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Why Don't Kids Follow the Rules?
The family is not exactly a democracy. Except maybe when deciding where to go for dinner. But good parents aren’t dictators, either, not even benevolent ones. Kids just won’t stand for it. They’re too rebellious by nature, too good at seeing through your arbitrary and selfish commands, too good at calling your bluffs. It’s hard to maintain the type of terror you need to truly impose your will on a population over a long period, since you love them and all. You can try to boss them around simply because you’re the parent. Sometimes you have to. But take that approach too often and you’ll be constantly putting down small rebellions, getting into shouting duels, and finding yourself barricaded behind slammed doors. You’ll end up clashing with your spouse, too, who doesn’t share your every whim. A peaceful family cannot be ruled by tyrants. It must be ruled by laws.
The first branch of parenthood, then, is not the executive but the legislative. You must determine the laws that organize and direct your family life before you can begin enforcing them. Good laws are hard to make. There’s a reason Congress never does it. But mostly you recycle them. You follow the rules your parents made you follow or your teachers required or your peers demanded, maybe with some tweaks for those rules you particularly hated. Which means you don’t have to write them down or even consciously express them. You make the rules for your family primarily by the example you live, by the things you say, by when you get upset and when you get excited, by the behavior you punish and the behavior you reward.
It helps to think about what you want, though, otherwise you may end up making laws you never intended to make. It helps to examine your own actions, too, or you may end up telling your kids to do the opposite of what you want. And it helps to understand the purposes and limits of your laws, or you may get frustrated that all your best efforts seem to have no effect.
It’s easy to look around America and wonder why so many of our laws don’t work as well as we want. Crime is rising, drugs are rampant, our prisons are bloated, and murders are spiking. Every month (or week) brings a new mass killing. After each we have the same debate about what new law should be passed to prevent such tragedies. And it may well be that new laws or initiatives would help. But murder is already illegal, and strict gun laws in New York or Illinois didn’t stop the bloodshed. That doesn’t make the law worthless, but it does expose its limits. Explaining exactly why people do bad things, some more than others, is far too complex a topic for here, but simply enacting a law clearly does not prevent it. Why not?
It isn’t about enforcement. Enforcement is necessary, of course, but not sufficient. Would you speed in your car (even more than you already do) if there were no highway patrol? Would you murder someone if there were no police? Every law carries the implicit threat of authoritative action, whether a fine or incarceration or a taking the iPad away or forfeiting dessert, but that threat isn’t the sole reason people follow the rules and only truly works on a particular type of rule in relatively minor cases. You can force your kid to eat their dinner and get most people to go a certain speed with the threat of punishment, but no amount of punishment will force a kid to be nice to their sister or prevent violence among rival gangs. In fact, the punishment can actually reinforce the behavior.
The law is not ultimately something handed down from rulers but is the distillation of general agreements among a given group of people. It is not a set of consciously-followed proscriptions but an inherited way of living. Even a law that starts as an arbitrary enforcement (e.g. bedtime) eventually must become a habitual agreement to have any lasting impact. A kid who fights an early bedtime every night for a year is probably going to end up with a later bedtime.
A corollary is that the written law has very little effect on whether people follow it. A law legalizing murder would likely increase murders on the margins, but the vast majority of people who not suddenly start killing their neighbors. Likewise, a law increasing the punishment for murder, even to the death penalty, would likely have very little affect on the murder rate. People don’t decide whether to murder based on the legal code any more than your kid decides whether to yell at you based on the rules you’ve got pinned to the refrigerator. In either case, they must already agree that the behavior isn’t something they should do in a way that shapes their actions, in which case the law is no longer required, otherwise they will see the law as an unjust or irrelevant imposition upon them and ignore it, in which case the law is ineffectual. That’s why all the gun laws (appropriate and necessary as they may be) in the world haven’t and won’t stop the bloodshed in our society. And while you can take a criminal (someone fundamentally unwilling to abide by society’s laws) off the streets in an attempt to reduce crime, parents don’t have that option. You can’t lock your kids up or send them away forever, no matter much you may want to.
As a parent, obeying the law isn’t something you can impose on your children with the right set of rules. You can use the law to convict them, to punish them, to explain what is right, which is a useful function, but merely making a law will not get anyone to follow it for long. Fear only goes so far, and some future pain is not often much deterrent to current desires. The only option is to cultivate the type of person who loves what the law loves and hates what the law hates. You have to show them, with patient guidance and correction, that getting enough sleep feels good and hurting their sister is bad for both of them. You have to form agreements within your family about how to act and stick to them yourself. You have to foster love in your family by practicing it, forgiveness by giving it, understanding by showing it, peace by making it. Your kids probably don’t want to obey you, but they are absolutely begging to follow you.
The role of a parent in the little fiefdoms of the family is may be part legislative, part executive, and part judicial, but none of them absolute. Rather, the parent is a leader, a teacher, and a counselor. Consider the rules you want your kids to live by, make them clear if not always explicit, follow them yourself, and enforce them with patience and mercy. Don’t create a cage to smother and constrain them to your desires. Create a house you can all thrive in together.