From Rules to Principles

December 14, 2012

By Karen Lynch 

When my three kids were young and misbehaving, I would feel flustered and frustrated about establishing and enforcing house rules. The rules seemed intangible and vague. At the same time, establishing consequences for their behavior seemed inconsistent. I felt lost and unable to give them direction toward the desired behaviors for the kind of home we all wished to live in.

At first, I would announce the house-rule at the time it was being broken. This would distract our attention onto the rule instead of the behavior. Or it would be a battle about whether the rule was enforced consistently amongst the siblings. If there was punishment for breaking the rule, it would be given as a dictate verbally and expected to be followed. Follow through of the punishment would get lost in time because I was the only one keeping track of it. Follow through was not consistent.

As Baha’i mothers we are encouraged to parent our children towards “goodly character and good morals” (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 124). As a community we are encouraged to apply in our daily life the spiritual principles taught in the Baha’i writings (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 553). This technique helps to focus on the motivations behind the behavior and conflicts.

The battles of misbehavior started to shift from focusing on the immediate actions to the deeper issues. It shifted from the tendency of simply stopping a child from pushing their brother out of the way or taking a toy from him, to respecting the person’s space and respecting their individual rights. Along with a clarity of the spiritual principle relating to behavior, the consequence for breaking the rule started to be more natural and logical. The punishments started to shift from being arbitrary and shallow (“don’t push” or “give that back”) to being carefully considered consequences relating to the deeper issue. For example, the child would have to be removed from being with people if he couldn’t be respectful of their space. Or, if the child couldn’t respect the rights of the person playing with the toy, they couldn’t play with others for a while. The consequences were becoming more logical and consistent and less arbitrary. It also shifted the value of managing the children’s behavior from just keeping peace in the house to educating them on the spiritual nature of living together.

In my effort to bring together the management of rules, consequences, and learning about the principles, I placed a dry-erase board in the kitchen and wrote brief and simple one line statements for the most common rules. For example “No invading someone’s space without their permission.” They could be referred to by myself or any other member of the family. Along with the rule would be the consequence for breaking the rule. For example, invading someone’s space generally resulted in time alone. If there was an extended consequence, it would be written on the dry-erase board so that everyone could help follow through. For example, if there was a situation of taking a toy away from each other, the toy may not be used for one week. Having it written on the board would allow everyone to know when it could be put into play again.

It is generally easier for children to obey an action instead of the absence of action. It is easier to “Ask permission to be in someone’s space” instead of starting with a statement of “NO…” I continued to work on phraseology of the rules so they could be easily expressed, understood, and followed. Finding a direct correlation to the behavior and consequences can seem like a difficult skill to develop. It was a constant effort to help the child redirect their behavior towards the actions of spiritual qualities instead of swift and arbitrary punishment. Through time, there were fewer and fewer consequences and eventually more and more redirection of behavior.

My children have grown and are starting to help care for other young children. Those easily communicated phrases are now automatic for them when they see misbehavior in others. One of my sons was working in an after-school program. He mentioned how he found himself automatically saying the rules and was surprised by their effectiveness. I continue to use the simple way of expressing rules and redirecting behavior when working in children’s classes in my neighborhood.

Turning to the Baha’i writings was a primary tool while parenting my children. It helped me develop clarity of purpose and give purpose to my actions. My role as a parent became more than a creator and enforcer of rules and dispenser of punishment. I was part of the process of bringing the world to a greater level of spiritual interaction, the implementation of spiritual principles, and the educator of the future.

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