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What Kids Learn From Making Their Own Rules

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Remember sandlot baseball, when neighborhood kids got together to play ball? No coaches, no parents, no supervision. The kids decided the rules of playing together and the consequences of not following those rules.

Now children's sports are directed by coaches who want to win and parents who get over-involved. Adults set the rules, the teams, the schedules, the pressure and the consequences. And it doesn't stop with baseball. How much time do your children spend without adult direction? How often do they go off with friends to create fantasy play and make up their own rules and consequences?

Do children need to be governed to be safe, or has adult governing caused them to lose their ability to create and uphold rules and take responsibility for themselves? Perhaps scheduling their lives so adults have more control is inadvertently setting them up to fail.

The following are four unintended consequences of adult over-control:

They don't learn responsibility.
When children are constantly told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it by adults, they don't have the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. Unintentionally, we rob them of what we most want them to learn.

They react by rebelling.
Our "protection," often experienced as control by a child, may be a large factor in adolescent rebellion. By dictating rules to our children, fixing their problems, and hovering over everything they do, we take away their opportunities to learn by trial and error.

They don't understand why rules exist.
When adult rules are imposed on children's play, children do not learn the fundamental reasoning behind rules. When children are allowed to establish their own rules, they develop a respect for rules in the family and community.

They feel untrustworthy.
Our constant supervision gives children the unspoken message that they can't be trusted, that only adults know best. The more we control, the less responsibility our children have to take. We don't want to give our children the message that they are not capable, that we can't trust them, or that they can't play fair.

Even when children are under our supervision, we can step back, watch, trust and expect that they can work out their own rules and solve their own problems. Of course intervention is often necessary, but problem-solving and conflict resolution should involve them doing the work and taking responsibility. Adults can resist directing and let go of controlling.

Look for opportunities for your children to play together without a magnifying glass above their heads. Trust and let go, just a little bit.

Bonnie Harris is a parenting educator and author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You'll Love to Live With (Adams Media, 2008).

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