Tuesday, July 28, 2015

House Rules v. Universal Laws


This concept has been rummaging around in my head for a year or two, but I've never managed to actually type out a post on it until now. I find it very interesting how much the category of house rules is confused with the category of moral or "universal" laws.

Now, let me make it clear that I think boundaries are INCREDIBLY helpful for young kids. This is what I mean by "house rules." By house rules, I merely mean basic rules and/or principles and/or patterns of behavior that are deemed acceptable for a given household. Many of these rules relate specifically to behavior literally "in the family's house" (such as whether or not children can climb on furniture) and some are a bit more general and just relate to how the family expects children (and hopefully adults too!) to behave in most circumstances (whether a child is allowed to "ask" for something at a grocery store, for example, or the typical term of respect a child uses for an adult, such as "ma'am" or "Mrs. Smith.")

These "house rules" - expectations and behaviors - vary quite a bit among households. And that's not a bad thing. After all, I don't remember treatment of furniture having detailed guidelines in the Old Testament, outside of extenuating circumstances like guidelines related to mold :-D. We have a very general principle in the Old Testament of treating our neighbor's property well and just a few specific examples. But for one family, protection of another's property might mean "don't cut holes in the furniture, but feel free to romp and play on the couches," while another family might prefer a "couches and upholstered chairs are for sitting only, and no shoes on the furniture" type of rule. There's nothing wrong with either approach.

What I find frustrating is when house rules are confused with moral or universal laws, though.

(By moral law, I mean the summation of right and wrong found in the 10 commandments and expounded upon in many other laws in the Old Testament. But regardless if you have an absolute view of the authority of scripture, each person has SOME idea of what they consider right and wrong, so whatever that is, that's YOUR "moral law." If you see someone murder someone and are shocked, that's your moral law. I'll try to refer to this category as "universal rules" to avoid confusion and recognize that we don't all start with the same set of moral laws, but that we have some general "this is wrong" ideas, among families.)

And I see confusion happening a lot. Sometimes in daily life, while interacting with friends and relations, and often on blog posts and other online venues.

We have the "when I was a child, I didn't speak at the dinner table unless spoken to," as if children are somehow born innately with a moral compass that pricks their conscience if they speak at the dinner table, rather than treating such a rule as something that the adult in question was taught and was expected IN THEIR HOUSEHOLD. How on earth can we expect or care if a child talks at the dinner table, unless they have been instructed not to do so?!

We also have the "that mom sure is strict with her kids and doesn't even let them run around in the house." As if, you know, running inside is an inalienable right that all children should have in all circumstances.

Both of the above comments are judging a child or parent's conduct and/or rules based on the a confusion of the moral law and a house rule. And when this most perplexes me is when people feel the need to address the CHILD and correct the CHILD for a non-moral "failing," when the correcting adult in question is totally removed from the situation, or is at least removed from the situation enough to not have a foggy clue if the rule in question is one that has ever been taught to the child. Please don't fault a child for something they were never taught!

Before I go on, an important clarification: I have always always ALWAYS, from the time my oldest was very young, made it very clear to friends and relations that I appreciate it when they aid me in correcting my child or cluing me in to my child's behavior. I make a point of THANKING someone (not being offended) if a friend informs me that my child X is hitting another child, and I quickly go deal with the situation. But that applies in moral situations. Few parents would think it's okay for one child to hit another.

Another clarification, even in non-universal situations, I welcome concerned people who see my children doing something and WONDER if they are allowed to do it, and then ask me. I consider that a favor they are doing for me, to look out for my children and myself, and then ask me if behavior X is okay. That is a totally cool way to clue in a parent without confusing house rules and UNIVERSAL rules. If an adult sees my children outside whacking a baseball bat against a tree (in my yard) and ask me "do you want them doing that?," that's a cool way to deal with the situation! They understand that it's my tree, my child, my bat, my yard. No one is currently getting harmed. They realize there are two sides to the situation and in case I don't want the event to occur (because many people would not want it), they are cluing me in. But if they are the adult outside and suddenly freak out at my child that they are hitting the tree, that honestly just leaves me scratching my head.

UNLESS IT'S THEIR YARD. (Well, the freaking is still a bit petty, but the immediate correction is not.) Which brings me to an important subset of house rules: the house rules of other people. It's all well and good to have expectations in your house that differ from others, as long as your children are able to transition to the rules of others at their house, or you are able to help them be clued in and respond accordingly. If we owned our own yard (we currently don't), I honestly wouldn't care if my son was beating the tree with a bat, but you better believe that if we are at someone else's house, if he was doing so, I would immediately ask him to stop "because it's not our tree, and we wouldn't want to accidentally hurt it."

Same with furniture. I let my children stand on our couch (but they can't jump), even with shoes sometimes, and use cushions and stuff for "playing horses," but I wouldn't let them do that at someone else's house unless we checked on house rules there first. That obviously gets tricky because young children are not always going to realize "oh this is a house rule, not a UNIVERSAL rule," and know to ask. That's why adult supervision (within reason) is a good idea when friends come or go to play ;).

So let's do some categorization:

"Jumping on furniture is okay." HOUSE RULE
"Do not cut up cushions with scissors." Technically, it isn't in itself a moral problem without more information, can we all just agree that it's a UNIVERSAL RULE, barring extending circumstances?! And that an adult can legitimately leap in and tell someone to stop (even looking horrified) before asking questions?

"No fighting." HOUSE RULE (some households are totally cool with vigorous playing and wrestling)
"Don't hit people in anger." I hope it's a UNIVERSAL RULE to everyone.

"Finish all your food on your plate before getting down." HOUSE RULE
"Don't eat food that has been on the floor." HOUSE RULE
"No one is allowed to say they don't like the food." HOUSE RULE.
"Whining or yelling that you won't eat the food is not allowed." Technically not a UNIVERSAL RULE, but awfully close.

"No rough housing in the house." HOUSE RULE
"Do not bowl over small children while rushing through hallways at breakneck speed." UNIVERSAL RULE (I hope?)

"Brush your teeth after every meal." HOUSE RULE
"Wipe dribbling yuck off your mouth and chin as you eat." UNIVERSAL RULE, generally. I guess there could be exceptions ;-).
"Bathe every night before bed." HOUSE RULE
"Children have to be totally clothed at all times, unless bathing." HOUSE RULE

"One dessert per day." HOUSE RULE
"No snacking between meals." HOUSE RULE
"Children need to ask before getting food to eat." HOUSE RULE
"Do not throw food all over the kitchen." I think we can call this a UNIVERSAL RULE

So summary to all my meandering:

I like help watching my kids. I have three (going on four) and the boys are a handful, at the very least :-D. If you see them doing something that is an obvious universal rule, please feel free to leap in and correct them. If it is remotely possible that my children's behavior might be inappropriate or violating a rule they have been taught, please feel free to either

(a) ask me if they should be doing X, or
(b) ask THEM if they should be doing X.

I honestly don't mind if you address my children directly if I'm not around or if I'm not right there or if it just seems easier, assuming you're not saying something to them (or me) in a certain tone that might undermine my authority and my rules in front of or to my child. I just think it makes sense sometimes to address the child directly, and other times it makes more sense to address the mom. The adult doing the questioning can normally figure out which works better, given proximity to both parties, attention of both parties, etc.

I have to admit I don't "get" moms who rail about "that idiot stranger who dared to correct or question her child." What I DO "get" is moms who feel frustrated that an adult (stranger or not) freaks out at their child for doing something that either the child might have been told they CAN do, or for doing something that the child shouldn't do (at someone else's house, eg) but might have no idea they shouldn't. Children are not born with a lot of common sense. If their parent allows them to jump on couches, why should we fault them if they start jumping on someone else's couch? This is not the 11th commandment. Don't freak out, just calmly ask them not to jump on YOUR couch, and I will totally back you :-D.

Kids need to learn to respect other people's property and follow the house rules of other people. But adults also need to learn to respect the house rules of other parents and not fault a child for what they've never been taught or mock another parent's rules in the presence of the parent's child. Common sense, folks.

So now I'm curious: what are some "different" house rules you have that might not be typical? We're kind of a mixed household with rules, and some of our rules are considered more strict than necessary, while others are considered more lax than is common.

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