Consistent rules set in concrete or children thinking for themselves with parents available to advise

“People set up a separate set of rules for children to adhere to, believing it in the best interest of the child. But how confusing! Follow a set of rules for the first 18 years, and suddenly they are all different, now you learn to follow a whole new set of rules or make your own rules when you’ve had little experience in creating your own rules.”
– Starlene Stewart


From the archives: The original post was posted on 7th January 1999

“It’s not just food I’m talking about, it’s being consistent with a child.”

Consistency can be equated with inflexibility. And people wonder why children act ‘stubborn’. They learn from their parents to be inflexible and are then labeled ‘strong-willed’, when they are merely being ‘consistent’.

“It’s not fair”

“Fair” by whose opinion? And what does fair have to do with it? The Taking Children Seriously family tries to help all members get what they want, not what is ‘fair’. You would be surprised how well this works out at times. One example I can offer is when we have an amount of money to spend, like recent Christmas money from grandparents. We could have ‘fairly’ divided up the money, but instead we all went around the department store and picked out the things we really wanted to have and met up together to see how much money we were going to be spending. At that point, since we had gone over by a few dollars, we each went over our items and put some things back that we could get another time. Then we looked around some more and put back some more of the things we’d picked in lieu of something else we decided we wanted more. Some might think this is not ‘fair’ since one member’s items cost $55, and the other members items were $25 and $20. But everyone was happy with their choices. We worked together to get everyone what they really wanted.

“It’s not fair to the child to tell them to do something and not follow through.”

On this list [the Taking Children Seriously forum], we consider ourselves to be trusted advisors to our children. Our children trust us, our children know that we will try to help them get what they want. They know that we will respect their feelings and opinions.

If I were to go to a financial advisor for ideas on how to invest my money, I would expect that he would tell me the various ways to invest my money and I would make the ultimate decision as to how to invest. If he told me I would invest my money as such and then he attempted to force me to follow through I would march right out of his office and he would never hear from me again.

Some parents think that children are senseless automatons which can’t think for themselves. I realize the confusion that people have who don’t understand Taking Children Seriously sometimes stems from the fact that the adults (parents) are not respectful of one another and feel they should be able to force their opinions on each other, or boss one another around. And where did they learn this poor way of getting along? From their own parents, who bossed them around and coerced them to follow rules which made their lives miserable. So it is difficult for them to extend a respect (to treat with consideration; to avoid intruding upon; a high regard for and appreciation of worth) to their children, which is foreign to their own relationship.

“Talk about confusion! Kids have to have rules and lines have to be drawn.”

Possibly families can benefit from having very flexible rules and lines. More likely though, setting up all these rules and lines are only going to result in kids rebelling against and repeatedly testing the rules and lines. Many families have a ‘rule’ that fire is not a toy, fire is not to be experimented with, fire is absolutely off limits. As a result, children often play with fire in secret. Children often burn down the family home playing with fire. Most children are curious about fire. The Taking Children Seriously family respects its children’s curiosity about fire and finds ways for the children to work/play with fire whenever the urge strikes. The child taken seriously doesn’t have to play with fire secretly and worry about being punished if caught. A Taking Children Seriously child I know was very interested in fire for a couple years. This child knew that the parent was available to be around when any fire experimenting was being done. The parent was able to offer safety theories to the child. The parent offered ideas for ways to ‘play’ and experiment with fire. The child plays with fire in full view of the parent, and the family has an agreement that fire isn’t played with when adults aren’t nearby. It’s a real comfortable ‘rule’ which all members agree to. I don’t even like calling it a rule, because it connotes that someone has dictated it must be this way. It is more a comfortable agreement. The child appreciates the parent’s input regarding fire and wants the parent there in case something goes awry.

If a family is in agreement with a ‘rule’ that is different altogether. Taking Children Seriously families create ‘rules’ as a family, not with the adults as dictators. Not an ‘us against them’ mentality. This isn’t the military, or a business, it’s a family.

An example of a ‘rule’ we follow is one we must adhere to in the place we live. Children cannot swim without an adult in attendance. My children understand this rule is for safety, and whenever they want to go swimming I take them. They know that I want to help them get the things they want. They don’t feel tempted to go swimming without an adult, as they feel safer with an adult present.

In fact, I think a Taking Children Seriously family learns about ‘rules’ even better than a conventional family because every family member adheres to the rules. The rules for children and the adults are often the same, for example, I would not go swimming alone, either. I believe there is safety in numbers and if I were to fall and hit my head one of my children could go get help.

“I guess by the time you’re an adult, your character is already established and there’s no turning back.”

Perhaps you mean by the time you are an adult you are really confused because all your life someone has made all the rules for you and now you don’t know what to do without someone dictating your every move…

“A child, however, doesn’t know right from wrong or good from bad until they are taught and that’s where consistency counts!”

I don’t subscribe to this belief. I believe that children want to do what is right and good. However very often, what is ‘right and good’ varies with each person. People are not clones of one another. What is ‘good and right’ for me, might not be for you. Perhaps I believe it is ‘good and right’ to practice the family bed. Perhaps I believe being a vegetarian is ‘good and right’. Perhaps you do not agree with my version of ‘good and right’. ‘Good and right’ varies with circumstances, as well. Sometimes it is ‘good and right’ to not tell the truth. There are no hard and fast rules to ‘good and right’. Life isn’t black and white. Each circumstance requires thought and consideration. Children who are encouraged to learn to decide what is ‘good and right’ for themselves are many steps ahead of children who are given rules to live by set in concrete.

I can’t dictate what is ‘good and right’ for anyone, not even my children.

“We give lots of choices in our home (like with vegetables, we may offer 3 different types, but the choice isn’t ‘yes I will eat my vegetables’ or ‘no I won’t eat my vegetables’—the child has to eat one of the three).”

How would you feel if your spouse were to tell you this? You may choose one of these three vegetables, but you cannot choose to eat none of them. I would be quite incensed. What if your boss came into the cafeteria and said to you, “You can choose from these 3 vegetables, but you have to eat one.” Wouldn’t you feel ticked off?? Children should be treated with the same respect as adults, because they are going to be adults someday. People forget that, apparently. People set up a separate set of rules for children to adhere to, believing it in the best interest of the child. But how confusing! Follow a set of rules for the first 18 years, and suddenly they are all different, now you learn to follow a whole new set of rules or make your own rules when you’ve had little experience in creating your own rules.

In my experience, children are more likely to eat their vegetables if they see their parents eating their vegetables.

On an aside, you should really explore the issue of eating intuitively. Children are often labeled ‘picky eaters’ and if adults ate more like children, we’d have much less obesity. But we mess up our children by forcing arbitrary ridiculous rules onto them.

See also:

Starlene Stewart, 1999, ‘Consistent rules set in concrete or children thinking for themselves with parents available to advise’,

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