Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.
Part Four – Because Rules Are Reasonable And Universally Beneficial, We All Follow the Rules
We’ve all seen those parents who are constantly staring down into their smart phones on the one hand, and constantly pleading with their children to go outside and play on the other hand. It is not controversial to suggest that children learn their behaviors by observing their parents. If you don’t live the rules to which you hold your children, you can pretty much give up on having your children follow the rules. This seems easy enough, but in practice this gets a bit tricky.
Consider the following recent example from my household. The other day, we received two early Christmas packages in the mail. Since the packages were couriered, I couldn’t tell what they were or who they came from without opening them. I opened one of the boxes, realized that it was a Christmas present, and immediately set the box aside to wait for Christmas. My daughter’s present was in the second box. When she saw the two boxes, she asked me what they were, and I told her honestly that they were Christmas presents. She asked me if she could open hers, and I said not yet, that she had to wait until Christmas. She immediately pointed out the contradiction: “But you opened your package!”
Pause here and reflect. This is the sort of situation that defines what morality is for your child. You can give an expedient answer, and such an answer will either avoid the question of what the rule is or cause the child to notice that you, the parent, operate under a different sort of rule than she does. Or you can give a more reflective answer that will help the child understand that we must all follow the same set of rules.
In my case, I explained to my daughter that I didn’t know that they were Christmas presents until I opened the box, and that once I knew, I set the packages aside until Christmas. I told her that I had to wait for what was in my box, just as she has to wait for what was in her box. I made a conscious effort to define the situation in terms of universal rules. I’m not asking her to do anything that I’m not asking of myself. It’s important that she understand this, because it helps universalize the rules.
This also has a flip-side: Occasionally we parents must reverse our own behavior when our children spot us breaking rules that apply to them. One such situation that often arises in our household is the fact that we cannot have treats, snack foods, or desserts unless we eat our vegetables. It’s obvious why a child must be held to such a rule, but it is quite common for adults to, say, skip breakfast in the morning to hurry out the door, and then avail themselves of the doughnuts laid out at work. You’re violating the rules! Sometimes, our children catch us doing so. My wife sometimes skips dinner if she has a heavy lunch; then, as my daughter and I eat our dinner together, my wife might wander over to the cupboard to munch on a few chips or something. There’s really nothing wrong with that, except that when my daughter sees this, she is more inclined to stop eating her proper, square meal, and say, “Mommy, can I have some chips?” Mommy says no, of course, and tells her to eat her dinner. Now we have a contradiction. If Mommy can skip dinner and just eat chips, why can’t daughter stop eating her vegetables and take the chips instead?
Unfortunately, in such a situation, my wife must give up her chips. The rules are too important to hand-wave away for a handful of chips. The same thing happens to me when I’m busily practicing my guitar in my music room, and my daughter wanders in, asking if she can try playing the guitar, or if she can play on the piano that’s in the same room. I can’t very well tell her no, just because I’m busy practicing. That’s not fair, that’s not a universal rule. That would tell her that might makes right. Instead, I have to acknowledge that if I can play music now, then so can she. And so I let her. The universality of the rules trumps my practice regimen, much to my chagrin. But such is my commitment to my disciplinary philosophy.
And my daughter is better for it. She knows she can expect to be held to the same rules that her parents are held to. She also knows that if she has to follow a rule, she can hold her parents to the same standard. The standard exists outside of any one of us, they are family rules. She can trust that they are applied equally and fairly.
And that brings me to what I'll discuss in the next section.