EducationParenting Styles

Breaking The Rules


One day last week I took my kid to a local park, which has trails down through the woods to the Arkansas River.  This was the first sunny day out in a string of icy, grey days, though still very cold.  We took the trail we always take, but it was muddy with snow melt.

“Why don’t we take that trail?” I said, pointing at a different one, which went up a slight slope.

“Can we?” She backed off, fearfully.  “Are we allowed?”  CooperTrees

A famous dictum of parenting, as all y’all parents and alloparents surely know, is that children need boundaries, that we must set rules, that we must always follow through.

I’m here to argue for breaking rules.

A specific incident I have in mind involves cats.

The rule in our house, for a long time, was no more pets.

This was mainly because we’re (relatively) poor.  Also, the kid wanted a cat, so I knew if we added another pet, it would be a cat, and due to an unfortunate incident in my childhood, I disliked cats intensely.

“No cats,” I told her.  “No more animals,” I told her.  “That’s the rule,” I told her.

She was eleven.  She knew our financial situation.  She didn’t pester.

On the other hand, she really wanted a cat.  She drew pictures of cats.  She read books about cats.  She learned everything there was to know about cats, and could (and did) tell you those things.

So when a friend of ours had kittens (okay, her cat had kittens) I broke the rule.

I don’t know if you have ever seen a twelve year old who has always wanted a cat with her first kitten, but oh my.  I had never seen my child happier.


Here’s what I did not expect: how much I would come to like the cat.  So much so that, three years later, we now have two cats.



Another example: my first publication came from breaking the rules.  The submission guide to the magazine in question said, very firmly, never do this thing.  I thought it over for two days, and then I did that thing.  The magazine bought the story.

My point is, breaking the rules can – sometimes – lead to surprisingly fruitful results.  Crossing boundaries is how many breakthroughs occur.

And yet we devote so much of our parenting time to teaching our children that they must follow the rules or terrible things will happen.

And this effort pays off.  Despite what we hear about kids gone wild, what we actually have are legions of children terrified of breaking rules.

Now I agree that a certain amount of adherence to the rules is a good thing.  We can’t have people doing whatever they like at four-way stops or letting their packs of dogs terrorize the neighborhood or dumping chemicals in common water sources (oh, wait).

And furthermore, we are all (I am certainly) in favor of rules that promote fairness and promote a decent world.  No cutting in line, in other words; say please and thank you.  Don’t play your music horrifically loud or work on your truck past ten p.m.  Don’t litter.  Do your fair share of the work.  That kind of thing.

On the other hand, equipping our children with the ability to recognize that rules can be broken, and sometimes should be broken is giving them an essential tool of adulthood.

Does breaking the rules always lead to success?  Hells no.

I am thinking now of an incident when as a fifteen year old anarchist, I and my equally radical friend strolled into our high school records office, opened the file cabinets, took out our files, and began reading them.   (Transparency Now!)  We hadn’t gotten far when a dozen school authorities swooped down upon us.  We spent the rest of the day in the assistant principal’s office, and the next two days on in-school suspension.  Nor did this have the great radicalizing effect we had hoped for.  Everyone just thought we were idiots.

But failure as well as success is educational.

How to teach your child to break the rules wisely and well?

Well, the way any wise parent teaches a child anything: by example.

That is, break rules wisely and well yourself.

If you’re a good parent, then you have probably set down only a few rules to begin with.  We had five at our house:

  • No complaining about the food – eat it or don’t eat it, but don’t whine about it;
  • You have to take medicine when you’re sick;
  • You have to brush your teeth;
  • You have to go to school;
  • Everybody helps with the work, because everybody lives here.


Every now and then, break one of the rules.  Today we’re not going to school, because snow.  (It only snows once or twice a winter in Arkansas, and I always declared snow days as days off, even if the school didn’t.)

Today you can have a toothbrush holiday.

Today you can whine about the food all you want – Go!

You should also talk about breaking rules, specifically about when it’s not okay to break them, and when it is, and when it’s essential to break them.  Because, of course, sometimes it is essential to break the rules and your child should know that these situations exist, and what they look like, and how to react in them.

I’m thinking of two specifics now, one being the experiment that was done where young children were approached by strange adults at playground and told to come with the adults – seven in nine children obeyed these strangers, went off and got in their cars.

And the other concerns unlawful orders, how most of us, children and adults, will if ordered to do so by an authority commit terrible acts against our fellows.  That sort of obedience has its roots in childhood, where we are taught, with punishments and humiliations, that disobedience and breaking rules are a horrifically, unthinkably taboo.

Unthinking obedience should be the taboo.  That’s what we should be teaching our children.  To do what they’re told, yes — but only if it’s the right thing to do.

Most children learn obedience easily, sadly enough.  It’s learning to disobey that actually proves to be the tough one.

Give your children the tools they need.


(Original artwork by Cooper Jennings Burgh)




Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

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  1. I’d say there are rules and there are Rules.
    “Everybody sleeps in their own bed” is a rule. It can be easily changed when a kid had a nightmare, or is sick.
    “Fasten your seatbelt” is a Rule. There’s no way that this is ever going to change.
    I totally agree that flexibility with the rules allows them to learn about the purpose of rules and that some times, things are more important than whatever that rule is trying to protect.
    Unfortunately, that means that in the case of the beds my sleep is sacrificed for the greater need of the distressed kid.

  2. Well, but even with “Fasten your seatbelt,” there *are* times when we break that rule.

    Example: My kid dropped her retainer on the floor of the car as we were driving down the interstate. “I can’t reach it!” she wailed. “Unbuckle,” I said. “I can’t unbuckle!” she said, horrified, since like you I had drummed the NEVER DRIVE UNBUCKLED rule into her head. “Unbuckle for one second while you get the retainer,” I told her. “I promise not to wreck.”

    I mean, that wasn’t an emergency, and theoretically we could have waited for an exit; but I can visualize situations like that which could be emergencies, when you would need to break the seatbelt rule.

    I’m arguing for situational ethics here, clearly, and teaching your child about situational ethics, rather than code ethics. Code ethics are pretty much always what get us into trouble, IME.

    1. Nope, no exceptions for the seatbelt. Not even for me. So far I haven’t come up with a plausible scenario in which “no seatbelt” is the better option, but the again this can be the rule against which others are meassured. But I believe that your kid is much older than mine, my oldest is 6. In time some rules totally disappear anyway and some Rules become rules as they can understand the reasons behind it or are able to make “treaties”.

      1. Well, here’s a real-world example: a friend of mine had a kid who fell out of a tree and (possibly) had broken his ribs. They lived far out in the country, so far that driving to the ER was much faster than calling an ambulance. Wearing a seatbelt in that situation seemed more dangerous and certainly more painful than lying the kid down in the back seat and driving carefully, which was what they did.

        I agree it’s important to teach our children to buckle up. But it’s important to teach them the dangers of code ethics too.

        1. Hey, I live in densly populated Germany with working social healthcare. The scenario you describe is not going to happen here.
          While I completely agree that code ethics are dangerous, I’m also against “let’s find the exception to the rule and spend an hour making up hypotheticals because I really, really want to break that rule”. Although that can be a good excercise about reasoning and logic once in a while. I don’t think that the common idea that “rules are there to be broken” is a good approach either.
          What I want as a result of my ethical teaching is that the kids understand the reason behind a rule and work their way onward from that point so they can think about whether the rule fits the reason in that concrete situation, and I want them to be able to deal with bad rules appropriately.
          Is this clear writing? It’s exams time and my brain is on fog.

  3. My spouse and I have a bit of a rule breaking argument ourselves. Sometimes the park in my neighborhood has the chain across the entrance. But for no apparent reason. I think sometimes someone forgets to put down the chain or they just have it up to keep people from driving into the park at certain days/times. My spouse considers this an unbreakable rule, and will take our son home crying because he doesn’t want to “teach him it’s OK to trespass.” I think it’s just completely silly and if I saw a legitimate reason not to be in the park (broken glass, etc… which often happens anyway WITHOUT the chain being there), then I’d leave. I think it’s important to understand the rules and why they are there and evaluate their breakable-ness as Giliell says.

    1. Hehe, when Mr. and I visited Ireland and Scotland we had a hard time understanding that gates and such were often meant to keep lifestock INSIDE and not people OUTSIDE. A few times while hiking we would meet farmers and politely ask abou whether it was OK to enter (especially since the hiking trail passed right through this piece of land) and they would look at us as if we were a few cards short of a full deck.
      Also, my grandparents were caught trespassing in their late seventies and early eighties.

  4. That’s kind of what I was getting at. Thinking about rules, and knowing when to obey, and when to disobey, those are the skills we need to teach our kids.

    And it’s fine if the kids get these wrong sometimes, because you learn more by fucking up than you do by getting things right.

    Also they should probably get them wrong on smaller things, like crossing the chain into a closed park, rather than skipping their seat belt at the wrong time!

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