Sunday, September 5, 2010

Family Rules

In a previous blog post, I mentioned a phrase about parenting that you might hear in movies or books that perhaps wasn’t so correct. Here’s another that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “kids need boundaries.” You might even have heard this one phrased as “kids want boundaries.” That latter phrasing seems a bit like wishful thinking to me.

I considered titling this post “Parental Myth #2,” but this one isn’t so much a myth as a matter of interpretation. As the father of two boisterous boys, I certainly wouldn’t argue that children don’t require any boundaries. But the problem is that we say it as if children have a burning need for boundaries that goes beyond the norm. How silly. The truth is, we all need boundaries. Lack of boundaries is tantamount to anarchy; without rules to govern civilized behavior, society degenerates into an animal-like state. Which explains why dealing with children is a bit like animal husbandry sometimes. You have to have a certain number of rules, or pretty soon you’re managing the Lord of the Flies instead of trying to organize a family.

So boundaries are good, right? And, if some boundaries are good, a whole buttload of boundaries must be great. Somehow we end up going to this extreme, turning everything into a situation of black-and-white for our children. This thing is right, this other thing is wrong. Then suddenly our children are teenagers and we’re wondering why they’re making bad choices in life. Is it any wonder, if we’ve never allowed them to make any choices for themselves? Lack of practice means that they have no experience making good choices. They’re operating in the dark.

So we need to let our children make choices, and that means letting them make mistakes. Yet, in the spirit of my philosophy of balance and paradox, this has to be tempered somewhat. The first and most obvious point is that you have to put safety first. If you let your child make the mistake of grabbing a hot stove, it’s certainly true that they won’t likely make that mistake again. But obviously you can’t parent like that: it’s irresponsible (and dangerous).

Now, beyond questions of physical safety, you have a bit more latitude. Still, it’s a question of degree. You can’t have absolutely no rules, but there’s no point in having too many. Most parents seem inordinately fond of rules. Probably the whole “kids need boundaries” thing run amok again. But you can end up with a backlash effect. Kids—like everyone else—want to push their boundaries. Hey, we all like to flirt with the forbidden. And the more rules people pile on us, the more we chafe under them. Too many rules and all of a sudden children get to cast themselves as the cool rebels, giving the finger to the man. Is that the role you really want as the parent? Strother Martin to their Paul Newman, endlessly railing about your failure to communicate? Or—perhaps worse—Jackie Gleason to their Burt Reynolds?

One of the biggest problems you have with an over-abundance of rules is that you can’t possibly enforce all the rules all the time. Hell, you can’t even remember them all most of the time. My personal approach is to have a small number of rules that apply to everyone, all the time. Yes, the rules have to apply to the parents too. Otherwise you’re only highlighting the inequality of the system. Besides, aren’t the principles that you want your children to live by the same ones you want to live by yourself? (If not, you have larger problems.)

In our family, we agreed to start out with absolutely no rules. And create the rules as we went along, introducing each one as it was needed. And we vote on our rules. The vote doesn’t have to be unanimous, but at least a majority of the family members have to agree on it for it to become a family rule. Here’s our current list:

Don’t Step on Things that Aren’t the Floor — This is commonly referred to around our house as “Rule #1” ... not because it’s the most important, but because it’s the first rule that we found it necessary to create. You would think that stepping on toys and books and whatnot would hurt your little bare feet, but apparently not. To avoid unnecessary property destruction, we had to make this rule when our eldest was quite young.

No Interrupting — Interrupting people when they’re on the phone, or trying to eat, or in the middle of talking to someone else, is another fairly common faux pas of our little ones.

Quiet Time starts at 9:00pm — We don’t actually have bedtimes in our house, but we do enforce a “quiet time.” It’s not so much that you have to be quiet, it’s more that you have to make sure that whatever noise you insist on making doesn’t disturb other people. You have the whole rest of the day to be a loudass terror; after 9:00, some people (primarily Mommies and Daddies, but also occasionally older brothers) just want to relax and do something that requires peace: watch some TV, read a book, work on their computers, etc. If you absolutely have to be with everyone else, you better learn to lay down quietly and take a chill pill. If you can’t stand to do that, go off elsewhere and be loud where no one else can hear you.

No Extreme Drama — This rule was invented to cover temper tantrums, whining, outbursts of yelling, crying to get what you want, dramatic stubbornness, slamming doors, etc. Please note that crying in general is not forbidden: if you get hurt, or you’re very sad, crying is a perfectly acceptable response. But if you want something, and someone tells you “no,” you can’t just fire up the tears to try to get them to change their minds.

No Violence — You might be surprised that this rule is this far down the list. But it actually didn’t come up that often until our first son got a little older and started playing more and more with other kids. Like many of the rules, this is a matter of degree. Kids are going to wrestle with each other, and that’s not always bad. Heck, Mommies and Daddies like to wrestle around with the kids sometimes: there are tickle fights, and chases, and the ever-popular I’m-going-to-eat-your-belly-button game. I’m not trying to raise complete pacifists over here, but of course it’s important that kids learn to “use their words” (a maxim tremendous but trite, to quote Lewis Carroll). The rule is not “no hitting,” though, because it has to cover slapping, kicking, scratching, poking, biting, head-butting, and many other ways to torture your brother.

Clean up your Own Messes — Pretty self-explanatory. Note that this is the rule most often broken by Mommies and Daddies. Hey ... no one’s perfect.

No Serious Rudeness — Another rule that must be interpreted as to degree. If you’re just joking around, it’s certainly okay to call your fellow family member a “dork,” or even an “asshole” ... if you’re just joking. I really don’t want to raise children who can’t take a joke, and, if I’m going to dish it out, I better be able to take it too. But obviously “using your words” can end up being as hurtful as using your fists sometimes, and kids have to learn that.

No Malicious Lying — Now, you might think that lying would never be permitted under any circumstances. However, as you might have guessed from the whole emphasis on balance and paradox, I’m not fond of absolutes in any context. The fact is, sometimes we lie to be polite (some people would go so far as to claim that society is built on such), sometimes we lie in a joking manner (you’re not actually going to eat your hat, are you?), sometimes we lie to maintain a surprise (no, I have no idea what Daddy is getting you for your birthday). We invent alternate names for lies: stretching the truth, not telling the whole truth, not literally true, white lies, half-truths, it’s for your own good. All we’re really doing is trying to figure out how to say that these lies are good while the “other” lies are bad. Personally, I prefer to call a lie a lie and just admit that sometimes it’s okay. Thus the qualifier. If your lie is meant to shift blame onto someone else, or a denial to get yourself out of trouble, or to cover up something you should have done but didn’t, or is in any other way malicious ... then you’re breaking the rule.

Do not Disturb my Right to Exist Peacefully — The story of how my eldest came to attend a Sudbury school is an interesting one, and deserves a post of its own. For now, the relevant bit is that the school where my son spent the first three years of his education had a sort of a catch-all rule that most of their other rules were derived from: that everyone has the right to exist peacefully, and no one has the right to disturb that. This was such a lovely and useful rule that we promptly adopted it. It really does cover most anything that the above rules might have missed.

Now, you may have noticed two common themes running through these rules. The first is that they generally require a certain amount of interpretation. This is in direct contrast to laws (such as the laws of the United States), which are specified in such gory detail that we require an entire profession to quibble over the different interpretions of them. And we make our laws like this because “you can’t legislate common sense.” Well, actually the quote (probably) is ”you can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people,” which, if you think about it, is quite different. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but willful misunderstanding of its individual words is? What kind of sense does that make? Well, as far as I’m concerned, teaching my children common sense is part of my job, so it’s certainly not out of line to expect them to exercise it when dealing with family rules. Around the house, this precept is known as “don’t play semantics with me!” (or, more whimsically, “I ain’t raising no lawyers!”).

The second theme is that all these rules really boil down to the same entreaty: Be polite, be respectful. The kids’ mom is fond of telling them that all we really want is for the them to grow up to be decent human beings, and to be happy. The latter doesn’t require rules (although it doesn’t come for free); any rule that doesn’t encourage the former, doesn’t deserve a place on this list.

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