Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.
Part Three – Rules Have Underlying Reasons, And They Make Us Better Off
It is absolutely vital that we provide our children with reasons for voluntarily choosing to behave well. For one thing, the research is relatively clear that children (and adults, for that matter) who believe that “the rules” are external forces that guide our actions are more emotionally well-adjusted than those who don’t. If a child is raised to believe that he or she must follow the rules merely “because I said so,” that child is likely to grow up believing that he who has the power sets the rules. This is one of the seeds of narcissism, especially if those rules change regularly at the whim of the parent. Even setting that matter aside, however, we want our child to consistently choose good behavior, and the best way to elicit consistently good choices is to provide our children with good underlying reasons for making the right choices.
We don’t, for example, merely want our children to “share,” in the abstract. Instead, we want our children to know what sharing actually is, and to voluntarily elect to share with others. That’s not possible for a child who doesn’t understand where the “sharing rule” comes from. In fact, if you’re a parent, your child has probably already asked you, “Why do I have to share?” If your answer was one of the following, you failed the test: (a) because I said so, (b) because it’s nice, (c) because that’s what we do, etc.
Here’s a better answer for why a child should follow the sharing rule: (d) People who share have more fun with their friends than people who don’t. The more fun you have with your friends, the more kids will want to be friends with you, the more fun you’ll tend to have. And also, a friend with whom you share is more likely to share with you, too.
Of the above options, which explanation for the sharing rule seems the most likely to produce a consistent, voluntary choice to share? I’d say (d), wouldn’t you?
For this reason, it’s important that all rules a child is asked to follow have rational, reasonable explanations, and it should be clear that living a life of moral rule-following produces better outcomes than not doing so. Sharing should be both more rational and more beneficial than not sharing. Looking both ways before crossing the street should be more rational and beneficial than running out into the road willy-nilly. Telling the truth should be more rational and beneficial than lying. And so on, down the list of rules you ask of your children. When they ask you why they must follow the rules, you ought to be able to produce a sound rationale for why that rule exists, and how it benefits us.
Note that I say “us.” “Us” is important. “Us” is what the next section is about.