My wife and I spent recently spent a few days serving as temporary staff at a classic Maine summer camp. The minute we got there, the girls kicked off their shoes and joined in the camp craziness. (I’ve written about how the girls love going “bare-toed” here.) One day, I happened to overhear a counselor tell Miriam to put her shoes on. Before I could stop myself, I asked, “Why?” It’s an old habit; when I was a kid, I questioned everything. The teenaged counselor got a bit flustered and stammered, “Um, I don’t know. She just should have her shoes on.”
“Is it a rule?”
“Uh…I’m not sure. But none of the kids have their shoes off.”
She was right — all the other kids had shoes on. By this point, I probably should have given the counselor a break and just told Miriam to put her shoes on, but I was curious to see if there was any “there there,” so I asked (politely) if there was any reason for this (maybe) rule.
“I don’t know. Safety? She might hurt her foot.”
Okay, I got a reason, but not a good one — “safety” is the last refuge of the clueless, a “reason” used to justify all sorts of inane rules and regulations. Recognizing that the counselor really knew nothing about said “rule,” I eased up on her and made some jokes, but I made sure that Miriam stayed barefoot. She’s finally getting her summer feet, and too much shoe-ing makes you soft.
Part of the reason that I wanted to question the rule in front of Miriam was because I think it’s critical for me to teach my girls how to challenge authority and judge the fairness of rules (without being rude or disrespectful). I don’t want them to simply “follow directions” without taking a second or a minute to wonder whether or not they should follow directions in that particular case. I want to instill in them a sense of confidence, justice, and independence, even when faced with commands from authority figures. I want my girls to think for themselves, not simply obey (one of my least favorite words in the English language). I want them to be able to challenge authority, not so that they can get away with something but so that they can stand up for themselves and others.
Challenging authority can be a bit tricky for parents. We need our children to listen to us and respect our rules and do what we tell them to do. I’m a dad. I understand that “because Daddy said so” can be a valid enough reason for a particular order. But only rarely, and only as a last resort. In general, I want to be able to articulate the reasons why we do things a certain way in our family. If I can’t, if my rule cannot withstand a six-year-old’s questioning, then maybe the rule shouldn’t be a rule. Sometimes, the reasons are complex and maybe a bit over the kids’ heads, but I should be able to give them something they can understand. (It doesn’t always work, alas.)
When kids understand the reasoning behind rules, then they learn that rules aren’t simply random, arbitrary barriers erected to prevent their pursuit of happiness. When rules are explained, kids can learn to respect them and the authority figures who enforce them. And that is critically important, because I recognize that reflexive questioning of authority can create little monsters. I cringe when I see snot-nosed brats sassing their parents, challenging every attempt by Mom and Dad to get them to do something. That kind of whining shows a fundamental disrespect, not only of the parents but of the entire framework of rule-making. Those kids challenge authority out of a sense of entitlement and selfishness, rather than for any kind of principle. Our country doesn’t need any more of those kind of whiners…