An exasperated woman, whose marriage was falling apart, said to me, “Nicholeen, my husband is obsessed by principles. He keeps telling me that I don’t understand principles and that I’m not living by principles. How do you define principles?”
This woman’s husband lived according to his own made-up rules, such as hiding things from the government, controlling his wife and children, fearing religious people, only following his own logic, etc. Why? His excuse was that he was living by principle. But, I could clearly see that he wasn’t. In fact, I wondered if he was maybe a bit confused about what a principle even is.
A principle isn’t something we just resonate with or prefer. When we understand and live by correct principles, we are acknowledging truth and conforming to it, instead of controlling it. When we align our practices with our principles we feel comfortable in our choices and driven to improve.
The Nature of Principles and Purpose of Rules
Principles are true all on their own. No one has to make them true or justify them. Correct principles don’t change to match varying points of view, and they are not specific actions or rules. Principles have broad application, they are everlasting, and they “maximize agency and growth.” (Tad R. Callister)
Rules or practices, on the other hand, are specific applications, steps, or directions that can vary depending upon the circumstance. Rules have their place. They often protect us and others. But, sometimes rules must bend in order to follow a principle in all situations.
When it comes to relationships, principles should be the primary focus because principles ultimately lead a person to create rules and practices that align with truth. However, without good rules and practices, a person can lose sight of the principles that they want to follow.
For instance, so many people have a foundational belief that family is forever. A principle that falls under this foundational belief is honoring family roles. But just because a person knows in their heart that they should honor their father and mother, doesn’t mean that they always do. In fact, it is the parent honoring the role of the child as a learner that leads them to create rules and practices that encourage the child to honor their parents, who have the role of teacher in the family. Some of these practices may include staying calm, communicating honestly and openly, accepting teaching and correcting, and serving the family.
Occasionally, some of the practices we put into action are also principles and they could be broken down further into more practices/rules. How does a person serve their family best? How does a person accept the teaching and correcting from their parents? Most rules or practices answer the question, “How?” (David A. Bednar)
Parenting By Principle and Practice
When a person takes their principles to the next level, the practice level, then the principle becomes easier to see in action and utilize. For instance, when a child follows instructions from their parent (a principle) in various applications, such as cleaning the room, washing the car, or doing the dishes (practices), then they are more equipped to figure out how to live by principle when they are older and living on their own.
The practices of all parents don’t need to be the same. Some parents may feel that their children need to work in the garden, and other parents may feel that their child needs to learn to cook the family meals, but either way the principle of teaching the children is being applied.
When I teach parenting principles and skills people often want to do exactly what I do. That’s okay. Sometimes a parent needs to learn new practices that align with their principles. But, sometimes a parent will tell me that they want to script their corrections slightly different than I do. I don’t mind this. Parents have the role and authority to choose what’s best for their children.
Parenting isn’t about being word-perfect, even though sometimes new words stop power struggle habits and decrease anxiety. Parenting is about reaching the heart of the child and turning that heart with principle and foundational truths toward the parents and a higher authority. Many different words can accomplish this.
Living by principle doesn’t mean doing whatever you want; it means doing whatever you ought to do. Additionally, living by principle should raise a bar, not lower it or make excuses for bad behavior. Principle isn’t behavior; however, the principles we live by are the foundations of all our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The husband in the story above was claiming that he was the authority on principle. Red flag! A person who really lives by principle would never take credit for the truths they are hoping to live by. And, they also wouldn’t force their truths upon other people. Real truths and principles change hearts and behavior; rules and practices most often control behavior. This poor woman was being controlled, but the truth about principles was able to set her free.
Like this? You’ll love Nicholeen’s latest podcast, “Parenting By Principle” (Podcast 60).