Breaking Rules and Breaking Free

Breaking Rules and Breaking Free





Giving Kids the Ability to Discern

The more rules you create, the more opportunities your kids will find for loopholes through which they can jump like trained acrobatic monkeys. And believe it or not, some rules are made to be broken. Think of some rules in your own home – there are likely those that are there for safety, moral and social development, and personal preferences. Rules tend to be those rigid, solid expectations we put forth in our homes, tempered with expectations and guidelines.

A researcher from the University of California, Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, has studied the correlation between rules, rule breaking, and childhood development. The results of her studies indicate that between the ages of 4 and 7 children go through a transitional phase that takes them from rule breaking for selfish reasons (I want to), to more complex reasons (I feel I need to). By age 7 children also start to recognize the differences in the types of rules that are established – those they feel can’t or shouldn’t be broken for moral reasons they understand, and those rules that sometimes need to be broken because they intrude on a sense of self-worth, value, or intrinsic need.

By age 7 children also start to discern for themselves those feelings that are associated with rule breaking – the turning in the pit of the stomach because you know you just did something you shouldn’t have, and the satisfaction of self-control that you feel when you know you want to break the rule but you don’t. Kids are also at this age developing the maturity (developing – not mastering) needed to recognize when it is OK to break rules.

Why is Rule Breaking Important?

Children are the masters of “the exception to the rule” – playing those games and asking questions that challenge the basic rules. “What if a bear came in the house – would I really have to stay in my chair during dinner?” What kids are asking for is an out – a get out of jail free card. And it is OK to give that to them. Think of all the rules we have, but we don’t want our kids to live by them so extremely that the rules put their safety or their development at risk.

Be Careful of the Always and Nevers – They are the Most Dangerous Rules

Always do what your coaches/teachers/leaders tell you to do.

My 1st grader (and us as parents) got caught in this rule that we reminded him of every day before t-ball practice. And then one day after he practice he came to me and said, “Mom – I think I did something wrong. But I was just listening to Coach like you tell me to do.” When I asked him to explain I found out that “Coach” – a high school boy – had asked my son to deliver a message to the high school girl who was helping at practice. Unbeknownst to my son, the message had sexual overtones (and undertones), and the high school girl began yelling at “Coach”. My son knew from the reaction that he shouldn’t have said what he said, even though he didn’t understand all of the words. He said he also had a “feeling in his stomach” that he should deliver the message, just from the way “Coach” said it. From that day forward we had a new rule in our family. Listen to your coaches, use your best judgment, and question authority if you really feel it is needed.

Never break promises or secrets.

The truth is that there are some secrets and promises that kids shouldn’t be asked to keep. We need to teach our kids the differences between those secrets that are safe to keep (which Christmas presents are hidden away for Dad), and those secrets that are dangerous.

  • Adults should never ask kids to keep secrets from their parents about where they go, who they see, and what they do.
  • Secrets that give kids the “turning stomach feeling” are probably not good secrets. Encourage your kids to come to you if they are asked to keep secrets that make their tummies turn.
  • Don’t punish or criticize kids for breaking these kinds of secrets. It takes bravery to come forward and ask adults if secrets are OK.

Rules are needed for a reason – traffic safety, moral compasses, and even business matters all require rules and standards. However, if we only teach our kids to be rule followers, they won’t be able to grow to be trail leaders.

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