Principles VS Rules: Which are better?
Hello! Today I’m going to write about one of my favourite subjects: child development. Specifically, how to raise ‘reasonable’ children and whether or not having a set of rules is a good idea.
Writing the above sentence feels a bit wrong to me, as I believe we have been conditioned to think that ‘raising’ children involves a kind of downloading of information and skills into them, which I disagree with. It also implies that we need to create a reasonable nature in our children, which I also disagree with. I know this sounds mad- give me a minute to explain.
I believe, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest, that we are born ‘reasonable’ (“having sound judgement; as much as is fair or appropriate“). Babies communicate to the extent that is appropriate to getting their needs met, which is entirely fair and appropriate as they are 100% reliant on adults for their care. It may not feel fair to the poor parents who would give anything for four hours’ sleep (!) but the fact is that we bring them into the world and it is up to us to care for them.
I also believe that ‘raising’ children should be much more about modelling good behaviour and providing information and opportunities than trying to essentially download arbitrary information into our kids, or force them to follow our every demand. (check out my post on the difference between obedience and compliance here).
Even from a young age babies show other signs of being reasonable- when they protest being left with a stranger, when they attempt to share food with others (how many times have you had a sweaty baton of cucumber or corn ring pushed into your mouth unexpectedly?) and when they show discernment of right and wrong, which they have done in scientific studies.
It is usually when children’s behaviour becomes inconvenient to us that we start to try to control them with a somewhat arbitrary set of rules, instead of being more flexible as the more knowledgable and mature party. I am not say that we need to let them hit others or run into the road; there are plenty of things we need to do as parents to keep them and others safe.
I am talking about being impatient when they want to click in their own seatbelt, or choose their own clothes (however embarrassing they may be to us), or telling them to stop standing on a chair because ‘you’re going to fall’. Kids are built to thrive and are more able than we give them credit for, we often simply don’t give them the space and time to show us. We rush through life trying to do things instead of acknowledging that the entire process is a learning experience for children.
Why Do We Make Rules? Are They Necessary?
A set of rules is often implemented by parents and other adults in order to try and give ‘boundaries’. The issue with this is that there are already so many natural and social boundaries, some legal and some etiquette-based (we wear clothes that cover our privates; we don’t steal; in the UK we let people before us in the queue go first) to navigate that it is unnecessary to put in a huge volume of extras.
Creating arbitrary rules also prevents a child from developing their own analytical and critical skills as they are not thinking about the ‘whys’ of the actions when they are being dictated to; they are just thinking about how to get their own way without being punished (find out what we do instead of punishment here).
I’ll use the example that the wonderful Lulastic used in her blog post about child control, of jumping on sofas. It may seem like a good idea to have a set of rules to point out, either official or simply barked when the opportunity arises: “No jumping on sofas. We don’t jump on sofas.”
Ok, seems fair enough, but there are a few issues with this way of doing things:
a) it is not applicable to all contexts
b) the need of the child is not being addressed
c) it is not facilitating a valuable learning experience for the child
d) it is not keeping communication channels open and therefore relationship development may be hindered.
Digging into the sofa issue (and this can be applied to anything you don’t want your child to do)- there are many reasons that you may not want your child to jump on your sofa. Perhaps you don’t like sofa cushions being taken off because you have to put them back at the end of the day along with the six tons of other stuff to tidy (this is me!); perhaps it is a new sofa and you are worried about the springs; perhaps you are concerned that if you let your child jump on your sofa they will assume they can do it wherever, and do it at someone else’s house.
I completely understand all of these issues- I have no desire to replace broken sofa springs every couple of weeks, or fork out for the fabric to be cleaned of footprints. What I would encourage parents to do firstly is unpick their own thinking about the sofa; would a fun time of jumping be worth a few seconds of picking up sofa cushions later?
(We actually find the living room stays tidier when the sofa cushions are on the floor, instead of lots of little toys from different places around the house!) If it’s a worry about the springs, how much risk is there really of damage (this obviously depends on the size and exuberance of your child).
We can often be caught in the automatic ‘no’ trap, where we are so overwhelmed with demands and tiredness that our first reaction to anything is ‘no’. I had three kids within four years; I get it. What I have found, though, is that often it is false economy- it doesn’t really help us. It may be a bit more convenient sometimes, but convenience is overrated, as many fast food chains have shown us.
It doesn’t build relationship with your child if we shut them down and don’t listen to them. If we are willing to stretch ourselves and help them, they learn empathy, compromise, helpfulness and listening skills through parents’ modelled behaviour.
If you decide to let your child jump on your sofa, great. However there should not be a void left where thinking and consideration of behaviour stops. We don’t replace a set of rules with nothing; principles now come in to play. Principles are ‘a fundamental belief basis for systems of behaviour’, such as respecting other people’s property, being kind, etc.
These are things we discuss constantly as they have different outcomes according to different contexts. We might want to say something like, “I’m happy for you to jump on our sofa, but later when we go to Grandma’s we won’t do it on hers as she will worry about the springs breaking and we want to be kind to her“.
The principle underlying this is kindness; no rule needs to be dictated. This kind of open conversation helps children to ask questions, understand context and be reasonable; they reason out what action to take based on principles in different situations.
If you have done the step above but still don’t want them to jump on the sofa, I would encourage parents to partner with their child to explore why they want to do it- perhaps they feel very energetic, perhaps they are bored, perhaps they have seen something from a magazine or TV show that they want to copy.
Once you have found out the reason, you have more scope to offer your child alternative options, depending on the need- maybe a trip to a park would burn off that energy, perhaps the cushions could be set up elsewhere in the house to jump onto, or if an immediate solution isn’t forthcoming empathise with them about their need and let them know you understand how they are feeling. Knowing that you are for them and not against them has a huge impact on children and their behaviour.
If no solution has been found and your child is upset, comforting them is important. It is all too easy and accepted in our society to see children’s feelings as unimportant, superficial or manipulative. We are unfortunately able to treat children much more unkindly than adults, with no consequence to ourselves.
If an old person was crying in the street, I would expect lots of people to attend to them in concern. Just because we do not agree with the child’s feeling does not mean we shouldn’t provide comfort and help them process their emotions and we certainly shouldn’t punish or shame them for feeling a certain way.
We find it helps to let our kids know that we are on their side by saying something like “I know you’re disappointed that you couldn’t jump on the sofa, it’s really frustrating isn’t it?” Let them process their emotion without trying to manipulate them into ‘getting over it’ quickly for your own convenience. I know this is extremely hard as no one wants to spend time sitting with a child crying on their lap (and I am a big fan of personal space!), but it will pay dividends in terms of your relationship when they know that you take them seriously as a person.
If children are forced to snap out of an upset on someone else’s terms, it could go unprocessed and lead to problems later. Don’t be afraid of ‘making it worse’ by agreeing that they are in an upsetting situation; this simply helps them to fully process the feeling in a supported environment and come to a natural conclusion. To help them calm down once the brunt of their upset is out, I’ve found that encouraging them to take a deep breath helps, or go a bit silly and get them to blow raspberries to think about their breath.
To summarise, having no rules is not the same as having no standards of behaviour- quite the opposite. It is about finding ways to communicate expectations without controlling or shaming children, and giving children tools to make good decisions based on principles.
I hope this post was interesting- to read more about our parenting theories, check out our library of gentle parenting articles.