Following the Rules

As a kid, I did not see the value of rules. I did not trust that adults had a good reason to be in charge. The culture I grew up in taught me to question authority and march to the beat of my own drum. In my nuance-free view of it, following the rules was for boring, normal people, who never achieved anything important. Then I entered the workforce. My illustrious, personal, unique drum beat was, shockingly, not the most highly valued trait in the professional world. I was not asked to do things in my own, original way. I was expected to toe lines and respect boundaries.

I still think a lot of rules are stupid. But I now see the value of following the rules and I want to find ways to explain it to children so they can understand what I didn’t. First of all, as an adult, following the rules is necessary to maintain a job, and more importantly, an income. It is a survival skill.

This is what I tell my students who have the common problem often termed “not listening.” Usually, the problem is actually one of self control. My aim is to give them a motivation for using self control and a narrative in which to ground their thinking about their own actions.

The other day I told a child who was ignoring me, “If I did what you just did, I would get fired.” Then later, when he had been told to sit outside in the hallway, I sat with him for a frank discussion.

I explained that school is like training for grown up life. To elaborate, I used an analogy I knew he could connect with: When soldiers are going to fight, they have to train first, so they can be good at the skills they need to survive in a dangerous environment. They practice combat simulations without any real danger, so that if they mess  up, nothing terrible happens. School is preparing you for a different kind of danger. Having a job requires a different set of survival skills. If you mess up at school, it’s no big deal. You have to sit in the hall. Worst case scenario is a call home or a visit to the principal. But in grown up life there are real consequences.

Now, you know how much I love analogies, so here’s another. Think about driving. What if one person decides they don’t care about the rules? What if they think of a red light as a suggestion? This is another life and death situation that requires training. We start learning to drive with no other cars around. The obstacles are rubber cones. If you mess up, no one gets hurt, no one sues you for smashing up their car.

This analogy can be applied to almost any profession or practice. Does your child want to be a scientist? You better bet scientists have to follow rules. Doctor? Doctors have to train using dead bodies so they don’t kill a patient. Musician? Any good musician will rehearse and rehearse so they’re performance is flawless.  Athlete? No athlete goes into a game without hours of honing every skill.

The key in every version of the analogy is that you have to put some effort into imagining that the consequences are real even when you’re training. You have to take it seriously. What if a soldier did not take his training seriously? If he thought “These are not real guns or bombs. I don’t really have to do what they tell me.” How would he fare in battle? Attitude is important. Practice makes permanent. School is training for life, and following the rules is a life skill.

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