is down and their sense of entitlement is up. Now the question is—how do we correct this predicament?

In this kind of world, creating a bunch of “rules” hasn’t worked well. First, most students push back on rules. For that matter, the moment any of us are told we cannot or should not do something—the rebel inside of us wants to do it. Second, rules haven’t worked because we frequently fail to enforce them. We don’t follow through. We threaten kids with a rule…then reduce the consequence. It’s no wonder kids possess a sense of entitlement. We gave it to them.

Equations are Better Than Rules

Instead of a long list of rules, what if you began to share “equations” with your students at the beginning of a semester. Rather than saying, “No running in the hallway!” or “No cheating in the classroom!” an equation would be:

“Anyone who chooses to do ABC, this is the benefit. And anyone who chooses XYZ, this is the consequence.”

It’s all about behaviors and outcomes. And by the way, it works even better when both students and adults adhere to the same equation. I realize this may simply sound like a semantics issue, but it’s far more than that. It’s a way of helping students associate conduct with consequences; behavior with benefits. When a kid experiences a negative outcome, it isn’t that the teacher doesn’t like him, or the dean has a vendetta against her. It’s that they chose a course of action and courses always have destinations. Actions always bring outcomes. That’s how life works. If I jump off a 50-foot cliff, I will fall and get hurt. Maybe die. It wasn’t that my teacher doesn’t like me, or that my parents want to make things hard for me. Gravity is at work. When I jump, gravity will pull me down. It is an equation of life. We call it the Law of Gravity. It represents the relationship between action and outcome. Remember what you learned in science class? For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. You are simply teaching the science of life.

How To Start

Equations put the ball in their court: If anyone does this, then that will happen. It’s up to you. It’s your choice. So, in our home, my wife and I led things this way:

  1. We had very few rules. We cultivated a relationship with our kids that reduced the need for them. We had about three to four rules.
  2. We had very many equations we communicated to our kids. Scenarios that led them to always know what destination each course led to.
  3. When either of my two kids faced some options, we’d sit down and talk about the outcomes, teaching them to think about benefits and consequences.
  4.  When either of my two kids chose a behavior, we would sit down and debrief the action and the outcome.

For example, when my son Jonathan turned sixteen, he wanted to move out to Hollywood to pursue an agent and some television work, as an actor. I sat down with him and praised him for his ambition. Then, we had a sobering conversation about the price of such an endeavor. (There was a social, emotional, educational and financial price tag). Economically, I decided I would split the cost with him. He would either get work out there, or he would work when he returned home and pay for half the bills. He is twenty years old now, and just finishing his last payment. He is not angry with me about the payments; he is excited about what came of that venture. He got clear direction for his future. His sense of entitlement is low, his ambition is growing and he is happy with his life. Why? He understood the equation going into it. This is the only way to set kids up for the world they’ll enter as adults.

How about you? What rules could be transformed into equations for your students?


  1. Leonard Quasarano on March 29, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Great message Tim! My two boys are elementary age and they are just like every other boy out there; they want to do what they want to do when they want to do it. So few times a week I try to train them to be friendly and that being friendly sometimes means doing what other people want to do and not what you want to do. The other day my oldest son (in second grade) got in trouble for poor sportsmanship and when we talked about it he confessed that he was doing something that no one else wanted to do. It finally dawned on him that he cannot play games unless others want to play them too or else there are negative consequences.

    • Tim Elmore on April 2, 2013 at 3:47 pm

      Thanks for sharing this teachable moment with your son. I believe there is power in facilitating those conversations with him to help him understand what it takes to play on a team. That’s a win!

  2. Bryan on March 29, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Good stuff! Never realized it until today, but my parents used equations when raising the four kids in my family. As a parent I find my wife and I doing the same. We also have worked in youth ministry and now in children’s ministry and find equations very useful. Thanks Tim!

    • Tim Elmore on April 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      I’m encouraged to hear you’re leading all of the youth in your life with equations. Thanks for sharing, Bryan!

  3. Mikegaetke on March 29, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Timeless common sense wisdom! Articulated so clearly too!

  4. […] they currently don’t have the decision-making ability to do: get off line. Whether you introduce equations to balance screen time with face to face time, or create ‘device free’ times for the whole […]

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Less Rules, More Equations