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Rule-breaking and what it teaches our children

You could not escape the news these past several weeks of rule breaking. Whether it was the British government having a number of parties at 10 Downing Street (breaking UK lockdown rules), or tennis star Novak Djokovik’s visa application, and validity of his positive Covid test for The Australian Open. Whilst these news stories have all courted media attention and outrage, I believe we have a real opportunity to see these situations as teachable moments for our children about rule breaking, and personal values. The question then becomes, how should we start these conversations?

Now you might think my instant reaction would be to have conversations with our children around why it is important to follow rules, and the consequences which happen when we don’t; yet I cannot help but think we have a real opportunity here to talk to our children about how rules are also made to be broken.

Before you think I have gone barking mad, just let me explain my rationale. Let me start by taking you back to my favourite analogy of our role as parents

Remember the building analogy I use for our role as parents?

We provide the scaffolding to our children’s rising house build. We don’t get to decide what type of home our children build but as the scaffolding it is our job to catch any falling masonry or timber. It is also our role to ensure the build rises from solid foundations. The final structure needs to meet building regulations, so it is safe to inhabit.

When we consider this in the context of rule breaking, we have a number of slightly conflicting messages to send. We want to convey the importance of citizenship and abiding by the laws of your country, as these are part of the foundation values of honesty, integrity, community, trust, honour and obedience. Yet we equally want to raise children who become adults who are not afraid to shake up the status quo, to challenge long-held beliefs, which may no longer serve us as a society. Lest we forget, it was not that long ago, in the 1960s to be precise, when homosexuality was considered a section-able mental health issue, treated with electric convulsive treatment to ‘fix’ the error in thinking!!! History is littered with tales of non-conformists who brought about radical societal change for our betterment; the suffragettes, Rosa Park, Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela, are just a few examples in modern history.

How we distinguish between rule breaking, which we seek to encourage, and rules breaking which we actively want to discourage, for me boils down to three factors:

  1. Who benefits
  2. The motives
  3. The wider value system

Breaking rules which benefit us as individuals only raises questions of motive. If I am the only one to benefit by breaking the rules and the wider context to society is to create a feeling of disparity between those in power and the rest of the population, how does this sit with my value system? If bending the rules slightly, to suit our own betterment, but not breaking them leaves others feeling a sense of distrust, the short-term win for us, may yield a longer term feeling of distrust. Is this distrust tolerable because it will lead to a more accepting and tolerant system which values all, or will this create more of the ‘them and us’ culture we all seek to move away from?

Sometimes our behavioural choices can be within the letter of the rules, but sit vastly outside a value system which fosters equality, integrity and everyone’s beliefs being treated equally. The question of whether this is a pattern of behaviour we want to encourage or not, still comes down to the three core elements. Whilst leaving another child out of a group at play time is not breaking any rules, the question of whether we want to encourage it still boils down to our three factors. If I benefit from leaving the child out, and my motives are for self gain, and the wider value system is one of selfishness, then this is a pattern of behaviour we want to discourage.

Yet when a child sees another child being unkind, challenging them forcibly and possibly going overboard; should we scold them for seeking to ensure kindness in the playground, for another’s benefit and not their own? For working within a wider value system of tolerance and kindness? Or do we instead praise the sentiment which drove their actions and encourage them to consider an alternative course of action, which was less overboard next time.

The notion of breaking rules for the benefit of a number of other people (which could include yourself or not) is something we want to encourage our children to explore. Even if the benefit appears to be for just a handful of others at the time. We just need to help our children make good choices in the moment.

If our children feel it is unjust at school that they have to wear a school uniform, wear masks, adhere to a set seating plan, or any of the multitude of rules; why not encourage them to voice their opinions? Why not help them construct their argument clearly; who would benefit from the change, what the motives are behind he change, and how would this change sit within theirs and their school’s wider value system?

Maintaining the status quo never brings about change. Societal growth and wider tolerance will only come from challenging rules. Amongst our children will be the next Marcus Rashfords, Greta Thunbergs, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela’s, so why wouldn’t we want to have regular conversations about the importance of NOT following the rules sometimes??

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