The Rules of Rules

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/30/10

In a fascinating piece on NPR yesterday, Alix Speigel interviewed Larry Nucci, a research psychologist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley about what rules children believe are good, and what rules they think are stupid.

Rules can be broken down into four categories, Dr. Nucci says:

  1. Moral rules: Don't hit, do share.
  2. Safety rules: Don't cross the street alone, don't run with scissors.
  3. Social convention rules: You must say "sir" and "madam."
  4. Personal rules: Rules about friends and how to express themselves... which is where things get tricky.

According to the NPR report, Dr. Nucci says

"Kids don't argue at all with parents - or very little argument with parents - when parents come up with reasonable safety rules or rules about not stealing from other children or not hitting other kids... Virtually all of the conflicts that parents are having with kids are over these personal areas."

Children object to moral rules only about 10% of the time, he finds in his observational studies. But 70% of the "no"s fall into categories of personal rule formation... or at least areas they think are within their personal jurisdiction, like bathing and whether to wear a coat outside when it's cold.

Dr. Nucci has written several books on this topic, including the Handbook of Moral and Character Education and Nice is Not Enough: Facilitating Moral Development. So should parents avoid making rules about elements that their children deem as personal? Let Junior freeze outside if he wants to, and skip bath time when he feels clean enough? That's up to each parent to decide, but being aware that most fights will occur in that fourth category is certainly instructive.

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