Aug 29, 2019
My grandmother was pretty direct sometimes and so in my mind, she is the one that taught me this saying: “Rules are for people that don’t know any better.” It has stuck with me ever since, and I’ve modified it for certain situations to a cruder version. I believe that all rules eventually fail in certain situations. Even what some consider the ultimate rule book, Christianity’s 10 commandments, is full of ambiguity. Does “do not kill” apply when you are at war, protecting your family or the cause of a deadly car accident? I don’t think so.
I also see a lot of our individual freedoms being limited by needlessly restrictive laws that become obsolete even before they are fully in place. Is it really necessary to regulate the relationship that my family has with a local farmer? Some of these rules limit our ability to make choices for parenting. I don’t think spanking is a good option for parents, but I’m far from saying that it is never applicable, and I wonder about the merit of allowing our government to make those kinds of rules for us.
In parenting, just like in government, it is easy to make rules to fix anything that is annoying you. Some narrowly-focused rules, usually aligned to our cultural expectations of conduct, are very appropriate and also stop annoying behavior like throwing food at the table and other table manners.
But consider this, for every rule you make you create two distinct results.
I’m sure that you are familiar with point one. My youngest makes it his family duty to push the boundaries of any rules that my wife creates and my oldest is in the habit of telling on him. The oldest even tries to get her to make new rules just so that he can test them. At least he is thinking about the rules and sees some of the ambiguity of situations. He is so funny about it. “Of Course we can’t eat chocolate before bedtime!” he states proudly and then follows up with “But what if we are at Yaya’s house and it is a party, then can we have chocolate?” The bottom line is that you have more work as a parent for every rule you make, so make them sparingly.
Point two above is way more subtle and leads to the important parenting question, “How does my child learn to think things through in the first place?” The short answer is that children learn to think by talking to others. Especially important conversations for learning to think come specifically from the ambiguity that life throws you. Rules tend to shut that down those conversations with parents trapped in what they said and children reacting accordingly. Later in life, these rules can become a part of their parenting paradigm.
Rule: A one size fits all approach to particular conduct. “You may not throw inside the house.”
Guidelines: A point of view to adopt when taking particular action that focuses on the results you are likely to get. “When throwing, always look past what you are throwing at to avoid doing damage and hurting others. It is always a good idea to go outside and throw away from the house. It usually isn’t a good idea to throw hard objects inside because it is so easy to accidentally break something.”
Expectations: Expectations live in the child no matter what the parent actually says. An understanding of expectations emerges in the child over time and through the regular feedback given by parents. “My parents expect me to not break anything inside the house and to take care when I am throwing anything.”
Boundaries: In parenting, as in life, a boundary in relationships is the individual assessment of where one person ends and the other person begins. These assessments are often not in harmony with each other, causing conflicts. “I can throw things inside until my parents yell at me to stop and maybe even after that until I break something. It is my responsibility to throw and it is their responsibility to stop me.”
As parents, we are always setting expectations and establishing boundaries. We actually have no choice but to do so as a regular part of living with our children. The question is how many of those conversations will be based on knee jerk rules and how many will be based on guidelines. Don’t let yourself and your kids off the hook for thinking about situations when they are in them. Limit rulemaking and increase the number of guidelines and mentoring conversations that you have in their place. It will develop your kids’ ability to think and act autonomously in the future and will inspire them to talk to you and others before taking action.
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