We don’t need no stinking rules…

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Parent24ed’s blog post about following the rules got me thinking. What makes some families send their children to school for 3 hours on break up day, and others not? Or cross the street at the pedestrian crossing, while many don’t?  What are the cast-in-stone commandments of my house?  Could they be about bedtime, or cleaning rooms? Vegetables or TV time limits?

Decided to research this a bit further – I consulted Conor, our household version of Google to name a few of our family rules.  He looked at me blankly. ‘Um, rules? I don’t think we have any rules, as such… We just have… you know, Stuff We Do and Stuff We Don’t Do… right?’

Well, eureka. That’s exactly what I’d been thinking (and hoping he’d confirm it, otherwise I’d feel pretty silly).

The way we see it, there are two kinds of rules: external ones imposed by somebody else, usually with little discernible logic or meaning. They end with ‘Because I said so. External rules rely on fear of punishment, issued by people with loud voices who suspect they’re losing control. I have it on good authority that ‘Because I said so’ translates directly into Kid-Speak as ‘Fresh out of sensible things to say. Game over. I lose.’

The other kind of rule is internal; it’s become part of who you are, you choose it for yourself. It’s something you’ve lived, something you can comprehend and see value in.  And it always has an explanation attached, no matter the age of the child.  The smallest toddler can understand ‘Stove hot, burn me, don’t touch stove’.  If you keep explaining and reminding, not touching the stove becomes a habit – just something you Don’t Do. 

‘We don’t smack other people’ might sound like a good rule, but until you explain (repeatedly) exactly why we don’t do it, it’s not going to stick.

All children are born with Dumbass Rule Radar, which reaches its scary zenith at age 14 or so. The minute they sniff out a rule that makes no sense and doesn’t seem to achieve anything besides proving who has authority over who - they stop listening. Anything you say after that WILL get ignored.

Internal rules are not about hair-length or the state of the bedroom. They’re about staying safe, treating others with respect and taking responsibility for yourself. I don’t think it gets simpler than that. Every ‘rule’ of the country, school or house eventually boils down to one of those, doesn’t it? Go on, try and find one that doesn’t. If you can find one, it should probably be chucked.

You can’t enforce a sense of right and wrong with a list on the fridge, surely? Morals and common sense – if you want to call them that – can only be taught by constant show-and-tell, from birth to forever, until it’s so much part of who they are they can’t imagine being any other way. 

Our rule-less household is doing okay so far – nobody has boiled any cats or terrorised any old ladies. We’re a kindly bunch. Plus we go to school on break-up day. We must be doing something right? Go us!

Do you think teenagers have an instinct for Dumbass rules? Or will they rebel against anything?

Read more by Tracy Engelbrecht

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