by Dr Noah Susswein, PhD, Registered Psychologist
Do you want your kids to understand why following rules is important – not just for you but also for them? If so, consider talking about what is good about rules at a time when there is not a rule-related problem.
We usually see rules as limiting our freedom and power. From this point of view, there is a simple contradiction between ‘following rules’ on the one hand and ‘doing whatever I want,’ on the other. For example, a rule stating that we can have only one hour of screen time per school day limits our youtubing and video-gaming power and freedom. The reasons that we give our kids for having such rules often focus on what is bad about breaking rules, rather than on what is good about following them.
- Either we say, for the ten-thousandth time, something like ‘Because too much screen time is bad for you’ which, through kid ears, can sound like, ‘No, you can’t do what you want to do, blah blah blah.’
- Or, maybe in response to But why??? number ten-thousand–and-one, we say something like ‘Because I said so, @#$%^!”
- We often resort to threats and punishments. ‘If you don’t get off that X-Box right now you will lose your phone and computer for the next ___days/weeks!’ (the length of time chosen usually depends on how mad we are at the time that we announce the punishment).
Since the word ‘punishment’ sounds unkind, we usually call this ‘giving a consequence.’ Sometimes the punishment- or consequence-based approach works very well, but it can also lead to more problems and power struggles. At its worst, it teaches not respect for rules, but fear of rulers. But very few of us think that the best reason to follow rules is to avoid getting in trouble. We want our kids to follow rules even when no one is looking, because they respect the rules, not because they fear getting caught.
There is another way of looking at rules, a point of view from which we can see that following rules can vastly increase our individual power, freedom, and fun. If we want our kids to understand the importance of rules, then this is the vision that we want to show them. No individual human being doing whatever she wants can get herself to the moon, but as a result of a coordinated effort among many people, we can now do what previously seemed impossible and travel into outer space. The functioning of the Internet is also dependent on rules, that is, machines following rules that we have programmed into them. So, all those extreme, shocking, gross etc. videos and video games that seem to break all the rules about what is and is not ok to say or show? They too depend on rules.
Not every kid wants to be an astronaut, youtuber, or a gamer, but almost every kid enjoys something that is deeply dependent upon rule-following, for example, all sports and games. Even most spontaneous, imagination-based games involve rules, for example, the couch counts as the base and when you get tagged you have to… If you want your kids to respect rules, it will probably be helpful to show them how following rules is important to them in ways that they may have not yet noticed. Rules allow us to do things that would be impossible without them, like have tons of fun playing tag or the sickest new video game. If you take some to think about it, you can probably find something that is both very important to your child and also requires rules. Most of us grown ups cooperate with certain rules that, at times, really annoy us. Our tolerance for that annoyance comes in part from our understanding of the rules’ importance. Your kids will probably still hate limits on their screen time, but if you can show them – at a time when no one is upset about some rule-breaking event – how rule-following is already very important to them, you might find that they start begrudgingly respecting the rules that they dislike.