Kids need rules! Right?

I am constantly surprised by how much I was taught as common sense child rearing growing up is completely turned on its head by positive parenting. For example, one huge emphasis growing up is that children need rules, limits, and boundaries. Having boundaries, I was taught, makes children happy and secure. This from James Dobson of Focus on the Family:

You have discussed the need for establishing boundaries within the home. Do children really want limits set on their behavior?

Most certainly! After working with and around children all these years, I could not be more convinced of this fact. They derive security from knowing where the boundaries are and who’s available to enforce them.

Perhaps an illustration will make this more clear. Imagine yourself driving a car over the Royal Gorge in Colorado. The bridge is suspended hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, and as a first-time traveler you are uneasy as you cross. (I knew one little fellow who was so awed by the view from the bridge that he said, “Wow, Daddy. If you fell off here it’d kill you constantly!”) Now suppose there were no guardrails on the side of the bridge; where would you steer the car? Right down the middle of the road! Even though you wouldn’t plan to hit the protective rails along the side, you’d feel more secure just knowing they were there.

There is security in defined limits. When the home atmosphere is as it should be, children live in utter safety. They never get in trouble unless they deliberately ask for it, and as long as they stay within the limits, there is happiness and freedom and acceptance. If this is what is meant by “democracy” in the home, then I favor it. If it means the absence of boundaries, or that children set their own boundaries in defiance of parents, then I’m unalterably opposed to it.

See what I’m saying? Well, today I read a very interesting interview with Dr. Laura Markham on Positive Parenting Connection:

Dr. Laura, should families that practice positive parenting have rules or principles? Why is that important?

Research shows that the kids who are best at thinking for themselves and acting most ethically come from families with strong values, lots of discussion, and — surprise! — fewer rules! That’s because when kids just get used to following rules, they aren’t thinking. If, instead, parents are constantly discussing values and principles, children develop values and principles. But of course the most important source of values for kids is the parents’ role-modeling.

So I advise parents to keep their rules limited to the most important: some version of the Golden Rule. Other rules will come up over time, depending on the child’s age — No jumping on the couch, Leave a friend’s house immediately if the child takes out his parent’s gun, Call if you’re running late. But the #1 rule is always:

We treat each other, and ourselves, with kindness and respect.

To me, that’s the only rule that really matters.

Dobson talks about how parents need to set boundaries for their children, making rules their children learn to operate within. Markham completely turns that on her head by pointing out that when children are simply following rules they aren’t thinking. They’re just following rules. They’re not really thinking about and developing values and principles. They’re…just following rules. And I have to wonder. How is this not completely obvious?

This, I think, is the key to the difference (also from Dobson):

Children such as Robert need boundaries. If you don’t provide them, they’ll threaten and push until someone else does. If you are easily “blown over” in times of confrontation, your child will not learn to yield to authority. Not only will he later defy you, but he is likely to misunderstand the ultimate authority of God. The two sources of leadership, parental and divine, are directly linked in the minds of your kids.

Fundamentalist and evangelical parenting sees teaching children to yield to authority as being fundamentally important because those children need to ultimately yield to God and to (the conservative interpretation of) the Bible. Positive and progressive parenting does not value yielding to authority one wit, and focuses instead on helping children develop independence, compassion, and respect for others.

For fundamentalists and evangelicals, the use of rules and boundaries in child rearing is critical. After all, God puts rules and boundaries on us. For positive and progressive parents, teaching children to develop long term values is more important, as it is those values, not any arbitrary or rigid rules, that those children will spend their lives living by.

And that difference is huge.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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