He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas

“In matters between visiting children and their parents, you should have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak except as the children command you.”
– Starlene Stewart


From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 31, 2000

A question that parents new to Taking Children Seriously often find themselves facing is ‘Should I enforce other parents’ rules for their children in my house?’

First, I think there is no possible way for you to enforce (or even to know of) all the rules of different families in your home. This would be too much like trying to please everyone about everything: impossible to achieve.

But it’s even wrong to try. What would you do if the parents told you that they spank their children if they do anything wrong, and that they would like you to follow this rule as well? A five-year-old I babysat for recently told me that I would have to strap him if he was bad, ‘bad’ meaning disobeying petty rules—we’re not talking about murder or high treason here! Yeah right. You wouldn’t do that, would you?

You wouldn’t do it, because you know that you would be committing a violent assault on an innocent person, and you do not for a moment think that that would be right, or that his parents could possibly make it right just by saying so. But if you wouldn’t do that, then why would you even consider enforcing any of the other rules you think wrong? Can the parents make a wrong thing right when it involves lesser forms of violence, or only the threat of violence, or only other violations of the child’s human rights or the destruction of his dignity or the violation of his privacy—or whatever? No! If you want to retain moral integrity, you must do right by your own lights, and not allow yourself to become the agent of a tyrant, however softly-spoken and smiling he or she may be.

Clearly, it would be a bad mistake to try to make your home rules match any of those of the parents whose children might come to your house, even if it were possible! But of course it wouldn’t be possible because the different parents’ rules would conflict with one another. It would also be wrong to do this because in enforcing rules that you think wrong, you would be engaging in a conspiracy against the children. Make no mistake: you would be coercing them yourself, and the responsibility for that would be yours. 

So I don’t follow requests by parents to coerce their children. (I do not want to be coercive, so if I were to, then I’d find myself being coerced into coercion.)

Another problem with enforcing other parents’ rules in your home is that in doing so, you risk teaching your children to care about what coercive people think, and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of conforming to stifling and unnatural rules around other people, like sheep willingly going to slaughter. It is very bad for a child to internalise the values of bad people, because in doing so, the child is also adopting those bad theories on some level, and it is even worse for a child to get into the habit of suppressing his own sense of right and wrong. What you should be doing instead is showing your children, through your own actions, that sometimes the only moral course of action is to subvert tyranny, just as the Second World War Resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries subverted tyranny. In matters between visiting children and their parents, you should have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak except as the children command you.

If the parent has a rule about swearing, for example, and the children swear in your home, and there is some question of whether their parents will be told, make it clear that on no account would you dream of telling them without permission. Do not worry that this sounds like saying that lying is OK in all situations. It is not teaching them that. And if you think it might, then by all means tell them in greater detail why it is right to ‘just not tell’, or to lie if necessary, in this situation but in many other situations it wouldn’t be right at all. Remember that for coerced children, ‘just don’t tell’ is not a mere option, but effectively a requirement, for their own preservation. Telling lies is a mode of operation that coerced children use routinely in their everyday lives.

Suppose that children who are not allowed to watch the TV program M.A.S.H. visit your home when your children are watching M.A.S.H. If the visiting children are uncomfortable watching it, they can share this with your children. At this point your children may choose to watch something else or they may want to continue watching the show. The friends might choose to watch and might enjoy the show and end up wondering, as your children do, why a parent would restrict the watching of M.A.S.H. Or perhaps your children might suggest that the friends play with Lego, or whatever, in another room, where M.A.S.H. isn’t on. I might also say something to the other children about not restricting my children’s television viewing at all. Most kids react to such statements with, ‘Wow, cool!’

If the parents have a bedtime rule, ideally you should just be clear at the outset that this just isn’t going to be enforced at your house. But if you fear this might result in your children and their children being deprived of access to friends, you should discuss with the children concerned what line you should take with their parents.

But isn’t it important that parents feel all right about their children visiting you? Yes, it has a certain value, however, you should not make this an overriding consideration. In general, placing your own actions under the constraint that people who wish to do evil must feel okay about them, will cause you to do evil yourself. Therefore such a constraint is morally wrong in itself.

If the children’s parents confront you, you could, to avoid a scene, say confidently and with a winning smile, ‘Oh dear, I don’t think I can undertake to enforce all your rules; it is quite impractical, since some of them are bound to conflict with my own, so I suggest that you enforce your rules in your home and I’ll enforce mine in our home. That will be more consistent and less confusing for the children.’ Or you could explain that you can’t possibly enforce their rules in your home, because to do so would be to violate your own moral standards.

You could also mention that yours is a Taking Children Seriously family and that you do not and will never restrict television watching, etc. In some cases this might open a can of worms though and may not be the best approach unless your children do not mind losing their friends. Talk to your children before you talk to the friends’ parents. When in doubt, or if caught off-guard, invoke the idea that this is your business, just as what happens in the other parents’ home is their business.

Finally, consider what effect enforcing other parents’ rules will have on the way you treat your children. Next time you think of enforcing some other parent’s rules, remember:

He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas.

See also:

Starlene Stewart, 2000, ‘He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas’, Taking Children Seriously 31, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 16-18, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/he-who-sleeps-with-dogs-wakes-up-with-fleas

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