Friday, May 16, 2008

Rules vs. Principles

In chapter 4 of Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, I wrote: “Rules are commands to act or not act a certain way. Obedience may be rewarded; disobedience is certainly punished.” The context was the regulation of child and student behavior and my point was that “rules have no place in a theory of nurture.” Rules call for obedience to authority. Principles, on the other hand, teach abstract thought and lay the foundation for independence.

This is not to say that rules to protect young children from harm or to help them respect the rights of others are not ever a good idea. Young children, including those up to the age of adolescence, have not yet acquired the skill of abstract reasoning. Guidance from adults cannot always be made in the form of rational argument, nor is the young child likely to understand such reasoning. A screamed “Stop!” when a three-year-old is about to run into the street is appropriate, as is the command “Don’t step off the curb until I get there to take your hand.” The latter is a rule, but when the added explanation “Cars can do bad things to little children” is provided, the groundwork for reasoned thought is being laid. Repeated explanations on similar occasions lead to understanding and eventual grasp of the principle of observation and self-protection. Absence of the added explanation, or worse, punishment for something the young child cannot possibly know or understand sends only one message: “Obey.”

Elementary-aged children, roughly from six to twelve, pose an interesting challenge for adults. Logical thinking is noticeable in children of this age but it is concrete thinking, the “period of concrete operations,” as Piaget calls it. Broad abstractions, formed and retained over time, are difficult and rare. Yet elementary-aged children exhibit a highly active and rambunctious behavior that is often not to the liking of adults. The easiest solution is a barrage of rules, such as “Don’t run,” “No talking in class,” “No eating after 7PM,” etc. Such rules, to be effective, must be enforced with stern consequences, ranging from confinement to withdrawal of possessions or privileges to spanking; if the rules are not enforced, or meekly enforced, they will be ignored and children will run amok and have what some would say is a lowered respect for the adult. Lowered fear of the adult would be a more correct description.

Teaching principles means giving children a full explanation, for example, of why running is not advisable on the patio: they might stumble and hurt themselves or others, who have just as much right to be there as they do, and the running might interrupt or destroy the other children’s enjoyment. Such explanations require more words than a simple rule and there is no guarantee that the children will grasp and remember what was just said and implement a change of behavior to become the perfect angels that adults want them to become. Repetition of the explanation is required; so also is repetition required to enforce rules, unless the coercive consequences of breaking rules are so stern that the children get the message immediately. But then, what price has been paid in the psychological development of such coerced children?

Rules presuppose coercion. Principles presuppose teaching. A lot of it. But teaching principles requires patience, understanding, and, especially, fast thinking (of the right thing to say) that many adults—parents and teachers—do not have when trying to regulate and influence the behavior of elementary-aged children. Distractions and demands too often preclude the use of these three traits.

The middle ground between rules imposed from above and principles taught repeatedly (and exasperatingly) might be the democratic meeting in which children make and enforce their own rules. This is the solution adopted by the Summerhill School in England and Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. (See Go Fish!)

A variation of this advocated by Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline and Positive Discipline in the Classroom, is the family and class meeting. The purpose of such meetings is to brainstorm for solutions to problems and agree on the solutions either by vote or consensus. To be effective, the adults must reduce themselves to equal participants, rather than act as lecturers or moralizers.

Having children take responsibility for their own behavior through discussion, brainstorming, and democratic voting or consensus frees adults from having to play cop and peacemaker and enables them to spend more time being the long-term thinkers and leaders that the children need. Until the perfect handbook is written and published on how to teach children to become perfect angels, this technique will probably have to do.


Barry Linetsky said...

I agree that rules are a poor way to raise kids, based on my own experience with my own, because rules by themselves don't teach them anything. But I'm not sure I would go as far as you do in calling explanations principles, given that they are often situation, age and time specific.

I don't think we are agreeing about the concept of explanation involved, though, but rather, at younger ages, say up to about 12, I don't think children understand principles.

But what they do understand, and what it is essential to point out to them when stopping inappropriate behaviour, are issues of cause and effect. "I don't want you playing on the road or near the road because if a car comes by and hits you, you will be hurt and I'll have to take you to the hospital." This is reinforced, perhaps with another example: "don't play with your ball near the road because if it goes on the road, you won't be able to go and get it. You must stay off the road because cars use the road, and if a car comes by and the driver doesn't see you, and it hits you, it could hurt you badly," etc. What is required is that a rational and consistent world of cause and effect is presented to them both to protect them from harm, and to teach them about what is required of them and in the interests of their own health and happiness. To this extent, instructions by parents to young children should integrate well with larger principles, even if the "rules" provided themselves aren't principles.

Where many parents fail in this regard, and what I believe creates rambunctious children, is when children experience arbitrary rules. "Don't play with your ball near the road because I say so." Don't play with your ball on the sidewalk." Because these rules appear arbitrary and not related to a larger reason for the rule, the child learns nothing about cause and effect in the real world, and does not learn the foundations for what later become integrated principles about personal responsibility for one's safety and welfare. Instead, they learn that they can do anything until their parents get angry enough to force them to stop.

Unfortunately, too many parents yell arbitrary rules at their children out of anger or resentment or just impatience when the children are doing no harm, but just having some fun and adventure. This is a self-defeating methodology. As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to identify the context of the situation and the child's ability to grasp the concepts we need to teach them, and present a reasonable explanation that they can understand as to why their behaviour is inappropriate, and, equally important, offer a more appropriate alternative. Just saying 'no' teaches them nothing.

David said...

Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline

Discipline in Sudbury Model Democratic Schools

Sudbury model democratic schools claim that popularly-based authority can maintain order more effectively than dictatorial authority for governments and schools alike. They also claim that in a Sudbury model democratic school the preservation of public order is easier and more efficient than anywhere else. Primarily because rules and regulations are made by the community as a whole, thence the school atmosphere is one of persuasion and negotiation, rather than confrontation since there is no one to confront. Sudbury model democratic schools experience shows that a school that has good, clear laws, fairly and democratically passed by the entire school community, and a good judicial system for enforcing these laws, is a school in which community discipline prevails, and in which an increasingly sophisticated concept of law and order develops, against other schools today, where rules are arbitrary, authority is absolute, punishment is capricious, and due process of law is unknown.

They emphasize that much more important than the externals of order is the question of the sources of internal discipline: how does a person come to develop the inner strength and character that endows his life with order and coherence, an independent man appropriate to a free republic of co-equal citizens, capable of making decisions within a rational, self-consistent framework -- a person treating and being treated with respect.

Sudbury model democratic schools affirm that the hallmark of the independent man is the ability to bear responsibility and since there is no way of teaching or training another person for self-sufficiency, there is no technique for obtaining or transmitting these traits. Hence, the only way a person becomes responsible for himself is for him to be responsible for himself, with no reservation or qualifications.

Thence a Sudbury model democratic school is structured in such a manner that all the trappings of external support that shore up the weak, all the trappings of external authority that substitute for inner self-direction, all the trappings of external moral pressure that replace the inner moral development and all the well-meaning paraphernalia that enervates and often paralyzes the individual wills of students and teachers alike, are missing. Sudbury model democratic schools claim that in these schools the basic building block is the responsible individual, whose sense of life derives from his overcoming with his own strength the great obstacles, errors and temptations that are strewn in his path, and whose existence is given form by his own creative efforts.

Order and discipline: is achieved by a dual approach based on a free and democratic framework: a combination of popularly-based authority, when rules and regulations are made by the community as a whole, fairly and democratically passed by the entire school community, supervised by a good judicial system for enforcing these laws; and developing internal discipline in the members of the community by enhancing their ability to bear responsibility and self-sufficiency.

The Sudbury Valley School (1970), "Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline" The Crisis in American Education — An Analysis and a Proposal.(p. 49-55).

The Sudbury Valley School, "One Person, One Vote":
* How the School is Governed,
* With Liberty and Justice for All,
* A Few Words on SVS,
* The Two Realities of Empowerment.