Some children consistently follow rules once they have been taught to them. There are those, especially children on the autism spectrum, who can become quite rigid not only in their own adherence to the rules but with insistence that all others strictly comply. These children are like Rule Police trying to enforce the law. They are sincerely distressed by perceived infractions and often make statements such as “That’s against the rules!” If other people continue to ignore what to the Rule Police is akin to a law that must be followed then the Rule Police may become very outraged and angry.
I guess I inadvertently taught my children to follow the rules without exception. The problem is, life is not always neatly black and white and some rules have limitations and are not applicable in all situations. For example, I taught my children not to talk to strangers. I attempted to convey the potential seriousness of interacting with unknown individuals without totally freaking them out or making them anxious and suspicious.
“Most strangers are not going to try and hurt you, but you can’t tell a good stranger from a bad one just by looking at them,” I explained.
I went on to describe some of the ruses used to entice children into cars, away from their homes, and so on. I pointed out that some very nice-acting people can have bad intentions and others who look scary may in actuality be quite nice and harmless.
“If an adult needs directions or help finding a lost puppy, he or she should be asking an adult for help not a child. If anyone approaches you, run home right away and tell me or another adult who is not a stranger. You must always, always do this.”
It is hard to find the balance between developing a healthy fear of potential danger and a total nonchalance for risks in various situations. I realized my children’s confusion when we were out walking in our neighborhood and I greeted a passerby.
“Mommy, did you know that person?” my son asked.
“No, son. I was just being friendly,” I replied.
“You talked to a stranger?” said my son with an appalled expression on his face.
In my son’s eyes I had broken a rule that should always be obeyed. Ah, those troublesome exceptions. It did not make sense to my child that sometimes the rule didn’t apply in a given situation. This incident led to more discussion and questions as I attempted to keep my children safe while they interacted with those around them.
I had a similar incident while shopping at Wal-Mart with my children. I couldn’t find what I was looking for but I noticed someone nearby with the Wal-Mart vest displaying “How May I Help You?” written on the back. I approached the employee, asked for assistance, and the helpful employee pointed me in the right direction. I thanked her for her help and headed toward my goal item.
“Mommy, did you know that person?” queried my daughter.
That’s when I realized I had to explain another exception to the “Don’t talk to strangers” rule. Other rules I had to discuss further with my children involved good citizenship and healthy behaviors. I taught my children, for example, that littering was unacceptable. I must have done a good job convincing the children that they should never litter, because they generalized this rule to all of humanity. Not only were they serious about being the Litter Police, they reacted to every infraction with great umbrage and an attitude of being incensed at such unthinkable behavior. If they’d had the power to arrest people they would have exercised that authority.
I also must have been a bit heavy-handed when I discussed the negative effects of smoking. I remember pulling up next to cars while waiting for a traffic light to change and hearing one child announce with horror, “Mommy! That person is SMOKING!”
This report of fellow travelers who were smokers was said with the same disbelief and repulsion as you might expect if someone decided to attach leeches to various body parts and then wave the leech-covered appendages about in a threatening manner.
After the initial shock that someone would actually choose to smoke a cigarette or cigar, the children decided that perhaps the offender did not realize the adverse effects that smoking can have on one’s health.
“Mommy! We should go tell that person why they should stop smoking. They will be healthier. We should tell them to stop it right away!”
While it is true that cessation of smoking would lead to health benefits, the fact is that most smokers do realize the impact smoking can have on their bodies and those around them who inhale second-hand smoke. Many would love to give up the habit. They do not need my children to point these things out to them, no matter how helpful they are trying to be. As I explained to my children that most smokers already realize the potential harm, I reiterated that I hoped they would make good decisions for themselves and not start an unhealthy habit that would be hard to break.
Then I went on to tell them that even if they did make bad choices I would still love them and want the best for them. Yes, even if they became prolific litters and smokers and went out of their way to talk to strangers.
We have all been rule breakers at times in our lives, and we actually need the most love and compassion when we deserve it the least. Instead of training my children to be judgmental and rejecting of those who don’t follow the rules, I encouraged them to pray for themselves and others because doing what is right is often hard to do. The challenge for us as parents is to teach our children right from wrong, but also help them experience grace and extend it to others when rules are broken.