A world of rules?

Robyn L. Coburn
Posted to unschoolingbasics (once at yahoogroups)
July 23, 2005

How does a person who has no rules to follow as a child cope to life as an adult in a world filled with rules?

Others have already talked about the idea that a world without rules does not mean chaos, but instead can be a world of Principles. I want to muse on the possibly startling notion that the regular adult world is actually far less filled with rules than the world of any ordinarily parented child.

Rules are a two edged oxymoronic coin—on one side the expectation of automatic compliance, on the other side the punishment for breakage. Rules for children are often not designed to be useful in themselves but function as molds, designed to teach some idea, especially the idea that rules must be followed. (See any of the Ezzo's writings re young children unless you don't want to be nauseated.)

The few rules in a child's life that might be useful, such as "don't turn on the stove when Mommy is out", are so simply and easily converted into Principles that can allow for empowered exploration and make real sense to a freely living child, that they only reiterate how ineffective arbitrary rule making (or expressing rules in a manner that makes them seem arbitrary) is in itself.

Most children live in worlds that are filled with picayune rules that they have no authentic say in developing, designed to control their behavior from the outside, that the adults in their lives are not subjected to, or in the event that the adults are supposed to comply but don't, have different consequences for the adults than the children.

Think of a rule like "No snacks before dinner." Suppose the cook in the kitchen feels peckish—realistically is that person not going to grab a taste of the meal, or a quick cracker? If another adult comes in and reaches for a cookie are they going to be told they may not have it because dinner is nearly ready? Perhaps the *information* that dinner is coming soon would be offered, but what might be the response? "This is just to hold me until then" or the *free choice* to put the cookie back. Of course I'm assuming a healthy level of equality between the adults here, rather than some kind of weird power playing relationship. However what is a kid told? "No, you have to wait for dinner".....I remember that; do most of you?

Note also how vague that statement "No snacks before dinner" is. How long is "before"? What actually constitutes a "snack" vs say "a bite"?

Rules within the home tend to be entirely for the children to "follow," whereas Principles apply to everyone in the family, and to other people with whom we all interact. Principles are ideas like Kindness, Safety, Respect, Honesty.

Children who live surrounded by rules end up becoming adept at getting around rules, finding the loopholes in rules, disguising non-compliance or deflecting blame for non-compliance (ie: lying about what they did). These are the skills that they then bring into adult life. They can hardly wait to grow up into legal adulthood to be free of the chafing and senseless rules that they have been subjected to just because some parents see their parenting as validated only by compliant youngsters.

I look around at the adult world and I don't see a world full of arbitrary rules designed to teach how to follow rules. Certainly I see a world of Laws and customs, in a civil society like Western democracies.

Many of these laws are based on safety, like speed limits and stopping at stop signs. These things make sense—at least to any thinking person. However they are sometimes broken.

Many laws are based on concepts of ancient morality—no stealing, no killing, no trespassing - hopefully allowing people to feel reasonably safe in their homes and workplaces. It just never occurs to most of us to break these laws. However they are sometimes broken.

Many laws are based on keeping the common areas of life functioning, such as paying for the roads, paying the salaries of government employees and paying for the upkeep of the military. I'm talking about tax laws. However these are also sometimes broken.

There are "rules" for pleasant conduct, many of which are unspoken. Long term Unschoolers have found that a child's learning of these behaviors of mannerly folk is best done by observing the modeling of the parents, and receiving mannerly treatment which they then reflect.

There are customs that make living or working in a crowded place easier also. There are customs like raising your hand for attention in a moderated meeting that would probably take a young adult about 4 seconds of observation to learn once they were in that situation without having to spend 12 years at school to do so. These customary behaviors with strangers and in public places may not be anything we would expect our children or ourselves to have to do in our own homes, amongst our own family and close friends.

One of the things Alfie Kohn talks about is how adults who find themselves in rigid workplaces feel resentful at being treated "like children" with too many rules, and with reward based incentive systems that work less well than promoting self generated motivation and understanding of why procedures are in place.

What happens when a child breaks a rule, including one that seems dumb, unfair, arbitrary or arbitrarily applied, or overly confining? In a household where there are rules, chances are there are also punishments—the deliberate causing of physical or emotional pain to the miscreant.

What happens in the adult world when someone breaks a Law? Either nothing because they were not caught, or they get a citation or get arrested and have a fairly lengthy due process to go through.

With the exception of people deliberately engaging in civil disobedience for a cause, one of the things about people who commit crimes is that they usually do not expect to get caught. The external threat of punishment does not have much bearing on their choice to commit the crime. This has been a big part of Amnesty International's various campaigns against the death penalty. Their research into all kinds of criminal behavior has found this concept repeatedly.

Even with the continual broadcasting of police chases in Los Angeles, where the perpetrator is invariably eventually caught (the reason they televise them supposedly) people still try to drive off and then park and run away. Presumably they are finally fearing the punishment of being caught and clinging to a forlorn hope that they might get away with it.

What about if an adult breaks some rule of polite behavior, for example they cut into the front of the line—possibly general verbalized outrage, possibly serious fisticuffs (depending on the line I guess), possibly just some grumping on the part of the displaced, possibly action by a security authority.

The mere existence of Laws and customs and rules does not mean that they won't be broken or ignored or even fought against, by people who have supposedly been trained to follow rules all their lives.

Most of the time the rules of the adult world make some kind of sense and they engage the reasoned co-operation of most of us.

We all have the choice to keep the laws or not. Most of us are moral people. For most of us we keep the laws because we agree that to do otherwise would mean doing wrong by our fellow creatures, or be risky and unwise. In some cases we agree or put up with inconvenient laws because as parents we do not wish to risk incarceration away from our babies, or do not have the time while our kids are young and need our attention to devote to the process of legislative change. In some cases we may even choose to flout laws we consider unjust or dopey, while we wait for society to catch up to our position.

Which brings us to the final huge difference between the Rule of Law, and the adult imposed rules of a household over child's life. Adults in a democracy through the process of voting and petitioning have the ability and right, even if not taken up, to change and influence the laws we agree to follow. It may not be a perfect process, and there are certainly other factors and influences in the political world. But the right and possibilities are still there. (Not for me actually, I'm not a citizen).

However, the unequal power relationship in a family where the adults have the final say or veto power, and have the power of the law to enforce the rules they choose, whether the kids agree or not, means that the children are disenfranchised as long as they are minors.

Those of us Unschooling Radically, living a life of Principles instead of rules, are adults voluntarily discarding the adversarial power relationship that society would say we are entitled to impose on our children. The results are empowered children TODAY in their real life childhoods, *and*, as the reported experience of Unschooled grown children shows, thoughtful, politically engaged, civil, mannerly, principled adults navigating an adult culture not significantly different from the real world they have always inhabited.

More by Robyn Coburn

Rules and Principles

Being your child's partner, not his adversary