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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rules vs. Principles

Radical unschoolers make much ado over living by principles rather than rules. This sounds fine in theory, but then it occurred to me that principles might lead to certain rules, just as a matter of logical flow. What's the problem with rules? It seems that some fear that establishing specific rules would lead to punishment if those rules were broken, and punishment is not allowed. Instead, natural consequences should be permitted to occur so that the child will learn on his own to make better choices. I don't believe that rules necessarily lead to punishment. I do agree that natural consequences are superior to punishment, but as usual we need to define the terms.

At the Montessori schools where I worked, the teachers also believed in natural consequences, but in a different way from unschoolers. The natural consequence of, say, stabbing someone with a pencil might be to have the privilege of using the pencil taken away for a certain amount of time. The RU philosophy, on the other hand, would dictate that the parents do not provide the consequences at all. The freedom to use the pencil would not be taken away. The hope would be that when the other kid got upset about being stabbed, or hit the stabber on the head with a block in retaliation or whatever, the one wielding the pencil violently would realize that was something he should not do. This is only an illustration and is not to say that RU parents would allow their children to seriously hurt one another.

If the children were able to work the problem out on their own, Montessori teachers would do their best not to interfere. Especially if no one was physically harmed, we would often send the child who was telling on another back to her friend, reminding her of how to use her words to express her feelings. An RU parent would also likely use such guidance, so there are similarities, but the distinction is important.

In Montessori, the only consequence of many conflicts might be the requirement of an apology, a reminder of how to treat one another respectfully and with empathy, and/or a suggestion to draw your friend a nice picture if you had hurt his feelings. A time out might be used to help a child have some time to calm down before coming back to resolve the conflict. Natural consequences as understood in the RU way, with no direct parental interference concerning the outcome, sometimes work but often do not achieve balanced results. A child may not stop drinking too much soda just because his body has become unhealthy from it, or stop shoplifting because she got caught, for example. Therefore, I would have to argue against the idea that children will always "self-regulate" effectively. (I would instead champion positive habit formation and authoritative parental action when needed.) This leads to the next analysis of terms.

Another RU reason for not establishing rules is that this would be coercion. "Coercion" and "force" are often used by radical unschoolers in the same sentence. In reality, these words are synonyms. Why say the same thing twice? I think it is a subtle form of emotional manipulation, to make you feel bad for being "forceful" (in other words, somehow violent) with your child. I agree that using intimidation, bullying, or physical punishment to get a child to conform to an adult's will is a bad thing. But just as with the false idea that teaching usually means coercion, the villainization of rules goes too far. And here's the irony: one definition of "rule" is a regulating principle. Rules and principles are both codes of conduct. We typically think of a principle as a generalized, rather than a specific, rule, but these words are also synonyms on some level. The sharp line that unschoolers draw between rules and principles is imaginary. This hair-splitting doesn't help anyone, and it leaves the radical unschooling philosophy feeling flimsy and shallow.

It's as if parents don't trust themselves to be fair and discerning, and kind and gentle with their children, unless they follow a strict dogma of what they can and cannot do. They insist that their children must be trusted to make their own decisions regarding education and everything else, and so they must avoid any semblance of "teaching" or "rules" or "coercion" at all costs, or they will destroy their child's freedom. Do we free our children by chaining ourselves this way?

I agree that arbitrary rules set only for the convenience of parental control are not ideal and can harm our relationship with our children. Rules that naturally flow from religious and personal values, however, make good sense. They create peaceful boundaries. In this way, I also agree that living by certain principles can mean that not as many specific rules will be necessary. And self-discipline can be taught to a child without shaming or physical violence. One Golden Rule comes to my mind: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. This is a brilliant guiding principle to follow!

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