Why rules (even the an­noy­ing ones) mat­ter

How to not scoff at silly school laws

North Toronto Post - - Kids -

Of all the par­ent­ing mis­takes I made — and there are many — one in par­tic­u­lar stands out as an ex­am­ple of in­dulging my­self, try­ing to look cool to one of my (then) ado­les­cent kids and act­ing against my fun­da­men­tal par­ent­ing goals. It had to do with school rules.

Dumb and dumber. Me. The thing about par­ent­ing mis­takes is that we all make them and we all feel guilty af­ter­wards. Which is not so help­ful. My ex­pe­ri­ence of parental guilt is that it’s both toxic and stupid. But more on that in a later col­umn, for we know that parental guilt can fill an en­cy­clo­pe­dia. Back to rules. All schools have rules. Some of them, like no bul­ly­ing, drugs or al­co­hol, make sense. Some of them of­ten seem opaque es­pe­cially to us lib­eral par­ents. When the snazzy pri­vate school my son went to put a let­ter in his file for “bad at­ti­tude,” I was pissed. (Like mother, like son?) The kid had good grades, was never tru­ant, had no blots on his copy book other than at­ti­tude.

I de­cided the school was be­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian and that my un­der­stand­ing of my son was bet­ter than theirs. This was the core of my mis­take. Of course I know my son bet­ter than they do. No­body was con­test­ing that. But the part I failed to com­pre­hend was that pretty much ev­ery­thing about a good school has been care­fully thought out to fos­ter safety, learn­ing and de­vel­op­ment for the stu­dents.

Even the dumb rules that my kid and I re­sented have a pur­pose. And the deeper pur­pose of rules in gen­eral is to ac­cul­tur­ate chil­dren to be re­spect­ful. The prob­lem with me and other par­ents like me is that, when we en­cour­age our kids to blow off the triv­ial or silly rules of their school, we tele­graph a clear mes­sage to our kids: “You can ig­nore school’s rules. We don’t re­spect them, so you don’t have to.” And then they don’t. But they don’t just dis­re­spect school’s silly rules.

Be­ing kids, they spe­cial­ize in driv­ing a truck through any and all loop­holes that grown-ups of­fer them. Ado­les­cents es­pe­cially have great radar for sniff­ing out rules not up­held, and this al­lows them to dis­re­spect bound­aries in gen­eral. Which has two neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions. One, thanks to their not-yet-fully de­vel­oped frontal lobe, they suck at mak­ing good de­ci­sions about risk. They’re not ma­ture enough yet to dis­tin­guish be­tween a triv­ial rule that can get bro­ken with­out reper­cus­sions and a big im­por­tant one whose breach could cost them. So they can re­ally mess up.

Sec­ond is the ef­fect on the in­sti­tu­tion. A school can’t run with mov­able bound­aries and rules that aren’t en­forced. We all know camps and schools with per­me­able bound­aries, and we know where that goes: These very quickly be­come in­sti­tu­tions where rules are mean­ing­less and chaos en­sues. It’s not im­por­tant whose “fault” this is, but it is im­por­tant that ev­ery mem­ber of a com­mu­nity take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the well-be­ing of the com­mu­nity; oth­er­wise it fal­ters.

Be­cause schools are big­ger than us, and they don’t tend to ask us par­ents to make their de­ci­sions, we imag­ine our­selves as very sep­a­rate from them. But this is not so. Ev­ery com­mu­nity that we are a part of — schools, neigh­bour­hoods, clubs, camps — both in­flu­ences us and is in­flu­enced by us. A good school teaches our kids not only the three Rs, but also — and per­haps more im­por­tant — to func­tion as a pos­i­tive mem­ber of the com­mu­nity.

That in­cludes re­spect­ing the rules. The dumb ones as much as the smart ones, be­cause that’s where the rub­ber hits the road and you get to prac­tise re­spect. Rather a core life skill.

Bot­tom line: If I got a do-over on par­ent­ing, I’d sit my high­school-age son down and have lots of talks about the rules. In­stead of scoff­ing at the silly ones, I’d en­gage him in in­quiry, a dis­cus­sion of why they have those rules, what ef­fect it would have on the school and the kids if those rules didn’t ex­ist, and what he might do about that stuff if he was in charge of the school. I’d try for him to talk more and me to talk less (al­ways a chal­lenge), and I’d hope for him to come to an un­der­stand­ing of the rules and a new-found re­spect for these rules, in par­tic­u­lar, and rules in gen­eral. Be­cause even the an­noy­ing ones mat­ter.

Re­spect­ing the rules is about more than po­lite­ness

JOANNE KATES

Par­ent­ing colum­nist Joanne Kates is an ex­pert ed­u­ca­tor in the ar­eas of con­flict me­di­a­tion, self-es­teem and anti-bul­ly­ing, and she is the direc­tor of Camp Arowhon in Al­go­nquin Park.

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