[Week 3 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Do children like rules?
What is it about rules that many children dislike? Are children naturally rebellious and need to be put in their places? Do they just need things explained to them? While there may be some element of those and other things involved to different degrees in different situations, I think that children really like rules.
I have observed many a belligerent child relax and respond happily to the rules in my household, including a variety of extended family and friends. I’m not claiming to have special powers or that I could replace their parents. I am simply saying that I have seen what I am going to talk about in action in both the long and the short term.
If children start their own private clubs out under a tree or in a corner of the garage, they make rules. They have an inherent understanding that rules help people get along. Children feel secure and cared for if they have a sense of the right sort of rules and boundaries. So what are the right sort?
The right sort of rules
The right sort of rules can be described as:
These descriptions may overlap somewhat, in the same way loving and kind overlap. Still, I think it is helpful to examine them each separately. Before we do that, let’s consider what the goals are.
The overarching goal in raising children is to prepare them for adulthood. On balance, most people spend far more of their time in adulthood than childhood. It is wonderful and even beneficial to let children enjoy their childhoods, but this should always be done with pending adulthood appropriately acknowledged.
A young child (shall we estimate from birth to 6 years) has a limited capacity to understand most rules. He also lacks the long term perspective that might help him be motivated to apply them. An older child (approximately age 7 years to 13 years), is probably more interested in understanding the rules, but will place high value on the overall tone of how rules are decided on and applied.
In our home, we treated older teenagers more as adults, even though while they still lived with us, they were expected to abide by our rules. It is only because of government interference that they are not allowed more freedom. Since they understood the balancing we had to do, we never dealt with what seems to be expected as parent-teenager conflict.
The four descriptors above are partly important because they are necessary for trust. Rules imposed by someone who is not trusted are suspect on many levels. This is likely to lead to disregard of the rules.
Moral versus non-moral rules
Before discussing those four words, it will be helpful to distinguish between rules another way.
Moral rules deal with
- How we treat others. They cover everything from not killing anyone to giving someone a wallet he just dropped without knowing it. There is not always agreement about exactly what is morally right, but everyone has some rules of conduct that fall into this category.
- How we treat ourselves. This covers behaviors that are obviously self-destructive, both physically and mentally. Being constantly impaired due to ingesting various substances or constantly complaining are both seen as character flaws.
Non-moral rules have to do with procedures to make a system run smoothly, such as a household or business. This might include rules for the convenience of everyone (not leaving a pile of books in the middle of the kitchen floor) and rules to make good use of resources (don’t give the dog your coat to chew on).
Some rules are considered moral because of context or consequences. Everyone is naked when they bathe, however most people think it is morally correct to wear some degree of clothing in broader social situations. Leaving a door open is not inherently immoral, unless it is done on purpose to let someone in to steal things later.
Again, a younger child will not comprehend this distinctions as well as an older child. What is most helpful is when parents understand these differences and can use them to guide their rule making. It helps parents in teaching and enforcing rules.
The fact is, there will always be rules for how people interact and it does a child disservice to pretend otherwise. The home is the perfect place to learn how to apply and evaluate rules. Children will learn that not only can rules be helpful in getting things done and avoid trouble, but when and how to be flexible with rules.
What makes a rule attainable?
A rule needs to be physically possible for a child. He has to have the capacity for it and time enough to comply. A rule about cleaning a room needs to have very specific details for it to not be overwhelming for a young child. A rule for an older child about studying needs to provide a time when the child is not exhausted, whether from work or previous study.
It can be challenging for a parent to clearly know what younger children are capable of. While I am convinced young children are capable of knowing they need to obey, I also think it is important to be cautious about what they are asked to obey. There are so many physical and mental variations in how children develop, it will not work to say what is the norm. Also, other parents or supposed childhood experts tend to make glorious claims about their own successes which do not apply to reality or all children.
Older children can have every intention of following through with requirements, but will be greatly helped by interaction, supervision, and encouragement. Such things will increase the attainability of the goal in the child’s mind and experience.
What makes a rule reasonable?
Children are quick to notice if rules are all about making life easy for adults at their own expense. While there will be many rules the sum total of which are about convenience or mutual care-taking, these should not be one-sided.
In general, rules should also have a sense of purpose to them. Making a rule that everyone has to organize their closets according to color will probably lower the chances of your next rules being taken seriously. Of course, you could always make a game of such a thing, but to act like it has serious consequences would be laughable in most circumstances.
If children see that parents also want to get along with them and take their needs and desires into consideration, rules will seem much less onerous to the children. If children see parents problem solving the rule system for the benefit of everyone, they will be more likely to respect decisions.
What makes a rule non-arbitrary?
A rule being non-arbitrary is more about communication. Has a child been given notice of the rule? Is it a rule that generally applies to any child of the same age and capabilities? Doe the rule have an intended outcome?
If you say that no one is allowed to drink straight from the milk carton, but let one child do it, it will seem arbitrary. If you get mad at a child for walking across a freshly mopped floor, but neglected to tell him of the situation, you probably owe him an apology. If a child gets in trouble for accidentally putting his shirt on backwards, this is arbitrary.
What makes a rule predictable?
There is nothing quite as demotivating as never knowing what is really expected of you, when you will be done, and if it will be good enough. A predictable rule is one that is, on some level, known about ahead of time. It could be as straightforward as the child knowing that they should brush their teeth before bed every night, but it could also be that it is a rule that fits with the general tone of the household. For instance, a child would not be surprised to find out about a new rule of not having a computer game going during regular story time, since a level of quietness has always been expected.
This is not to say that rules always need minutia clarified or that they can’t ever be changed. The older a child gets, the more he can be expected to use his head. If you ask him to wash the dishes, you don’t need to list each individual dish. Conversely, you shouldn’t have to tell a younger child every single thing not to touch. He can broadly understand what is his and what should be asked about.
As for changing rules, even a young child is very receptive to the idea of trying new ways of approaching things, as long as the underlying reasons are basically the same. The parents are trying to make life work well for everyone and get necessary things done. Just try not to make too many changes at once, as that is confusing.
Laws versus rules
One last distinction that could be helpful for older children and parents is what laws are. Laws are preferences in rules that are forcefully imposed by adults with political power on other adults.
A few laws are based on basic moral rules that almost all people agree on, so it seems reasonable to question why they need to be made laws. People who don’t want to follow the laws, don’t.
Unfortunately, most laws are arbitrary, unclear, and enforced at the whim of the political players. That makes them everything that good rules shouldn’t be.
The list of laws is so large and complicated that it is commonly agreed that most people break several laws every day. For some laws that is not a big deal, except when some bureaucrat gets a bee in his bonnet to make an example of someone or collect some money. Other laws are best paid close attention to, such as traffic or hunting laws, even if if they are ridiculous.
Moving past bad experiences with rules
Many people react badly to the idea of rules. Sometimes this is because rules in their childhood were unkindly enforced or badly explained. Possibly the rules were capriciously applied. This might lead them to make the mistake of not using rules the right way in their own families.
When there is trust in a parent-child relationship, it is not hard for a child to understand the benefits of rules. It is also easier for a child to come to grips with there being rules he doesn’t completely understand. As long as the child has a sense that the parent is not just being selfish or lazy, he will be more receptive to correction and direction.
Even when a young child could not possibly explain the concepts, if rules are
there will be more peace in the home. Everyone will be less frustrated by the demands of life and the rules can be used as good tools.