When it comes to parenting, often the debate is whether children should be taught to follow rules, or to respect authority.
Many of my friends believe it is important for children to follow the rules and do what they’re told – and I agree. In emergencies. When danger faces my children and I tell them to “RUN!”, I need to know that they will. That’s the rule. I must be obeyed, because their lives are at stake.
On the other hand, I believe in parenting motives. I believe in developing a healthy respect for authority, while bearing in mind that those in authority are just as human as the rest of us, and just as capable of making mistakes. It’s a more flexible skill set.
Parenting based on rules
When we raise children to follow a set of rules, we give them the tools they need to cope with the specific situations to which the rule applies. This can be very useful, and it certainly helps children like mine to know hat’s expected from them in the situations they most commonly face. The problem, though, is when they face unexpected situations – especially if I’m not there to guide them.
The reality is that I won’t always be there, nor should I be. If I’m to do my job properly, I need to teach them resilience and flexibility. I need to teach them a method for coping with society’s expectations when life takes a turn for the out-of-the-ordinary. And I need to give them the tools they need to decide which of society’s expectations to live up, and which to discard.
Parenting based on respect: parenting the motives
From birth, I have focused on they why behind what my girls do. No matter what they do, who they hurt, where they go or what they damage, why they do it is more important. For instance, hurting someone badly in an attempt to save their lives is much better than helping me with the dishes in an attempt to get pocket money. Or make a sibling look bad. While the rule may say, “Don’t hurt people”, a respect for the value of another person will say, “save your sister from drowning no matter if it means pulling her up the side of the pool and scraping skin off her belly.” The rule might say, “do the dishes”, while the proper motive should be, “be kind and helpful”.
Motives cover more ground
The world has changed so much since I was a kid, that I can’t even hope to formulate enough rules to cover every situation we face on a daily basis. How can I hope to predict and plan for every scenario that lies ahead of them? I just can’t. If all I can give them is a rule book based on my current, limited understanding of the world, I’m simply not giving them enough to face what lies ahead.
Motives are more flexible
Motives allow you to determine the best course of action for yourself when you’re facing something new.Essentially, motives are the why behind the rules. Let’s make this practical: the rule is “no running at Church.” Why? Because you might bump into an old lady and hurt her. But your sister is being kidnapped from the parking lot (yes, I’m paranoid. Just go with it). Is it okay to run? Well, yes! No old lady is going to mind being knocked over if it saves a child. Besides, if you know that the principle is not to hurt people, you’ll just pay attention when you run and avoid the old ladies between you and your target. Now you have tools. Now you’re empowered.
Motives are about the heart
Rules are a head thing. They’re a check-list thing. Rules make it easy to look good, and they’re simple to measure. Anyone can follow the rules. Motives, on the other hand, are a heart matter. Motives require maturity. Doing what’s right, no matter the potential fall-out, the possibly misconstrued motives people may assume, the trouble you could get into for breaking the rules or not doing what’s expected – now that takes guts. It takes a level of self-awareness and a depth of personal growth that each of us ought to aspire to. That’s what I want for my kids. I want them to be adults who can tell right from wrong, even when it’s not obvious. I want them to be equipped to make the right decision because it’s right, not because it’s convenient, and especially not because it’s expected. I want children who help out because they are helpful children, not because they want a reward.
Motives matter to God
God sees our hearts. He knows what motivates the actions we take, and we all know that sometimes even the kindest thing we’ve done has had unkind, even selfish motives. Each of us has done things based on other people’s expectations, or an archaic set of rules, or to make ourselves look better than someone else. At the end of it, you feel unclean, You feel like the delicious Swiss chocolate you were eating has turned to gravel in your mouth. It’s only when we behave in the integrity of our hearts, doing the right thing for the simple reason that it’s right, that we can or should be pleased with our actions, because these are the only actions that matter to God.
We see that throughout the Bible: the obviously righteous, law-abiding (law creating!) scribes and Pharisees being deemed less honourable than dishonest thieves and tax collectors. Why? Because these last knew they were wrong, and their repentance was genuine. From then on, they chose to follow Jesus and do what was right and best, not what was expected.
This is why we may not always correct our children when they seem to break conventional rules. A child interrupting an adult conversation isn’t necessarily being naughty. He might just have something critical to say. Besides, aren’t the fresh, unsullied statements of children so much more uplifting than our jaded old gossip, anyway?
How about you? Do you prefer clear rules, that are easy to enforce and a good path to safety and obedience? Or do you prefer the longer route? The less measurable path of parenting the WHY behind what they do? I’m curious to hear your perspective!