Seven Reasons to Relax on "The Rules"

Rules. We all grew up with them. Chances are we heard about rules as children at home, then read them on a blackboard at school. As youngsters we were impressed by the power of the law, and at eighteen we were deemed adult enough to be on the hook for following the laws of our land. Rules govern the adult world, and so it's easy to see why parents strive to uphold the household rules. For years was taken for granted that rules and their corresponding consequences would teach our children well.

Yet, it seems that the rules don't stick. Some kids who follow the rules at home are bullies at school. Others don't seem equipped to know what to do with themselves when mom and dad aren't present to keep them in line: this is probably one reason why college is often treated like a four-year bacchanal by some students. Some kids seem to go off the rails once they head out on their own as new young adults. We've taught them the rules, and yet it seems that those principles still haven't been internalized. All of this begs the question: what can we do differently to empower our children to make good choices when we're not around?

It may be that one of the best ways to truly teach our children how to be good citizens is to let go of the idea of rules while they are young. That is, to approach our children's moral education as a long term act of teaching instead of focusing on the more traditional rules and punishment method. For the many reasons below, it seems to me that if we relying solely on rules to raise our children, we are missing the best, most nourishing opportunities for our children.

Reason One: Rules are abstract to younger children. We can talk about rules until we're blue in the face, but the truth is this: our preliterate children have about as much use for "rules" as my cat does. While rules might be broken, they can't be seen, held or touched, therefore our children do better with language that is more direct. "Hitting is against the rules" doesn't impact a four year old the way that "Hitting hurts people's bodies" does. The former is ambiguous while the latter is very concrete. Long story short: focusing our talk on The Rules is actually distracting our children from the message we want them to take in. Which leads me to~

Reason Two: Rules are distracting. If we want our children to be kind, considerate souls as they grow older, we do better to focus on building empathy than on the legalities of their actions. Showing a child how their actions are impacting others, or why what they are doing is not safe or just plain not going to work for the group at large is far more informative than citing rules is. In my experience, frustration is most often the primary reason for conflict within child/child or adult/child relationships, so these are moments when our children need positive choices and alternatives. When we focus on the rules, we momentarily delay addressing these needs, which can escalate the emotional tone of the situation. Better to address what's happening immediately and help our children in age-appropriate ways to find some solution to the problem or frustration at hand.

Reason Three: Rules can undermine the Unconditional Love of a parent/child relationship. When we focus on the importance of following the rules and take a "no excuses" approach, we miss connection with our children and they can feel very misunderstood and rejected. If we dismiss their every reason for doing what they did because we are busy upholding the Rules ("Follow them no matter what"), we put our relationship to The Rules in front of our relationship with the kids. We discipline in some tough times, and it's easy to see why parents want to make sure their children aren't going to turn into some of the monsters we see today, but strict adherence to rules isn't going to prevent this. Instead, open listening, acknowledging their feelings and concerns and expressing our own concerns for them can open up dialogue instead of shutting it down. Kids who are old enough to know what the rules are may have their own reasons for not following them to the letter. What's more frustrating for us as parents is that our children may not even be in touch with their own motivations, so even asking an older child to explain themselves can end up becoming an abysmal situation as the child searches to find the right explanation she herself may feel to be false, just to appease us. If we perceive our children to be good people with motives that likely appeared 'good' to them at the moment, we can help them to move forward and correct repeat mistakes with discussions of alternatives or perhaps even seeking outside help for more serious upsetting behaviors. Acting out doesn't exist in a vacuum, so if we are only addressing the legality of their action and not the cause, it's as if we were treating one symptom of a disease and not the cause.

Reason Four: Rules don't allow for nuance. Not every situation is black and white; there are a lot of gray shades in our lives. If we are guided solely by rules, we can come across as unbending in the eyes of our children. Some undesired actions, like hitting, happen because children are still not always articulate when they are upset or frustrated. Sometimes children will taunt, goad, or get into each others space--any parent of multiples knows this--and when talking doesn't work, hitting and hurting become more attractive as ways to repel the unwanted attention. As our kids get older, we need to allow them to make mistakes in trying to solve their problems. Focusing on teaching our children to ask for help,encouraging them to acquire new tactics ("What can you do when your sister won't leave you alone? Let's think of some ideas.") and discussing which better alternatives are available will teach more than spanking, time out, or other punishments.

Reason Five: Rules don't encourage intuition. Intuition is one of our most valuable resources; it sends us strong signals when we might be in trouble. If a child is in a situation where they feel threatened, it might be that they must break a rule to follow their intuition and get to a safe place. One example of this might be a child who is told not to stop on the way home from school. If my son gets the creeps from a person following him, I do want him to stop and get help, even if it means going back to the school or walking into the pub to ask someone to call us. I want my child to know that if an adult in charge isn't being responsible, they have the right to keep themselves safe. I don't want my son to get into a car if someone is intoxicated, even if it is the parents of their friend. Giving children practice in using their judgment--and discussing how it went--allows them a sense of control over their selves and their bodies and empowers them not to be a victim.

Reason Six: Rules are often taught through punishment. "Consequences" is our nice word for it, but the fact remains that rules are often figureheads; we give them power by imposing punitive action to the rules. Our children learn better through the natural (unimposed) consequences that happen organically. For example, if a child knowingly steals something, a natural consequence would be to have to return the item. This is a humiliation of a whole other level than what most children experience, and is informative--we don't need to conjure up anything worse, it's really enough. Likewise, if a child is hitting or acting out, other children might choose not to play with them and leave. This is also a good learning experience. Children learn much better when they are given a chance to correct their mistakes and make amends, be it giving the toy back to their playmate, getting an ice pack to soothe a bruise or repairing broken property. When we go into a situation with the idea our children will learn their lesson through the misery of imposed penalties, we lose and our children lose. Their opportunity to notice how their actions affect others is replaced with a focus on how their actions affect themselves. This then develops into "how not to get caught". Time and again, studies have shown that punitive action doesn't result in better behavior, but in driving the negative behaviors underground so that the children are less likely to be punished.

Reason Seven: Strict adherence to rules and punishments teach children to focus on their own self-interests, first and foremost. If Charlie spits at Susie, then gets put in a corner to 'go think it over', he's likely not thinking about how Susie is affected; he's likely fuming mad at Susie for getting him into trouble. And once he's out of his corner, he may come back even more upset, because the problem still isn't solved. Susie, too, learns that she must rely on adults to solve her problems. If, instead, he's asked to help Susie get cleaned up and is present to hear Susie tell him how she's feeling, Charlie may understand how upsetting spitting is to others. Perhaps Susie was annoying Charlie, or maybe Charlie's having a terrible day, the point is this--when we stay with our children and try to facilitate conversation, the situation can be resolved and there's room to form a new game plan that will feel better for everyone involved. The focus stays on the group instead of on just the self.

When we stop and consider how much our children can learn to be better people when we take the time to work with them, it's easy to see that reliance on rules shortchanges us all. It robs us as parents of having a far more beneficial influence on our children and it robs our children of doing the work to make better choices. In many ways, punishments let our kids off the hook in making amends, as does a rote resignation to follow rules. We all remember moments when we were horrified at what human beings did to each other, atrocities committed with the sanction of "following the rules". We want our children to be self-governing, to be thoughtful people as adults. And for what it's worth, we adults rarely feel a twinge of guilt when we find opportunities to break the rules scot free. We justify all sorts of things--speeding, jaywalking, using our cell phones in the car for 'just a second' while we plug in our earpieces-- so maybe our kids need to be allowed to practice using their own judgment as well. We should know...we were kids once too.

Coming soon: Raising Respectful Children Without Relying on Rules


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