Rules are rules

Parents and teachers alike understand that kids will misbehave.

The best kid in the world will do something at some time that they should not have done. Part of being a kid is messing up, and part of being a parent and an educator is using these “mess ups” as teaching and thereby learning opportunities.

My oldest daughter, Megan, is one of those kids who so seldom does something wrong that when she does, on the rare occasion, I am almost too shocked to react. For example, she had been a camp counselor at her school’s basketball camp this past week, and she worked long hours and came in tired each evening. My youngest daughter, Abbie, is 8 years younger than Megan and energy was not a problem for her last week. One evening Megan came home and she was obviously tired; she had not even sat her purse down when Abbie immediately started pounding her with questions and statements and demands for her attention. Very uncharacteristically for Megan, she had a “mini-snap” and raised her voice to Abbie and said, “Can you at least let me sit down before you start on me?”

This shocked Abbie, and I think it also shocked Megan. Abbie went away on the verge of tears, because her idol had just snapped at her and made her feel bad about herself. Now don’t get me wrong, Megan was well within her rights of wanting some unwind time, but it was so out of character for her that her words cut through Abbie like a knife. I walked over to Megan and gently reminded her that her sister is a little girl, she is the big sister that is idolized, and her words hurt Abbie. I also reminded her that we don’t hurt each other in our family. Megan immediately went to Abbie, apologized, and then heard all about Abbie’s day.

Some of you reading this are probably saying, “Really? That’s your idea of a behavior problem?”

The simple answer to that is, NO. But for Megan, that is about as bad as it gets, and for Megan a simple reminder is about all that is necessary as an intervention. I can honestly say that I have never had to ground Megan or take steps beyond reminding her of who she is. My son on the other hand spends a good deal of his time reminiscing about the days of having a phone or playing his video game, because he can’t help himself but stay grounded.

When you talk about behaviors, the hardest thing to talk about and to realize is that every kid is unique and the behavioral needs of every kid is different. This sound like common sense, but it is surprising how many teachers and how many parents try to approach behaviors with a blanket for all of their kids rather than something that works at the level each kid needs individually.

I told you about my son. He is a great kid. Hunter is the life of the party, and he will have you smiling and laughing in no time. I have a blast with Hunter, but the boy thoroughly confuses my wife. Even as a 14 year old, few things provide more pleasure for Hunter than bodily functions. The prettiest girl in school can be sitting next to the boy but if the urge hits, he lets ‘er rip... This mortifies my wife. She doesn’t understand the boy and, for the most part, I am on standing orders to take him out at any given time. I just stand by prepared to get into trouble as well, because usually when Hunter does something stupid I end up laughing and getting in as much trouble as him.

There is no way you could have the same approach to behaviors for Megan, Hunter, and Abbie. They are too different. Besides their differences, they also have significant age differences. Megan is 17, Hunter just turned 14, and Abbie is 9.

So how does a parent, or even a teacher, fairly apply behavior rules and change when dealing with different personalities and different life stages?

Let’s start with a couple of easy concepts.

First, realize that all kids are different, and some will require more attention and more work than others. Parents really struggle with this because they want to “treat all my kids the same because I love them all equally”. Sorry, but that just won’t cut it. Loving them equally is great, but treating them all the same is tantamount to throwing mud against the wall and hoping some of it sticks. Kids are different and their needs are different. Treating them all the same means that none of them are getting what they need.rules

The second concept to understand is that even though kids need to be treated differently based on their personalities and needs, there is a common baseline from which you can work. That baseline, or foundation, is that even though each individual child has individual needs – the rules can still be consistent. There are certain fundamental rules that should apply to every child and should be non-negotiable, and will require punishment if they are broken. These rules should be well known and well applied for each and every kid.

Some are obvious – lying is wrong for everyone at all times.

Some are personal – in this family, all beds will be made every day.

Some are not so obvious but well known in my particular classroom or home – not saying “please” and “thank you” will land anyone in trouble.

Here’s the tricky part: you need to understand that there is a difference between the rules and actual behavior change.

Having rules is not the same thing as having discipline.

Having rules is the foundation from which you can build your discipline which will include not only the consequences but the rewards, the communication, and the enforcement.

Rules are the equalizer amongst kids. Rules are the foundation from which to understand where each individual kid’s needs lie. Rules can be the constant that allows you to individualize without creating favoritism. But this means that rules need to be known, they need to be consistent, and they need to be applied. Certain rules can even have very specific consequences that will be applied to everyone consistently. For example, not making your bed will result in having to make everyone’s bed the next day. This sort of rule with a “blanket” consequence works, because it is based on a task. Tasks are easily monitored for completion, and therefore non-compliance has an equally distributed consequence. Tasks don’t have to take personalities into account but rather are duties that, when performed, do not equal rewards-- but when not performed equal a consequence.

Where it gets trickier is when the base, or foundation, of rules becomes applied unequally. Sometimes this is done out of favoritism... sometimes out of exhaustion. When rules are applied unequally and unintentionally, the enforcement of all rules is compromised. The application of rules and the application of discipline needs to be planned and consistent.

However, there does come a time and place when rules are not applied equally amongst all kids. For example, my 17 year old is allowed to watch shows my 14 year old is not allowed to watch, and my 14 year old is allowed to stay up later than my 9 year old. My kids have rules that apply to everyone at the same levels with the same consequence. But they also each have rules specific to them because of who they are, their ages and personalities. Several years ago we had a rule that my son was not allowed to bark at wait-staff in a restaurant. We never needed that rule with my daughter. My youngest has to go to bed at 9:30 on school nights and my oldest stays up until 11:00. My youngest might think it is not fair, and too bad if she does. That is the rule, and it is applied consistently and it is known. Being a good parent or being a good teacher is not about winning a popularity contest; instead it is about being prepared and being fair, having a plan that guides your children and your students to being better people.

Kids mess up. They are supposed to mess up. The job of a parent is not to clean up the mess but to instead hold their child accountable for the mess, have them clean it up, and then use the mess to teach them so that they don’t do it again. Teachers are in the same boat, only you get to do it with 25 kids at once. Rules can be your best friend and your students' guide to success. Consistency is the affirmation those rules need to make them work.