We recently instituted a ban on the word "poop" - and all its variants - while eating meals. Naturally, our oldest had lots of questions to determine loopholes, because that is what she does. She's a negotiator, and even at age 5 she wants to determine all the gray areas. She's already learned that a rule can be bent or circumvented.
Since Bob and I do not have unlimited reserves of patience and creativity, we issued a plain statement that any use of the word would land the speaker in her/his room for a time out. (Side note: I may utter this word tonight just to get a break.)
It shouldn't have surprised us what happened next.
First, there was the immediate use of a synonym. We nipped that one in the bud, clarifying that the spirit of the law also applied.
Then there was the finger pointing. Because if we're told we can't do something, we will make it our mission to ferret out anyone else who is doing it.
I will not get into how we resolved this situation, nor provide a tidy 3-step how-to in addressing strong-willed kiddos. This isn't a parenting blog. No, this is about the basic human drive my pint-sized powerhouse was exhibiting: The drive toward maintaining power.
- She did not want to be told what she could or couldn't do.
- She wanted to find a way to do it without experiencing the consequences.
- She wanted to control others' behavior since she felt powerless by our decree.
I thought about all the adults who create fancy ways to rationalize breaking laws and hurting others:
- When People of Color make demands that unfair systems and customs be addressed, and they receive from the dominant voices an embellished version of, "Don't tell us what to do!"
- Perpetual misrepresentations of Sharia Law that are used to justify hateful words and actions against our Muslim neighbors.
- All the prominent leaders who have attacked the LGBTQ community and then been exposed as being gay or bisexual themselves.
When we don't like being told how to behave, when we don't understand and embrace a rule or a request, we are pretty much guaranteed to rebel against it. This may be obvious (option #1 above), it may be subtle (#2), or it may be subterfuge (#3). But all these responses show a heart that is striving against instead of toward.
I don't mind my kids fighting back, as long as they are fighting with a good cause at heart. I want them to question and, when necessary, rebel against unjust practices and unethical authorities. And God as our Parent showed that desire as well when Jesus refused to let the religious leaders of His day preserve their power. He called them out on it (Matthew 23:13-36) and told His disciples to stand their ground (Matthew 10:16).
And the fact is that Bob and I had to put a blanket rule in place where a simple and flexible guideline could have existed. We had to be strict on the front end so we could make adjustments on the back end. If one of our kiddos misunderstood or slipped up, we would extend grace; if a time came that we needed to talk about feces for a science project or if a teacher's name happened to be Mr. Poop, we would remove the rule from our dinner table commandments. The rule was never meant to be a tyrant, but rather the symbol of a greater purpose: Showing respect and sound judgment. Which speaks to our primary family statute: Show love.
I guess that's really what all rules are. They're emblematic of what we should all strive for. If we want the best for others as well as ourselves, we'll naturally do what so many rules fundamental to societies explicitly tell us to do. We won't steal or lie or murder, we'll put others first and listen without interrupting with our own agendas. We'll avoid mentioning poop multiple times in every sentence we utter.
When things have gone off the rails, though, we need guidelines, and they may need to be firm at first. But we can't let a rule dictate our existence, nor should we spend all our time trying to find ways around it. If we discover we are doing one or both of those things, we need to ask ourselves if we believe in the reason why the rule exists at all.