Welcome to Joyful Toddlers!

This space is about increasing our enjoyment of the young children in our lives through concrete action and by adjusting the lens through which we view them. My work comes out of LifeWays, which is inspired by Waldorf education. I welcome your comments, and questions about increasing your enjoyment of the children in YOUR life.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Value of Rules

We often think that the rules we impose on kids are something which benefits us, their caregivers. We know they're necessary to keep our sanity, but when we're feeling good we often don't bother to enforce them, because we don't feel like we need them at that moment and we may even feel a little bit guilty about imposing them. But I'd like to suggest the idea that in fact, rules benefit our children even more than they benefit us.

How can this be? Well, remember that for our children, we create the world that they live in. A world with clear expectations and clear boundaries is so much easier and more enjoyable to live in. And isn't that what rules are: expectations and boundaries? Just think of the last time you traveled to a foreign country you'd never been to before. You have to be "on" all the time, because you don't know what to expect, or what people expect from you. So the clearer and more consistent we can be with our expectations and our boundaries, the more our children can relax into the world. I read a wonderful quote the other day in the book The Family Virtues Guide, which I will review in a few weeks. It talked about how not providing clear expectations and boundaries for a child is like a person without a job description. "Imagine yourself on a job in which your supervisor walks in the first day and says, 'Do a good job,' but fails to give you a job description. How is this different from parents who want their children to "be good," but give them no guidelines?" (p27).

What happens when expectations aren't clear, or boundaries aren't enforced consistently? It creates anxiety. Instead of being able to relax into knowing "how the world works," children must constantly watch you and try to gauge your mood to see where the boundaries might lie at any given moment. When the boundaries move around, children are forced to test where they are, again and again and again. Not because they're trying to annoy you, but because they MUST know where the boundaries are.  Why?  I like to think of it like a ship in the ocean: when the depths of the sea are consistent, the ship can sail at full speed. But coming in to rocky shoals, everyone on board must be on "high alert," and sailors must do coninuous soundings in order not to run aground. Children may seem like they want the boundaries to shift, because they push against them, but they're just pushing against them to make sure that they know where they are, and how firm they are. If our boundaries are consistent enough, our children can relax and sail full speed ahead, only stopping every now and then to test the waters.

So, does this mean that we can never change our routines, never relax and let things slide "just this once?" No, it doesn't mean that, but there are ways that we can do it so that children don't feel like the sands are shifting beneath their feet. First, try to do it as little as possible. Then, when you do alter the rules, announce quite clearly how things usually go, and what's going to happen this time, and for how long. For example, one day we were having a picnic lunch outside at Rainbow Bridge, when a child blew bubbles in his water. Now, I'm not morally opposed to children blowing bubbles in their water, but with a group of ten children ages 1-5, that's like setting a spark to tinderbox. Normally I would squash this right away. But it was sunny and breezy, and I was in a good mood. So I announced, "Normally, our water is just for drinking. But today it will be OK for you to blow bubbles in your water. You can blow bubbles today, but tomorrow at snack things will be just like normal, and we'll all use our water just for drinking again." The kids had a blast blowing bubbles and fooling around. At the end of the meal I said, "That was sure fun. What a treat to do that one time. Tomorrow we will drink our water again."

The next day, just as snack was starting, I said, "We had such a fun time yesterday, but today we are drinking our water, just like usual." And do you think they sat quietly and drank their water? NO! As soon as it was passed out, someone tried blowing bubbles. How could they not? The boundaries had shifted, and they needed to know where they were. So I quickly and firmly said, "That water is just for drinking. You can drink it quietly, or I will keep it by me until you're ready." Then another child tried it, and another. I took one cup away, and that was the end. After a moment I asked if she was ready to drink her water, and she was. At the next meal, nobody tried again. They knew things were back to normal.

So, was it worth it? Maybe. The older kids remembered that day for a long time. They would reminisce about it often, and they would sometimes ask if we could do it again. I would smile fondly and shake my head. "That was a fun day, wasn't it," I'd say.

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