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.
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)