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.

Red Town, Blue Town
A Matter of Patriarchy
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
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.

  • Irreverend Bastard

    Two diametrically opposed worldviews.

    Think for yourself. Ask questions. Be flexible, admit when you’re wrong, and change for the better. Be a good person, no matter what the rules say. Results are more important than principles. Respect is earned.

    Obey authority. Do not question your superiors. Be firm, changing your mind is a sign of weakness. Follow the rules, no matter what the results are. Principles are more important than results. Respect is based on age and authority.

  • Ismenia

    I think boundaries are important. As a child the thing I found most disturbing was being told off for something that I had no idea was wrong or being encouraged to do something one day and getting in trouble for it the next. I agree, though that obsession with petty rules gets you nowhere, it just winds everyone up.

    • Conuly

      That’s not an issue of boundaries, that’s an issue of consistency. Whatever rules or guidelines you have for your kid, it IS important that they’re kept fairly consistent. Otherwise, it’s just not fair.

      • Ismenia

        From the child’s perspective it’s a case of knowing where the boundaries lie, what the rules are. Things that are intuitively obvious to an adult are not to a child.

        The point of rules/boundaries are to have consistency.

  • Nathaniel

    The problem is that the same word can mean totally different things. Boundaries are needed, in the sense that parents should be consistently communicating their expectations, but boundaries in the sense of iron clad arbitrary rules are negative.

  • smrnda

    I was raised by permissive, mostly absentee parents (my parents are both in academia so they were very busy much of the time) and I don’t even remember one single ‘rule’ we were expected to follow. They did make sure that I learned how to think and reason and gather information, so I was able to make choices on my own later. I run into lots of people who are amazed that we (myself and my brother ) didn’t ‘run wild’ without firm limits but most people don’t refrain from doing something because of rules but because they know it’s a bad idea.

    Given my upbringing I got into a bit more conflict with adult authority figures since I wasn’t used to people treating me in a condescending fashion and resented it and would talk back, but I think that’s a good thing.
    I never learned to respect authority, and I think I’m a better person for it too. If rules are unfair, they should be changed. If authority figures are wrong, you should quit listening to them. If someone in charge is stepping all over you, tell them off.

    The problem with Dobson’s approach is that he believes that setting rules and obeying rules is good in and of itself, but the more rules you set the more people will break them not out of any desire to be bad but just since it’s impossile to keep them in mind. People should be under no more restraints than is absolutely necessary. His examples typically focus on something that’s meant to protect from danger (the guardrail example) but Dobson fails to distinguish between a sensible boundary and control-freak behavior. Reading his writings, I think Dobson is unable to distinguish between rule that serve a purpose and rules that just exist to show who’s in charge.

  • machintelligence

    I think this is a reflection of the difference between Humanist and Calvinist viewpoints. Humanists value thinking for yourself and Calvinists do not. Here is a quote from John Stuart Mill:

    It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is Self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in Obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise; “whatever is not a duty is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them.

    You can certainly see the Calvinist influence in modern fundamentalist thinking. This is truly a toxic meme.

    • smrnda

      That’s also why I think that the image of God promoted by fundamentalists is incompatible with love. Love requires some degree of respect for the autonomy, individuality and will of others. You can’t really say you ‘love’ someone and demand total control over their every thought and action; that would be like saying “I’d love you if I took over your body and controlled it like a puppet” – meaning, “I’d love you if you were just an extension of me with no separate existence at all.” If that’s the case, then God doesn’t love anyone – he’s just looking for an empty shell to animate.

      I tend to think authority and love are incompatible, but that would be too long to go into here, but I take issue with the notion of human sinfulness. If someone told me ‘people can be bad’ I would agree, but I’m not going to be able to agree that ‘everybody is bad all of the time.’ In order to substantiate their belief in innate depravity, Calvinists have to do a lot of mental gymnastics so that even the most innocuous or even good action can be said to be bad by inventing a legalism that goes way beyond anything in the OT. Do something good and your motives are probably impure. Any emotion is potentially morally wrong. Legitimate needs are confused with selfishness. The only real problem in anyone is a lack of faith so any negative emotions are sinful.

      • Rosie

        THIS. While my parents didn’t totally embrace Calvinism while I was growing up (my dad may have since), the roots of it were there and I grew up believing all of these toxic things. “Unconditional love” being conditioned on whether or not I had “accepted Jesus”, authoritative control as “love”, needs as “selfish”, emotions as “sinful”…it’s a wonder I’m not more messed up than I am. Or maybe I just haven’t yet realized the full extent of my dysfunctions… ;)

  • Rosie

    It occurs to me that Dobson and his followers believe that all the world outside the home is a danger just waiting to pounce; hence the need for lots of strict rules to keep children safe. I was raised that way, and I’m still, two decades after ditching religion, struggling with the deep-seated belief that the world is out to get me if I do any tiny little thing “wrong”.

    As for “boundaries”, I associate that term with a more humanist interpretation, as in “this is where my feelings/needs end and another’s begin”. Since I had to learn how to actually feel my own feelings (and to find the limits of them) after I was an adult, I think it’s important to teach these kind of boundaries to children.

    • Anon

      I think it’s worth mentioning that in The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer says people who score high on his authoritarian scale also score high on his Dangerous World scale, so there’s empirical evidence supporting you.

  • Minnie

    Quotes from the sadomasochistic sexually sadistic James Dobson. This man is pure concentrated evil.

    “Meanwhile, the boy’s father has to do his part. He needs to mirror and affirm his son’s maleness. He can play rough-and-tumble games with his son, in ways that are decidedly different from the games he would play with a little girl. He can help his son learn to throw and catch a ball. He can teach him to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger.

    -James Dobson ”

    “When I told Sigmund [the family dog] to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie’s way of saying. “Get lost!”

    “I had seen this defiant mood before, and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The ONLY way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me ‘reason’ with Mr. Freud.”

    . . .

    “What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt. I am embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him to bed, only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!”

    “But this is not a book about the discipline of dogs; there is an important moral to my story that is highly relevant to the world of children. JUST AS SURELY AS A DOG WILL OCCASIONALLY CHALLENGE THE AUTHORITY OF HIS LEADERS, SO WILL A LITTLE CHILD — ONLY MORE SO.”

    • jwall915

      Totally agree with your characterization of him, Minnie. Once people read/hear Dobson’s dog story, I completely fail to understand why they don’t run away as fast as possible. Let me get this straight: he names his dog, the family pet, after an iconic figure that he loathes. Um, hello, red flags???? Why would anyone trust someone who hits a tiny dog with a belt??? Just go over, pick the damn dog up, and put him in his kennel. So he might struggle. Hold him tighter, say some soothing words to try and calm him down and just do it. If he escapes on you, try again. Lure him into his bed with dog treats or his toy. What’s the big deal? Oh, yeah, the big deal is that Dobson is so utterly insecure that he can’t even handle it when his DOG “defies” his wishes.

  • smrnda

    Dobson is clearly an insecure control freak – just look at how he treats his dog. Dobson has this unhealthy obsession with ‘order’ that sounds more like a severe OCD compulsion. I mean, who cares where the dog sleeps? Be happy the dog doesn’t piss on the floor.

    I don’t think Dobson teaches that the world outside is scary and ready to pounce – he creates a world inside the home that’s all that *in contrast* to a world outside with it’s live and let live permissiveness.

    • Liberated Liberal

      It might have been on this blog, or perhaps another, where it was mentioned that the religious mindset is completely obsessive compulsive. The entire role of religion serves those that require an OCD soothing mechanism: strict rules, rigid routine, and (depending on the religion) a series of rituals, phrases, activities and gestures that are supposed to “fix” things. It was an extraordinary observation, and I don’t think it’s wrong. Coming from a Catholic background, I can’t look at a mass the same way ever again!

  • Liberated Liberal

    Wow. This post really hit a nerve with me. It upset me a lot. My mom was all about rules. I was so stifled that I wasn’t allowed to walk half a [small] block (totally in view of the house) away to get our mail until I was 16. I had to be a good little girl: quiet, meek, always considerate of what others thought more than what I wanted, always submissive to authority. All authority was “god,” such as doctors, police officers, teachers, etc. I was taught never to trust my own opinions or intuition – ever. If a doctor said it, it’s true. Anytime I tried to break out of that role, I was evil, a slut, intentionally trying to hurt, well, everyone. Every relationship my mom has (not just romantic) is abusive towards her, and I absorbed the behavior that allowed the same from all of my relationships. I don’t know what I want and even when I do, I have no idea how to get there. I’m not sure I EVER thought for myself. It wasn’t allowed. The most authority I was given was to do my own hair at a young age, and boy did I run with it. The hairstyles I gave myself were horrendous, but at least they were mine :).

    I love these discussions on positive parenting. They are so enlightening, and if I ever do end up with children, I know what direction to go.

  • Froborr

    I dunno, I think it’s possible to swing too far in the other direction. My parents were extremely permissive but also very arbitrary–we could pretty much do whatever we wanted until our parents found it annoying, and then we were punished. For example, chewing gum in Mom’s presence was strictly banned because she found the chewing noises annoying, but it was perfectly fine to do it any other time. Dad would cheat stores in petty ways (asking for a cup for water and filling it with soda from the fountain, for example), and we were praised for doing the same–unless we got caught, in which case we were punished and lectured on how stealing was wrong. The same activity could be praised one day and punished the next, and we never had any idea what would earn praise or punishment; it was always entirely random.

    I guess what I’m saying is that kids may not need rules, but they do need some semblance of consistency.

  • Kacy

    To James Dobson–Drop that analogy before your hurt yourself!!

    And now in all seriousness, I got into an argument with my mother-in-law on something very similar.

    My husband and I are raising our children to be understanding and sympathetic to people of all religious persuasions and encouraging them to think for themselves rather than indoctinate them into a religion. My mother-in-law is angry about this, and she argues that children need religious boundaries (rules) in order to feel secure.

    Apparently, Christian fundamentalists just have a complete distrust for children. They must have rules to know their boundaries, and they must be indoctrinated to feel secure. I think this has a lot to do with the Augustinian notion of original sin. If kids are born sinful and depraved, they need us to completely guide them to battle that sin nature.

    Robin Grille talks about this in Parenting for a Peaceful World, and after reading about your parenting journey from fundamentalism to peaceful parenting, I think you would really appreciate this book, if you have not already read it.

  • smrnda

    The mistrust of children is very strong in Dobson – he tends to look at situations and gives his play by play of what the child is ‘really’ thinking, which is always something bad. The crying baby isn’t hungry, tired or lonely, it’s just trying to take control and must be beaten into submission. I don’t pretend I can read minds and tend to give people the benefit of the doubt that even many annoying behaviors aren’t really being done with any malicious intent. Dobson already knows you’re bad and doesn’t need to be bothered with any sort of investigation.

    Working with kids, I learned that their perspective isn’t the same as mine, and that a lot of difficult behaviors are really just because of that, and you can teach kids to try to understand other people or you can teach them that you hit people when they piss you off.

  • Noelle

    Depends on how specific you need you want your principles to be for a specific kid and situation. My 6 yr old daughter is very good with principles. She needs few specifics. My 8 yr old son with ASD and ADHD needs lots of specifics, repeatedly, with extra details. Over and over. So does that mean he has rules and my daughter gets principles? Or does he just get more principles?

    • Dawn

      I was thinking this too, Noelle. I have an ADHD/ODD 5yo son who, without specifics, rules, guidelines, and details would be the kind of child that everyone is always too busy to have a play date with. As it was, I was labeled “the bad parent who didn’t discipline their child enough” which the opposite was the truth. I would like to see more info on how a more permissive approach would work with a child like this. I just don’t believe there is one. He may be almost 6, but emotionally he functions on a 2yo level. If he’s treated as his biological age, he runs wild. If he’s treated as his emotional age, things go much more smoothly. I’m extremely worried about him starting school this fall because of it.

      • Noelle

        School is hard. Find out how his teacher likes to communicate. We have a daily notebook his teacher writes daily updates in. And most of his teachers have been good e-mailers. Work on a team to set up an IEP if needed. This puts everyone on the same page. If he’s already diagnosed with ADHD, I’m guessing he has a child psychiatrist or specialist? Work closely with them. Good luck.

  • Didaktylos

    Yes – there need to be boundaries, but they should be broad enough that it takes a deliberate and sustained effort to get anywhere near stepping over them. Dobson doesn’t just define strictly enforced boundaries – he sets them so narrowly as to deliberately engineer a confrontation which the adult will win by main force.

  • Noadi

    This article made me think about the rules I had at home growing up and really there weren’t that many, most were related to safety: don’t go in grandpa’s barn without an adult (my brother broke this rule once when he was 5 and was bitten by one of the horses), wear a helmet when riding a bike, wear a seat belt, call if you’re going to be home late or go somewhere different than planned. Other than that we were expected to be nice and respectful of other people and their things and there were consequences if we weren’t doing our schoolwork and our grades slipped (mom is a teacher so we’d have to stay after school and do homework in her classroom instead of going home or to a friends house). We both turned out pretty well.

  • Paul Sunstone

    Good post! I think you are correct to point out that Dobson wants to raise kids who are obedient to God, the church, and the government, rather than raise kids who think for themselves. In effect, he promotes the permanent infantilization of people. The impression I get from reading him, and from reading about him, is that he derives his idea of what ought to be largely from two sources.

    First, from how he himself was raised. Dobson was physically abused as a child, mainly by his mother. It’s possible he was also emotionally abused by both his mother and father. And while Dobson is very much against anything he thinks of as child abuse — for instance, he would never beat a kid like his mother beat him — I think he derived from the childhood abuse of him something along the lines of an admiration for authority.

    It seems to me a second source for his views is his understanding of the relationship between god and humans. Humans should submit to god and follow his authority. Therefore kids should submit to their parents.

    No doubt there are other sources for Dobson’s views, but I think his childhood abuse and his understanding of the relationship between God and humans are two of the most significant sources.

    • smrnda

      The problem, even if you believe in the Christian God, is that “as people submit to God you submit to this human being” is that the human being is not God. In a sense, there’s no real reason to believe that the person in authority is any more moral, responsible, mature or sensible than the person who is under their authority. Also, wouldn’t someone saying “obeying me is the same as obeying God” be regarded as a little egotistical, and isn’t that supposed to be one of those sinful things?

      I also recall that Dobson was bothered a great deal by the turbulence of the 1960s and tied it all in with permissive parenting and a declining belief that challenging authority was always wrong. In this way he’s either stupid or mean in that he never bothered to look at the challenges to authority and ask whether or not those he sees ‘in rebellion’ might actually have a valid point. Stupid in that if people are taking to the street and protesting things they must be protesting for some reason, or mean in that you just don’t care to investigate reasons you know must exist.

      If anything, challenging authority seems to be a better strategy for moral progress than obeying it.

  • RowanVT

    Whenever my parents had a rule they wanted me to follow, they always sat me down and explained why that rule was going to be in place. Because of that, I don’t associate rules with being ‘bad’ things and as such, while I understand the article and the point of view, my brain is busily going ” O_o but… but…” at it.

  • Dawn

    We had rules – no running into the street, call (or text) if you’re going to be late – or not home at all if you’ve been drinking (I’d rather you drank and spent the night at friends then drink and drive). But we also had a lot of discussions and negotiations – you want this priviledge – Why do you think you deserve it? Or – Do you understand why I’m angry with you about something? You broke this agreement.

    I wasn’t a “yell -er” so my kids tended to listen to me. Not to say they were never bad, rebellious, stubborn or drove me to screaming. They did. But each time, we would talk and they understood my viewpoint and I would try to understand theirs (and usually succeeded – being a girl, and from a family with siblings, I understood both girls and sibling issues better than my only-child ex-husband did).

  • Propagatrix

    If Dobson can use his dog as an illustration, I can use my cat:

    Rocky will occasionally whine and engage in other behavior calculated to push my buttons (clawing a rug, jumping on a forbidden surface). Do I hit him? Squirt him with water? Lock him out of the house? Absolutely not. I get up and check to see what’s making him ornery, because he’s trying to tell me he’s out of food, or the front door has blown open, or his younger brother has thrown up in my shoes. No belt required!

  • sara

    Actually, as a veterinarian, I would think the dog is fear-aggressive, with good reason. Dobson is lucky the dog didn’t bite him … though maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.

    Anyway, I wrote in to comment: Have you read Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman? I highly recommend it. They do have a chapter on rules and on lying. Essentially, the kids that follow the rules the most are ones who have limited, clearly communicated, well-enforced rules. Especially if they had input on the rules and consequences. And the kids that were punished the harshest for lying just lied more but knew how to cover it better.

    I agree with you. There are a few basic rules in our house with lots of communication about them. I am pretty happy with that.

  • Christine

    I didn’t have a lot of rules growing up, compared to my friends, but the ones we did have were much more strictly enforced. (If we had to be home when the streetlights came on, we couldn’t get away with staying out another half hour.) Given that my mom and I both have Asperger’s, it’s probably good that the expectations were set out that explicitly. But the key thing is that the rules always had a reason, and my mom didn’t expect us to just blindly obey. (The idea that we need to be home at a certain time has a lot of logic that a kid can understand).

    Recently my mom talked to me about my parents’ though process when I came and said “I want to go to this party, there will be drinking and probably pot at the least, is that ok?” I had never known that they struggled with it a lot before saying it was ok, but I couldn’t have the car. So they managed to avoid using rules as a way to beat me down – they were more applications of the boundaries and values (“we value her telling us the truth, we probably shouldn’t punish her for admitting what will happen by saying she can’t go…”)