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Children are used to living with rules. Yet many adults adopt the “do it because I told you to” philosophy, rarely offering much of an explanation for why these rules are in place, or what they aim to accomplish. But is this really what we want – for kids to be little robots who blindly follow rules? Or do we want them to follow rules because it’s the right thing to do, and to think morally and do what’s right even in the absence of rules? Spending some time helping children understand the reason for rules will not only expand upon a child’s character education, but it might even earn you more cooperation in the process.

Sit down with kids either one on one or as a group, and have a discussion about rules using the guidelines offered below. It’s helpful to record their responses on your chalkboard or a separate piece of paper.

What are rules?
Start by having kids define what rules are: a set of instructions for how we should act. Have them give you examples of some of the different rules they’re familiar with, whether at home or at school

Who creates them?
Do different people have different rules? Are your teacher’s rules different than your father’s rules? Are different people in charge in different situations? Why is this so?

Why are rules important? Who benefits?
Why do we have rules in the first place? Who benefits from all these rules? What would happen if there weren’t any rules in place? Can there be too many rules? Are there any rules you think are dumb? Allow kids to challenge and debate the necessity of rules, while helping them understand the underlying intention of rules: To protect others, to keep you safe and healthy, to make it easier to predict the world, to ensure things that must be done (work, sleep, teeth brushing, etc.) actually get done, and so forth.

Do adults have to obey rules?
Kids often mistakenly assume rules are just for kids, and that grown-ups are free to do whatever they please. Dispel them of this illusion. Talk about some of the different rules adults have to follow, whether they be traffic laws, legal codes, or rules they have to abide by in the workplace.

Are there ever times when rules are bad or when it’s okay to break them?
Pose this question to your kids and get their response. Then give them some well-known examples of rules gone wrong: the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the laws in dictatorship countries, or the racism and sexism that until very recently were enshrined into the laws of the U.S. Sometimes those making the rules don’t always know what’s best, and sometimes rules are set up for devious reasons to exploit others. This doesn’t mean we should go around ignoring rules, but it is okay to question them.

Rule analysis
Finally, end this discussion by giving kids some examples of rules and having them analyze each one according to what was previously discussed. Namely, A) What is this rule for? B) Who benefits from it? C) Who created it? D) What might happen if this rule isn’t followed? E) Is it ever okay to break this rule? Here are some sample rules to get you started:

  • No hitting people
  • Don’t play in the street
  • No snacks before dinner
  • Don’t walk in the flower garden
  • Always obey your teacher
  • Never wear white after Labor Day (just to stump them and enjoy the confused look on their faces)
  • You can’t drive until you’re 16 and have a license.

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