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Children - Rules And Exceptions

( Originally Published 1916 )

WITH very young children it is essential to have a fixed regularity in the daily routine, if it can possibly be carried out. In the matter of eating and sleeping, in dressing and the toilet, in putting away toys and clothes, in table manners and in the details of courteous conduct, the routine must be observed, with never an exception. This is necessary because it is the only way of getting the children into the habit of disposing of the daily necessities in a routine way. It is apparently the only way of achieving these results. Yet wise folks know that all rules are meant to be broken, although it is not safe to let the children find this out—too soon. So it happens that some grow up without ever finding this out, and a hard time they have of it ever after.

We can understand the astonishment of Aunt Jo who dropped in unexpectedly one evening and found eight-year-old Marion sitting up and reading, and the hour long after the usual bedtime.

"Why, I thought your children never stay up after seven o'clock ! " was her way of showing that she knew that rules were rules.

That had been the rule; that was still the rule for the younger children.

" But now," explained the mother, " Marion stays up a half hour later on Saturday night, because we can sleep later on Sunday, and because father comes home later on Saturday."

These were very good reasons for staying up later; but to some people there never seems to be a good reason for breaking a rule, and that is really what bothers them—the difficulty of using discretion. Aunt Jo was one of those people, and she was one of a very large company.

You know the saying about being offered an inch and taking a yard or so. Well, that seems to be particularly true of children on the way to learning the rules of Life's game. A change from the ordinary means a license to ignore the rule. During this period, therefore, every departure from the routine involves a serious setback. When habits are being acquired, no exception should be permitted. But after habits have been formed they must not be allowed to interfere with common sense or with our happiness.

A friend out shopping with her little girl met me on a crowded street on a warm day. After talking of nothing in particular for a few moments, she told me half-apologetically that they were about to get some ice-cream soda, and asked whether I would join them. She explained her hesitation by saying, " I did not think you would approve of children drinking ice-cream soda." And of course I would not—as a steady diet. There are no doubt many children who consume too much of the colored and sweetened juices that are sold under various fancy names. And there is no doubt that children should learn to quench their thirst by means of plenty of good, clean water. It is also true that if you give them a chance, they will nag and nag until you yield the nickle or dime that the soda-water man wants. But for all that it is perfectly legitimate to satisfy the taste for the cold and the sweet and the flavored confections—on occasion, and in moderation.

It is a bad rule to indulge the soda-water habit; but it's also a bad rule to be absolute in our approvals or disapprovals. We are not compelled to say to a child either " You may always have what you wish," or " You may never have what you wish." It is this always-or-never attitude, this inflexibility of judgment that antagonizes and estranges the growing child, and makes us old before our time. And it is quite unnecessary, for it is possible to give the developing youngster a wholesome routine mitigated by more and more variety. It is possible for children to learn that there are justifiable exceptions to the usual way of doing things.

Children love novelty so much, in general, that they are quite eager for everything that is out of the ordinary. Sometimes, however, they quickly become attached to the comfort of fixed routine. This seemed to be the case with little Alfred when his mother wanted him to go to sleep in a different room one evening, as she expected company and wished him to be farther from the noise. Alfred stuck to rules and traditions. He had always slept in that bed, and he would not change now. He was promised that he would be taken back to his own bed during the night, and would not be disturbed. But he held out against the irregularity of the proceeding—it was an unheard of thing to go to sleep in one place and wake up somewhere else. But father called attention to the fact that people could go to sleep in a railway car in one city and wake up in an-other city many miles away. That was interesting; and Alfred fell into the game of playing that he was to take a journey from a distant city, and was to wake pup in his own bed in the morning. This worked very well as a trick. But if that were repeated too frequently, it would soon break up any sense of order—or rather, the new way might gradually replace the old order.

That is indeed the danger in making exceptions ; but we must not be deterred by the danger. We must vary the routine as need arises and thus teach the children that a rule is not something absolute, but a convenience. We must teach them also to be the masters of their habits, and not the slaves. Children must retain as long as possible that peculiar power of youth—the ability to change from one set of habits to another. With advancing years and judgment, this means the ability to use discretion without rejecting the benefits of regularity.

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