Rules and principles

I’ve been enjoying discussions on the Unschooling facebook page recently. Here’s my contribution to a recent conversation about rules and unschooling (with some minor editing for clarification):

“Rules are top-down. The adults set the rules (“don’t come into my bedroom without knocking”) and the children follow them or else. Principles are something everyone has internally, and the focus changes to getting everyone’s needs being met.

I assume that having your privacy is a priority for you, but probably not your absolute #1 priority in your life. You sound like a thoughtful and kind person, so I imagine that “raising happy and healthy kids” might be a higher priority for you. Your fiance may also prioritize things like “children have an equal role in setting family rules” higher than privacy. For me, changing my mindset from rules to principles meant I had to take a really close look at my own principles and figure out where my priorities really were. The question becomes “How do I get my needs met while still honoring both my larger principles and the principles of other people in my family?” You may be able to brainstorm a surprising number of ways to feel like you have private space without a specific rule about knocking on bedroom doors. At ages 6 and 8, kids can help with this brainstorming too, and may value the opportunity to define some of their own space as well.

But even if all together you decide to knock on each other’s bedroom doors and wait for an answer before entering, it doesn’t feel like a rule. There are exceptions to every rule (you don’t have to wait for an answer if there’s an emergency) but the exceptions become obvious and not worth quibbling over if it’s rooted in principles.”

Which all sounds very high-minded and black and white. But as is usual with me, one of the reasons I have opinions about this is that it’s something I struggle with in day to day life.

I have lots of rules for Busy Bee. Don’t go in the street without holding hands. Be gentle with people and objects. Don’t throw your food on the floor or else I will take it away from you. Don’t bite me while you’re nursing. Brush your teeth before bed. If your diaper is poopy I will change it immediately. You have to stay in your carseat while the car is moving. Most of these are rooted in principles like health or kindness (I like the idea that a principle can usually be expressed in a single word) and I like to think that I’m pretty good about being flexible with the surface rule to honor a deeper principle. For instance, skipping one night of tooth brushing isn’t going to seriously compromise health, so if tooth brushing seems like it’s going to seriously compromise Busy Bee’s sense of autonomy we can probably skip it for one night. If it seems to be an issue night after night I’d want to try some different ways to help her maintain her autonomy while still getting her teeth brushed. (The current favorite is for me to tell her what animals are in her mouth, and “chase” them around with the toothbrush while she makes the animal noises.)

But a lot of times I just say “no” because it’s easier for me. No, you can’t play with my phone unsupervised because sometimes you delete my apps. No, we can’t go outside at 7:30pm because I really want you to be in bed at 8pm so I can get some quiet time and it takes you like an hour to wind down once you’ve started playing outside. No, you can’t watch more videos because my mom and Dr. Google think that screen time is bad for developing brains and it makes me feel twitchy and like a bad mom to ignore that. All perfectly reasonable as far as rules go… if you start from a place of thinking of rules as something that adults set and children follow. I feel really grumpy when I think of giving up some of my rules. I love bedtime. I love knowing that at 8pm I can zone out or eat or do chores uninterrupted. It makes it easier at 6pm and 7pm to focus on Busy Bee when I know what time I’m going to be able to focus on me. The radical unschooling community challenges me to ask whether that’s really a good enough reason to have an 8pm bedtime rule. I hate that. It’s so annoying. I want my toddler to have an 8pm bedtime, it makes me happy, most nights my toddler is pretty ok with it, Dr. Google says it’s healthy, can’t I just stop thinking about it?

I like rules. I like schedules. I like externally imposed structure. I think Busy Bee likes those things too. Paranoid Husband does not. Maybe a future child of ours also will not, and we’ll have to totally reevaluate how we parent. Right now, having rules works pretty well. But when I think about principles instead of rules, I’m a happier parent. I feel more flexible. The superego voice in my head telling me I’m a bad mom is quieter. It’s easier to give Busy Bee my full attention without thinking about other things I want to be doing.

And really, perhaps my favorite thing about parenting is that you get nice long practice periods. Taking care of myself while pregnant was great practice for taking care of myself with a newborn. Learning my newborn’s cues was great practice for paying attention to my toddler’s cues. Working on basing my time with my toddler around principles rather than rules will probably be pretty good practice for shifting the balance more towards principles and less towards rules as she gets older.

Advertisements