October 4, 2017

School rules: The good, the bad and the ugly

Of all the parenting mistakes I made – and there are many – one in particular stands out as an example of indulging myself, trying to look cool to one of my (then) adolescent kids, and acting against my fundamental parenting goals. It had to do with school rules.

Dumb and dumber. Me. The thing about parenting mistakes is that we all make them and we all feel guilty afterwards. Which is not so helpful. My experience of parental guilt is that it’s both toxic and stupid. But more on that in a later blog, for we know that parental guilt can fill an encyclopedia.

Back to rules

All schools have rules. Some of them, like no bullying, drugs or alcohol, make sense. Some of them often seem opaque especially to us liberal parents. When the snazzy private school my son went to put a letter in his file for “bad attitude.” I was pissed. (Like mother, like son?) The kid had good grades, was never truant, had no blots on his copybook other than attitude.

I decided the school was being authoritarian and that my understanding of my son was better than theirs. This was the core of my mistake. Of course I know my son better than they do. Nobody was contesting that. But the part I failed to comprehend was that pretty much everything about a good school has been carefully thought out to foster safety, learning and development for the students.

Even the dumb rules that my kid and I resented have a purpose. And the deeper purpose of rules in general is to acculturate children to be respectful. The problem with me and other parents like me is that when we encourage our kids to blow off the trivial or silly rules of their school, we telegraph a clear message to our kids: “You can ignore school’s rules. We don’t respect them so you don’t have to.” And then they don’t. But they don’t just disrespect school’s silly rules.

Being kids, they specialize in driving a truck through any and all loopholes that grownups offer them. Adolescents especially have great radar for sniffing out rules not upheld, and this allows them to disrespect boundaries in general. Which has two negative repercussions. One, thanks to their not-yet-fully-developed frontal lobe, they suck at making good decisions about risk. They’re not mature enough yet to distinguish between a trivial rule that can get broken without repercussions and a big important one whose breach could cost them. So they can really mess up.

Second is the affect on the institution. A school can’t run with moveable boundaries and rules that aren’t enforced. We all know camps and schools with permeable boundaries, and we know where that goes: These very quickly become institutions where rules are meaningless and chaos ensues. It’s not important whose “fault” this is, but it is important that every member of a community take responsibility for the well-being of the community, elsewise it falters.

Because schools are bigger than us, and they don’t tend to ask us parents to make their decisions, we imagine ourselves as very separate from them. But this is not so. Every community that we are a part of – schools, neighbourhoods, clubs, camps – both influences us and is influenced by us. A good school teaches our kids not only the three R’s but also – and perhaps more important – to function as a positive member of the community.

That includes respecting the rules. The dumb ones as much as the smart ones, because that’s where the rubber hits the road and you get to practice respect. Rather a core life skill.

Bottom line: If I got a do-over on parenting, I’d sit my high-school age son down and have lots of talks about the rules. Instead of scoffing at the silly ones, I’d engage him in inquiry, a discussion of why they have those rules, what affect it would have on the school and the kids if those rules didn’t exist, and what he might do about that stuff if he was in charge of the school. I’d try for him to talk more and me to talk less (always a challenge) and I’d hope for him to come to an understanding of the rules, and a newfound respect for these rules in particular, and rules in general. Because even the annoying ones matter.